This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few months ago I had some serious fungi in my bathroom. And unlike the time it appeared, grey and speckled, in the dark dank bathroom of my old rat-trap Brooklyn apartment, I was thrilled. This time it wasn't mildew, it was oyster mushrooms.
My apartment is certainly the best place I've lived in during my adult life, but it doesn't get a ton of light. I have a mint plant in the one window that gets some sun, but otherwise my gardening options are limited. So when Fab.com had a sale on mushroom cultivation kits from The Imaginary Farmer, I bought one, choosing the Hantana Phoenix Oyster kit.
The Imaginary Farmer kits caught my eye because they promised a more hands on experience than the other kit I had bought last year, which was an already inoculated pressure-cooked substrate. With that, I didn't have to do much beyond mist it to get it to grow, but I didn't really learn that much either. This kit required me to assemble the environment for the spawn myself.
Reading the booklet that came with the kit, I realized I would be assembling a war in a bag. A type of microscopic war I was rather familiar with given my experiments in wild yeast ciders and exploration of the role of microfauna in human health.
I've often been a bit amused by straw-man rich anti-organic agriculture writings that accuse advocates of sustainable agriculture of being Luddites desirous of dragging us all back into a miserable 14th-century peasant past. The reality is that most modern farms that are part of this movement utilize methods that didn't exist until recently. The modern sustainable farmer is more likely to own pipettes and beakers than they are to own scythes (not that there is anything wrong with scythes).
While humans have been consuming mushrooms for a very long time, cultivating mushrooms is newer, perhaps dating to the late 1700s. Many methods used today date to the 1970s, when certain people were very interested in cultivating err...certain "magic" mushrooms. Even to this day, an innocent cultivator of culinary mushrooms is likely to wade through a lot of material of the more psychedelic persuasion, which is credit to the fact that these people did a lot of the pioneering work in indoor growing out of necessity (similarly a lot of stuff used in indoor growing of vegetables can credit marijuana growers). Culinary and "magic" mushrooms are not the only options though, it is also possible to grow many important medicinal mushrooms like reishi.
The method in the Imaginary Farmer kit used oyster-mushroom inoculated grain, which was barley. This led to some question from gluten-free friends about whether it was safe for them. Honestly, I have no idea, but it would be interesting to study. For the rest of the substrate I used coffee grounds and sawdust. I was lazy and just used tap water for everything even though you are not supposed to because of the chlorine.
Did I mention this was a war? A war between the things I wanted to grow, which are mushrooms, and the biodiverse bouquet of ubiquitous other flora and fauna in the air, my breath, the sawdust, my hands... pretty much everything. My job to to give my team the advantage, but introducing as little of the other little folks as possible into my growing environment. I kept my hands clean with rubbing alcohol and the spawn sold by the Imaginary Farmer was selected to be resistant to hydrogen peroxide, which allowed me to use that to clean the sawdust. I put that all in a special mushroom-growing bag that had a filter-vent. And then I left it in my cupboard in the dark for awhile. And eventually it started to look like tempeh with a nice white mycelium binding the substrate into a block, which is the real "body" of the mushroom creature.
The bad thing here for mushroom growing about my apartment is I have central heating, which makes it really really dry. So I put the block in my shower window, cutting a small growing hole and then covering the rest. I misted them in the morning and at night when I got home from work and suddenly one morning they appeared!
The cool thing about this variety of oyster mushroom, which is a clone of a mushroom the company found interesting, is that in its early stages it has this salmon egg-like "tears."
Otherwise they aren't very photogenic. Some visitors called them "creepy." They got a bit more photogenic as they grew and I opened up another hole to start a new fruiting body (that's the actual mushrooms). I was really happy with my results. I was keeping a nice humid environment and my apartment temp tends around 50-62F.
The other things are terrariums I made in a Dabble class that ended up not doing very well.
I had to harvest them a little earlier than I wanted because I went on a trip, but they kept well in a paper bag in the fridge, though some dried out a little.
I cooked some of them with a steak I made and used the rest for a Viking themed party. For that I cooked them in smoked duck fat with some bog myrtle I got in Montreal, then cooked some lingonberries in duck fat with birch syrup, and served on a sourdough rye crisp with a bit of seaweed, cured duck breast, and wild boar, and shavings of getöst.
Photo by Jen Moran
They were really excellent in flavor and not at all like anything I've had from a store. They had a faint funkiness, which as a fish sauce lover, I welcomed, as well as the fantastic umami punch that characterizes the best mushrooms. If you don't eat meat, they can add a meatiness to dishes, but if you do they somehow manage to make meat even more "meaty" and flavorful.
Sadly the next few weeks were busy and while the block continued to fruit a bit, I neglected it and they dried up. The death knell was on a nice warm(er) day I left the window open and then the temperature dropped 30 degrees while I was out at dinner (thanks Chicago). When I came home the mushrooms had turned black and they shriveled up. It hasn't fruited since, but I might try "restarting" it by soaking it in water, even though that's kind of a crapshoot. I also wanted to try another variety and maybe other more attractive methods (like logs) or methods that could be used on the farm.
So when I saw a class on Meetup.com by the Chicago Permaculture Meetup's Kevin Hovey, I signed up. It was at the Stone Soup Coop, a place that definitely feels like what I imagine the 70s were like.
We went over different varieties (I want to try the almond agaricus, which is supposed to taste a bit nutty) and methods we could use from logs to bags to "terrariums." I'd love to use the logs on the farm and the terrariums in my apartment, particularly if I could use a pretty bell jar. Kevin talked a bit about how he wants to build a lab so he can get the kind of sterility in a filtered hood that really gives the mushroom cultures and spores an advantage.
He also talked a bit about getting your own spores and cultures. He gathered some local Chicago oyster mushrooms from a tree and cultured them. We used slow cookers to pasteurize brown rice bran substrates (gluten-free this time!) in jars and then used a homemade hood and needles to inoculate a variety of cultures and spores, which we got to take home. I have them in my cabinet at home and hopefully I will see some mycelium running soon, which incidentally is the name of a book by Paul Stamets that I've been reading. I also should probably pick up his more academic tome Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. He also has a popular TED talk.
I took a mycology class when I was in school in Sweden, but it was on forestry pests and I learned more about killing than growing them. But really the more I learn about this subject, the more I realize that there is so much that humans don't know about mushrooms. For example, only a few people know how to cultivate morels (I'd love to order some pre-inoculated trees for the farm) and black truffles. No one knows how to cultivate the prized matsutake, with its heavenly pine-forest aroma.
But these mysteries are certainly part of the appeal. And for the matsutake, even if you could grow it, would it really be the same? It is a mushroom defined by the ecosystem of the pine forest, with its flavors and aromas you can't get in a plastic bag. Wild mushrooms have a distinct terroir that many cultivated mushrooms can lack. For example the chaga I have in my cupboard task incredibly like the birch they came from, but you can hope that mushrooms grown in a bag don't taste like a bag. Growing outdoors in logs might allow me to cultivate a greater terroir by selecting different types of logs.
Either way, I've had a great deal of fun so far with mushrooms without even getting high and I'm looking forward to learning more. Have any of your grown mushrooms? What are your favorite resources and varieties?
I have a complicated relationship with coffee because I seem to be very sensitive to it. Even if I drink it regularly, it seems to make me a bit jittery at times. I reserve it for days I really need an edge in productivity. Other days I drink tea. I used to not be able to tolerate coffee at all because it upset my stomach, but I figured out thanks to reader Mike White that I could drink paper-filtered, but not French-press coffee. There is a lot of great coffee here in Chicago, so I'm happy I know this.
I've been drinking Cocoa tea, Tisano, for awhile now, but someone mentioned that they were enjoying a similar beverage that was a bit heavier more like coffee called Crio Bru and I got some online to try.
I first tried the Crio Bru Cavella. When you open the bag it smells like chocolate heaven bliss. It's wonderful.
It probably works best with a french press. Because of the thicker grind it takes a long time in the paper filter. The caveat with the french press is that it is a fatty brew and you can get some oil slick on it. Since ahem some people put butter on their coffee, they might not mind it. When I'm drinking alone I usually don't care but if I'm serving it to other people I usually filter- a metal tea filter can also work OK.
The cavella has a natural sweetness and lightness to it and does not get bitter easily. The other one I am trying now, the Coca River, is much much heartier and easily becomes a bit bitter. It probably holds up a little better to cream though. I look forward to trying more of them. I will say that it does affect me a bit like coffee if I drink the entire french press..
I also picked up some local Chicago Kishr at the nearby Green Grocer. It's a spicy Middle Eastern drink made with the coffee cherry that is also nice as a pick-me-up.
Today I saw the headline: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?
Which is appallingly stupid considering that quinoa is trendy among many segments of the health-conscious crowd. Like many articles of this genre, it also wants believe consumers have more power than they do. What would happen in Western health nuts stopped eating quinoa? Would this benefit the people there somehow? I guess it's more fun to blame trendy dieters than to face larger issues of water scarcity (and water pricing and allocation) and middlemen. It's the same faulty line of logic that many vegans use when talking about meat.
It is a bit amusing to consider how consumption of far away foods lets us turn a blind eye to their production (it's far), which is why I tend to advocate food systems that bring people closer to their food production- and its consequences.
The article also details failed attempts to grow quinoa elsewhere. Interestingly enough, I was researching yesterday traditional foods of the Midwest, and I'm not talking about Chicago Hot Dogs, but about what people were eating and growing here in the 1600s and before. Turns out the form of agriculture indigenous to this region utilized a relative of quinoa - Chenopodium berlandieri. As a cultivated crop, only remnants remain and from what I can gather, nothing of the kind grown for seeds the way quinoa is grown now. A leaf-heavy version is eaten in Mexico as a vegetable.
But echoes remain. All those lamb's quarters growing out of your patio are ghosts of The Eastern Agricultural Complex- possibly feral ancestors of domesticated crops, which explains some of their tenacity as weeds. I would think it would be possible to re-domesticate through selective breeding. It already makes a fine salad. Wild food enthusiast Euell Gibbons found the grains even of the modern weed somewhat easy to harvest:
“In rich soil,” he said, “lamb’s quarters will grow four or five feet high if not disturbed, becoming much branched. It bears a heavy crop of tiny seeds in panicles at the end of every branch. In early winter, when the panicles are dry, it is quite easy to gather these seeds in considerable quantity. Just hold a pail under the branches and strip them off. Rub the husks between the hands to separate the seed and chaff, then winnow out the trash. I have collected several quarts of seed in an hour, using this method.
“The seeds are quite fine, being smaller than mustard seeds, and a dull blackish-brown color....I find it pretty good food for humans.”
I think this also brings me to question certain studies that have tried to estimate the amount of wild grains foragers could have harvested- the ones we encounter now might be feralized crops, not true wild seeds or grains. That might also be why many are less toxic than truly wild seeds/grains. It's probably worth soaking and rinsing though since like quinoa, it may contain high levels of saponins.
Another former crop, Sumpweed, Jared Diamond says was abandoned because it was allergenic and smelled bad, but that didn't stop modern farmers from reshaping rapeseed, a crop that seems quite far from edible with its high levels of nasty erucic acid, into canola, which is now a novel and strangely unquestioned ubiquitous part of our food supply. Plenty of other foods that foragers and agriculturalists eat are toxic when harvested- that is often a feature, not a bug, as it keeps other competing pests away. Humans are smart enough to detoxify through soaking, rinsing, fermentation, and other technologies.
It's interesting how so many Americans look to afar for interesting foods while ignoring the ones in our backyards.
There is also a legend that quinoa is "cursed" which is why North American production has been so difficult, but I find it more logical to think that the Chenopodium that is Quinoa is adapted to a specific environment that we can't offer. There is also some evidence that ancient northern Europeans cultivated a type of Chenopodium as well, remnants of that perhaps are seen in England's Pigweed.
I've seen the idea that there are no primates adapted to eating grains, but actually there is a primate that is better adapted to such a diet than any others. It's the gelada (Theropithecus gelada), which lives only in the Ethopian highland grasslands. The gelada is the only living member of genus the Theropithecus. Several larger gelada species once roamed most of Africa, including the terrifying giant gelada, which was around the size of a modern gorilla. But now there is just one, which is also one of the few primates that endures sub-freezing temperatures, which occur at night in the highlands.
The gelada is also quite interesting because it is a grazer, relying mainly on grass. It prefers the seeds of the grass, which are yes, grains.
This is unusual for primates. Some, like anthropologist Clifford Jolly, have speculated that hominids once occupied a similar niche. But this was mostly in the 1970s and this model for understanding human origins has fallen out of favor. Some extinct lines on the family tree (Paranthropus for example) were thought to have eaten similar diets based on low-quality plants, but more recent evidence has cast doubt on this theory. Frederick Szalay's reply to Jolly's paper in 1975 noted that as climate changed, hominids and the ancestors of gelada may have both moved into the grasslands.
But as hominids rose, the Theropithecus genus fell, backed into a corner by adapatations to eating grass that seem incomplete and inefficient. Geladas require very high quality grass, not the low quality grass that started to dominate as Africa warmed up again.
The gelada and related baboon line seems to have a longer history of consuming starchier foods than the frugivorous lines that led to us. One piece of evidence is that baboons and geladas have higher salivary amylase expression than even humans cultures adapted to high starch diets.
Unfortunately, it seems that particular this genus adapted itself into a corner, with adaptations not good enough to compete with animals like zebras for the increasingly low-quality grasses in the warmer low-altitude grasslands, but complete enough that grass-eating was probably obligatory. Primates with an ability to consume a more flexible diet, like our ancestors, rose, while most Theropithecus died out.
Why such big scary teeth on a grass eater? Big scary teeth are about more than food, they are also the hallmark of territorial species where males fight for domination of harems of females as seen in this video of a gelada male battle.
While geladas were busy chomping on grass pretty much all day, there is some good evidence our ancestors were scavenging large animal carcasses, developing a taste for meat and perhaps spurring us to eventually hunt and develop tools to acquire more protein this way. The geladas went the route of low-quality protein, while the hominids went the route of high-quality protein, protein that may have allowed us to develop large brains and free up time from foraging to develop advanced culture. Geladas probably got less intelligent due to their overspecialization, while hominids and their closely related baboon cousins used their intelligence and flexibility to thrive in a variety of habitats.
Later, our niches would cross again as humans developed our own way to extract energy more efficiently from grass through technology and selective breeding for grain yields. Not surprisingly, geladas are thrilled to munch on such high quality grasses. While they are not a big as their ancestors, they are still a formidable pest ,as this Human Planet video shows:
Researching geladas might give us valuable clues to understanding our own species. For example, looking at the adaptations geladas have to eating their diet could tell us something about the kind of challenges a grain-eating primate faces and we could compare them to our own physiology to see how well we have adapted or not adapted to similar dietary challenges. However, geladas eat wild uncooked grasses, whereas humans have an entire culture of complex preparation that alters the structure and composition of our food significantly through grinding, fermenting, cooking, and other technology.
In the debate surrounding the NYC ban on large soft drinks earlier this year, the argument came up that we had to regulate them because liquid calories are evolutionarily novel and inappropriate for our species to consume because we cannot consume them moderately and their metabolism is harmful to our bodies. At the time I had already started reading Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past, which looks at human history through the very lens of liquid carbohydrates.
Not soda, something a bit more delicious and perhaps more enticing. I'm talking about alcoholic drinks. It was in the form of such a drink that I first encountered McGovern's work. I was not pulling in very much money at the time and my indulgence in luxury food and drink primarily came from volunteering at ritzy galas. After one long night, I was delighted to find a vendor had left quite a lot of good beer behind. One of them was Dogfish Head's Midas Touch. With a musky wine-like flavor, it was clear this was not a normal beer.
The idea for the beer came from a golden residue found in a tomb where either the real King Midas or his father was buried around 700 B.C. Archeologist Patrick McGovern had analyzed this residue, teasing out the various ingredients using infrared spectrometry, gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Grapes, honey, and barley had were the ingredients of this ancient beverage. Together with the brewers at renowned microbrewery Dogfish Head, McGovern set out to recreate something with these elements for the modern palette. The result was well-received and the first of the Ancient Ales series went to market.
McGovern is the "Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia." He primarily works at analyzing ancient pottery residues to figure out what exactly our ancestors were imbibing in. And for fun he recreates some of these beverages for modern people to enjoy.
Uncorking the Past says "No containers have yet been recovered from the Palaeolithic period, not even one made from stone. Objects made of wood, grass, leather, and gourds have disintegrated and disappeared." Since it came out, several Paleolithic pottery specimens have been described, mainly from China. Earlier this year, one set of shards was dated to 20,000 years ago. It would not be surprising to me if much earlier pottery is discovered in Africa. Evidence for the earliest food grind stones used to process seeds has been dated to 105,000 years ago. It is possible though that humans in that region were using other containers for liquid such as skins or gourds, but pottery would have been a major advance useful for extracting fat from bones, detoxifying and cooking starches, and creating fermented drinks.
Such drinks would have not been terribly novel even then. As McGovern points out, our evolutionary line is frugivorous in origin, having inhabited warm tropical climates where "as the fruit matured, it would have fermented on the tree, bush, and vine. Fruits with broken skins, oozing liquid, would have been attacked by yeast and the sugars converted into alcohol. Such a fruit slurry can reach an alcohol content of 5 percent or more." Many cases of wild animals getting drunk on ripe fruit have been documented.
Malaysian tree shrews, subsist mainly on fermented palm nectar that is up to 3.8% alcohol. The researchers concluded:
The pentailed treeshrew is considered a living model for extinct mammals representing the stock from which all extinct and living treeshrews and primates radiated. Therefore, we hypothesize that moderate to high alcohol intake was present early on in the evolution of these closely related lineages.
Wherever primates live, they seem drawn to sugars. Chimpanzees use tools to gather honey in Africa. Hominids there have been adapt at exploiting honey for a very long time, devising elaborate gathering systems to thwart the aggressiveness of native bees. Surveys of foraging tribal peoples like the Hadza and Pygmies have revealed that honey is the food they most prefer. It can also be used to make alcohol:
Many African peoples have been drinking some variation of a fermented honey beverage for a very long time throughout the continent. The strongest versions have been reported from the Rift Valley, where added fruit (e.g., of the sausage tree, Kigellia africana, and tamarind), with additional yeast to spur an extended fermentation, boosted the alcohol concentration. Sub-Saharan Africa is a honey-eater's and mead-drinker's paradise.
It's not just shrews that enjoy palm wine either. Evidence for human exploitation of palm goes back 18,000 years in Africa:
The most important species for making palm wine are the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), the ron or Palmyra palm (Borassus aethiopum), and the raphia palm (Raphia vinifera), which are concentrated along the humid east and west coasts as well as in the dense jungles of the interior...A healthy tree can produce nine or ten liters a day and about 750 liters over half a year...Within two hours, palm wine ferments to about a 4 percent alcohol content; give it a day, and the alcohol level goes up to 7 or 8 percent
Now back to those food grind stones. The papers that describe them typically talk as if they were used to make the world's crappiest bread out of miserable wild grains. Other grind stones had more obvious uses- they ground pigments for decoration. Why not smear your face with makeup and go out and party? What if the "food" grind stones were really used for making alcoholic drinks? What if people domesticated grains mainly to use in the creation of alcoholic drinks? Seems like more of an incentive than making bitter flat fibrous bread disks.
It would also explain why the wild relatives of so many grains are mystifying. Looking at teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, it's kind of baffling why humans would have bothered with the plant at all:
A series of careful DNA studies identified teosinte (genus Tripsacum) as the wild ancestor of maize. This mountain grass grows in the Rio Balsas drainage of southwestern Mexico. One cannot imagine a less inspiring plant to domesticate. The ears of this primitive corn, which are barely three centimeters long and contain only five to twelve kernels, are trapped in a tough casing. Even if you manage to free up the kernels, their nutrient value is essentially nil.
The mystery might be solved by quids, chewed and spit out fibrous plant material. This might sound gross, but chewing of place materials and spitting it into a container is an alcohol-making process that has been documented around the world. It seems very likely that the stalks of teosinte were used for this purpose.
The human mouth converts the starch to more easily fermentable sugar using amylyse. Some mouths are better at this than others. Starch consuming peoples typically have a greater amylyse copy numbers, though all humans have a greater copy number than primates like chimpanzees and booboos. "Higher AMY copy numbers and protein levels probably improve the digestion of starchy foods and may buffer against the fitness-reducing effects of intestinal disease." Stephan Guyenet and I have discussed how the copy number thing is interesting because salivary amylyse, even at high copy numbers, contributes very little to digestion of starch relative to pancreatic amylase. What is the increased copy number for salivary amylyse for then? Perhaps for chewing starches like rice and corn to make delicious alcoholic beverages.
Chicha made with saliva remains an important part of the diet of many South American tribes, and a woman's ability to make it is important for her husband's social status. It is rude to refuse it, as this account written up in Salon describes
Patton maintains that the bulk of an Achuar’s daily calories do not come from meat. They come from chicha, a mildly alcoholic, vaguely nutritious, watered-down manioc mash. Achuar men drink up to four gallons a day.Isaac’s wife and mother are in constant motion, serving bowls of chicha to the 10 or so guests. Chicha is the backbone of Achuar society. As with the ankle bone and the knee bone, you feel an unalterable pressure to accept. Chicha is the holy communion, the Manischewitz, the kava-kava of Achuar life. It’s present at every ceremony, every visit, every meal. An Achuar woman’s desirability rests in no small part on her skill at chicha brewing and serving.
Given the amount of calories and nutrients such beverages can provide, it amazes me that many ethnographical and anthropological surveys seem to ignore or downplay their presence, as if they were just mere recreation.
Corn chicha, widely consumed in South America, could not only explain the domestication of teosinte, but it could also account for the fact that isotope studies during the time of corn's domestication don't seem to show people got their protein from corn:
Some very interesting results emerged when human bones from sites throughout the New World were examined. Because maize had been domesticated by about 6ooo B.P., one would have expected to see a specific carbon-isotope composition that reflected the increased consumption of maize, but it was strangely missing. Some scientists have proposed an explanation for this anomaly. Because the analyses measured only the collagen in bone, its main proteinaceous connective tissue, they were biased toward detecting high-protein foods. Solid foods made from maize, including gruel or bread (e.g., tortillas), fit this requirement, but not fermented beverages like maize chicha, largely composed of sugar and water. Consequently, if people between 6ooo and 3000 B.P. were consuming their maize as chicha, very little protein would have been incorporated into the collagen of their bones. The researchers speculated that humans began using maize as a solid food only after its ear had been substantially enlarged by selective breeding, around 3000 B.P. After this point, the carbon isotope compositions of bones dramatically changed.
Interestingly, going further north, the Native Americans there didn't seem to have any alcoholic beverages, or if they did, they had been spread from the South. Charle's Mann's 1491 discusses the hypothesis that the North and Southern Native Peoples were peopled differently, South America being populated by a sea-faring coastal society, rather than from Beringia up North. McGovern describes the culture of the coastal peoples, who consumed a tantalizing array of berries, fish, mollusks, wild tubers, mastodon meat and fat (they processed enough fat that it congealed on the floor, which my sister's roommate reenacted recently by pouring some bacon grease directly down the drain), bulrushes, and seaweed. It is theorized that the cold snap of the Younger Dryas around 13,000 BC may have forced them to rely more and more on underground tubers, spurring on the domestication of the potato.
However, the Siberians, like the North Americans, do not have alcoholic beverages (that we know of at least), relying on other resources for a buzz:
In place of any alcoholic beverage, the Siberian peoples engaged in shamanistic practices based on the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). When European explorers finally braved the frigid tundra of Siberia, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, they recorded how the shaman often dressed in a deer costume with antlers, like the Palaeolithic creature depicted in Les Trois Freres cave (see chapter i). After consuming the mushroom, he would beat on a large drum, whose monotonous repetition reinforced the effects of the active hallucinogenic compounds (ibotenic acid and muscimole) and took him into the ancestral dreamtime.
Northern peoples in the Americas also smoked tobacco. Meanwhile, people in the Southern parts North America certainly did imbibe in alcohol. The Pima who are so infamous in nutritional circles consumed a sweet cactus wine. The health effects of another regional beverage, Pulque, which is made by fermenting agave sap, have been explored a bit. It was found that among highland tribes that consume it, it accounts for much of the iron and Vitamin C consumption in pregnant women. Pregnant women who consume too much or none are more likely to have low-BMI and reduced mental performance infants. Consumption of pulque might also increase the bioavailability of vitamins in other traditional foods.
The use of agave in fermented beverages should be considered when looking at data from that region that suggests a high fiber consumption from these plants, particularly given the presence of quids and the fact that these fermented beverages could enhance digestion of fructooligosaccharides in these plants. I've seen such papers conclude that this means that humans in these regions ate absurd amounts of fiber and we should emulate them. What is more likely: that anatomically moderns humans were eating 255 grams of fiber a day from plants like agave, well above what any known living culture consumes, or that they were making something a bit like tequila?
It is possible that such drinks have been under emphasized because of very real issues of alcoholism that plague many modern indigenous peoples. However, most of these traditional alcoholic beverages are not like the modern alcohol that is abused. Indigenous beverages are typically 3-6% alcohol, seasonal and contain many nutrients and phytochemicals, which are biologically active plant chemicals. McGovern's lab has been working on exploring the medicinal properties of many of these phytochemicals.
McGovern describes how many of the early beverages in the Middle East, ancestors of our modern wines and beers, contained potent medicinals. Early grape wines, for example, often contained tree resins:
Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Palaeolithic times. They could be used as glues and were perhaps even chewed to give pain relief, as suggested by lumps of birch resin with tooth marks that were found in a Neolithic Swiss lake dwelling...Resinated wines were greatly appreciated in antiquity, as we have come to see in analyzing wines from all over the Middle East, extending from the Neolithic down to the Byzantine period. Although some wine drinkers today turn up their noses at a resinated wine, now made only in Greece as retsina, the technique is analogous to ageing in oak. The result can actually be quite appealing: the Gaia Estate's Ritinitis has a mildly citrusy flavor, achieved by adding a very slight touch of Aleppo pine resin to a Greek grape variety. Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the "queen of resins"), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.
It is a powerful reminder to consider ancient diets holistically, that things were not just consumed for their nutritive value, but for recreational, medicinal, and religious purposes. And possibly some of these substances were "unwise" traditions and may account for some of the diseases found in mummies and skeletal remains if people drank too much or adulterated their beverages with carcinogens and other poisons. Even today, adaptation to alcohol seems uneven and imperfect in humans, as many Asians who experience Alcohol Flush Reaction will attest. Distilled high-alcohol spirits are also very much an evolutionary novelty. As someone with alcoholism running in the family, I very much understand that consumption of these kinds of alcohol can be difficult for certain people to moderate with terrible, even deadly consequences.
I think renewed study and emphasis on fermented alcoholic beverages in human evolution will provide much insight into human adaptations to food and the development of domesticated crops. Even with the knowledge we have now, I think it's wholly inappropriate to describe liquid carbohydrates as evolutionarily novel. Soda is novel in that it is a liquid carbohydrate devoid of any of the nutrients or phytochemicals in indigenous beverages, but mainly we need to look to modern science and biochemistry to tell us what effect soda has on the body and mind.
It's also fascinating to see some of these ancient beverages recreated and revived. I've since tasted several of McGovern's collaborations with Dogfish Head, such as Chateau Jiahu, which is made of rice, honey, and fruit recipe gleaned from 9000 year old Chinese pottery. I've also enjoyed some of the more modern spit-free chicha at several Peruvian restaurants and being a lightweight, I appreciate that it's pretty low in alcohol and also very tasty. There has also been renewed interest in home brewing ancient herbal ales. You can do it yourself with the book Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers. There are also some herbal beers on the market. I've enjoyed William Brother's spruce, seaweed, and heather beers. Unfortunately, none of these beers are gluten-free, which is slightly disappointing since the original Jiahu pottery probably did not contain barley.
I enjoyed Uncorking the Past, but it does read a bit like a textbook at times, which is why it took me so long to get through it. I'm looking forward to enjoying more of his brews though. Dogfish Head is even tried making Chicha the old fashioned way, though it didn't exactly work out, since it was more labor intensive than they expected.
A new free-full text paper by Ian Spreadbury has been making the rounds lately. "Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity" is interesting because it is written through a distinctly Ancestral Health lens to provide a new framework for thinking about possible causes of Western disease.
For some time, many people in the Ancestral Health movement have blamed carbohydrates for various diseases of civilization, but over time, this idea has lost its hold and many writers in the movement now reject it. We perhaps have our own paradox- the "Kitavan paradox," which was probably the source for much of this questioning, particularly since so many paleo diet books in the past cited the Kitavan study and then told readers to restrict carbohydrates. This paper looks for reasons why
Despite food abundance and a clear overlap of macronutrients and glycemic index with Western diets, Kitavans are reported to possess leptin levels, fasting insulin, and blood glucose levels dramatically lower than those in Western populations deemed healthy, and appear to have a virtual absence of overweight, diabetes, and atherosclerotic disease.
What if it were something about grains per-se rather than carbohydrates? The paper describes how endotoxemia in the gut, particularly Lipopolysaccharide (LPS), can lead to systematic inflammation related to many elements of metabolic syndrome like leptin resistance. Endotoxins are part of the cell-wall in gram-negative bacteria such as E.Coli and Salmonella and they provoke an inflammatory response in many contexts. The idea here is that Western diets perhaps might increase endotoxemia by promoting growth of pathogenic bacteria and adding fuel to the fire by increasing intestinal permeability, allowing endotoxins to ply their inflammation across the entire body. He also mentions the fact that science is showing that this process occurs in the mouth as well, where modern diets promote "leaky teeth" aka gingivitis, which has convincing ties to metabolic syndrome (which pilot studies show a paleo diet might treat).
Unfortunately, we then develop another paradox because most of the studies on LPS in humans show that absorption is promoted by a high-fat diet. And as the paper notes, foraging peoples with higher fat diets do not seem impaired.
Spreadbury lays out a hypothesis that carbohydrates can be divided into two groups. Cellular carbohydrates, which are:
Tubers, fruits, or functional plant parts such as leaves and stems store their carbohydrates in organelles as part of fiber-walled living cells. These are thought to remain largely intact during cooking, which instead mostly breaks cell-to-cell adhesion. This cellular storage appears to mandate a maximum density of around 23% non-fibrous carbohydrate by mass, the bulk of the cellular weight being made up of water.
Then there are the acellular carbohydrates:
The acellular carbohydrates of flour,94 sugar and processed plant-starch products are considerably more dense. Grains themselves are also highly dense, dry stores of starch designed for rapid macroscopic enzymic mobilization during germination.95 Whereas foods with living cells will have their low carbohydrate density “locked in” until their cell walls are breached by digestive processes, the chyme produced after consumption of acellular flour and sugar-based foods is thus suggested to have a higher carbohydrate concentration than almost anything the microbiota of the upper GI tract from mouth to small bowel would have encountered during our coevolution.
And here we have another problem. Because archeologists continue to find earlier and earlier evidence of what was once considered advanced food processing, from pottery to grind stones. The foods that are characterized as "acellular"...well, how long have they been in the human diet? The paper mentions some of these finds, but says they were likely a small part of ancient diets, but that is far from a sure thing. We also have an ethnographical gap here in this chart:
Because you can see modern processed foods there, but nothing on indigenous "processed" foods. No chicha or poi or any of the variety of ground/fermented/pounded foods that many of these cultures consume. This is partially because there is very little data on these foods, which is unfortunate.
My prediction is that better accounting of indigenous diets will show that they consume more of the acellular carbohydrates than initially predicted by some. We also need ethnographical data that records everything consumed, even things that seem incidental like teas.
But I think we need to look further into the types of these consumed and other compounds they contain. Same for fatty foods.
An interesting thing here (thanks Stabby the Raccoon) is that studies show that orange juice, a accellular carbohydrate, reduces endotoxin load. Orange juice is one of those things you probably thought was healthy and then you realized it had sugar and it was "bad" and now people are rediscovering it again. But I think the sugar here is incidental, what is probably more interesting is the ability of antioxidants to suppress endotoxins. Wine and olive oil may have similar properties.
I was browsing The Human Food Project's website and came across a letter written by anthropologist Jeff Leach on low-carb diets:
In a series of elegant studies, Cani and colleagues ( 2-4) have shown that holding calories constant and varying macro levels of fat can induce low-grade metabolic endotoxemia which can lead to complications associated with cardiovascular health. As fat intake, so do serum levels of LPS and associated biomarkers. However, in high-fat diets with prebiotic oligosaccharides added (derived from chicory roots), serum levels of LPS drop, as do the metabolic markers of inflammation.
So it is also possible that prebiotics in indigenous diets also have a protective effect. So we shouldn't look so much perhaps at dividing carbohydrates into two categories, but tracing each type of carbohydrate to the type of bacterial environment it promotes.
Now n=1 time here, but I had gingivitis before I started eating better and it went away. And all the sudden it came back. And it was incredibly frustrating. Frustrating to the point that I even thought the problem might have been caused by the cavity-ridden guy I had started dating when my gums got bad again for giving me his lame mouth bacteria. I started supplementing a few things, notably K2, D3, and switched back to the flax oil that I had been using when my gums were better. The problem resolved and has not come back and my gums even survived the breakup with bad-teeth guy despite the fact I was eating mainly ice cream. So I don't know if for me, it was more about nutrients I needed to get rather than too much simple sugar.
Ugh, I got back from Europe this week and I feel like I have so much catching up to do. Books to review, emails to answer, projects to finish, mad programming skillz to acquire, apartment to spruce up... and somehow every night I go to bed with so much undone. More about my travels later, as there is an interesting new paper out.
I've written about the need to sample gut flora from different cultures before they are "acculturated" to an industrial diet, so I was delighted to see Human gut microbiome viewed across age and geography. The researchers sampled the gut microbiomes of 115 rural villagers from Malawi, 100 Guahibo Amerindians from Amazonia in Venezuela, and 316 people from the greater metropolitan areas of St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Boulder. They found significant differences between the gut bacteria in these three populations.
Now while you may be familiar with the standard American diet, the diets of the other populations are bit more obscure. The researchers thankfully provided their diet survey in a table in a zip file.
Some common foods the Guahibo ate (24 hour recall) were
Consumption of meat and fish seems rare. Sadly this diet already seem significantly industrialized.
In Malawi some common foods (recall over a month) include
I wish they had used a consistent method for food surveys and provided more information about the diet. Perhaps there needs to be more collaboration in this field with anthropologists?
Each different community of adults had its own particular microbiome signatures, but the Malawaian and Amerindians were less distinct from each other than the Americans were from the two other populations. Interestingly the researchers said that the differences in functions parallel those between carnivorous and herbivorous mammals. Malawaian and Amerindians microbiomes contained more genes for glutamate production, whereas US gut bacteria seemed more focused on degrading it. US gut bacteria also contained more genes for degrading other amino acids like aspartate, proline, ornithine, and lysine, as well as the use of simple sugars. Richer numbers of genes involved in synthesis of biotin and lipoic acid, processing of xenobiotics, and bile salt metabolism, which the researchers thought was related to the higher fat content in the American diet. Malawaian and Amerindian gut bacteria produced more amalyse, which is important for degrading starch.
Another thing they found, which has also been found in other studies, is that as people in all the cultures aged, their gut bacterial populations changed. In infants, Bifidobacterium dominate, but their presence declines in early childhood. Functionally, infant gut bacteria had more genes involved in making folate, whereas adults had more bacteria with genes for metabolizing dietary folate. Adult gut bacteria also contained more genes for producing B12, vitamin B7, and vitamin B1, as well as processing of arginine, glutamate, aspartate, and lysine. Not surprisingly, infants microbiomes were enriched in enzymes involved in foraging of glycans from breastmilk.
The authors concluded that "Together, these findings suggest that the microbiota should be considered when assessing the nutritional needs of humans at various stages of development." I think this is another good reason to question the idea that human breastmilk provides some sort of model for how humans should eat.
Some genes involving glycan processing were more common in the Amerindian and Malawaian baby microbiomes, which the authors thought might be related to differences in glycan content of breastmilk. While all the samples used were from breastfed babies, I would be curious to know whether or not the babies were being exclusively breastfed. Supplementary formula could be an issue in the US and many other cultures use carbohydrate-rich supplementary foods even in young infants. But the researchers say these glycan processing genes decreases during maturity in Malawaian and Amerindian babies as they transition to diets rich in complex plant-derived polysaccharides, whereas they increase with age in US infants as they become exposed to diets rich in easily-absorbed sugars. However, the dietary survey says the Amerindians were eating a lot of sugar every day, so I'm not sure of that.
The Malawaian and Amerindian infant microbiomes were rich in urease gene representation, which was uncommon in both infant and adult American microbiomes. Urease can be used to produce amino acids and recycle nitrogen, which is important when diets are deficient in protein.
The supplement contains a comparison of breast and formula fed babies show that formula-fed microbiomes were more focused on carbohydrate (fructose, mannose) and amino acid metabolism, with more genes involved in biosynthesis of B12.
For me this paper raises more questions than it answers. How plastic are these populations? What happens when you feed an American adult an Amerindian diet? Would the gut bacteria be able to shift or is it too late?
There aren't any studies on this that I know of yet, but I did read a study recently that was very interesting: Modulation of fecal markers relevant to colon cancer risk: a high- starch Chinese diet did not generate expected beneficial changes relative to a Western-type diet. The study didn't look at gut microbiome genes or populations, but it did examine many of the products of the gut microbiome, such as short-chain fatty acids, as well as other colonic markers associated with lower risk of colon cancer. The study basically wanted to see if they could shift these by shifting the diet. Would Australians eating a high-starch "low-income" Chinese diet have the same favorable products and markers that the Chinese had? Unfortunately, after three weeks all the results besides fecal PH were worse! Too bad the study was only three weeks though and the diets actually seem kind of weird, but then again I've never been to Australia:
I guess processed oil has been used for long enough in China that most Chinese people I know, even older people, consider it a traditional food...
Furthermore, how responsive are the gut bacterial populations to cultural change? It seems like the Amerindians are now consuming a significant amount of processed sugar, yet this doesn't seem to be reflected in the gut microbiome. They don't seem to be getting closer to the features of the American gut microbiome that the researchers theorized might be related to sugar consumption. Will this happen over generations? Or are the gut biomes of cultures as resistant to change as those of individuals? It would be interesting to study the gut microbiomes of migrants vs. the original population the migrants came from. Also, I'd be curious about the outlier individuals from the dietary survey, such as the couple of Malawaian individuals who reported consuming meat every day. Does their gut microbiome reflect this? What would happen if you compared American vegetarians with American omnivores?
Also, this adds another layer of complexity when looking at traditional diets. Can you get all the health benefits of a particular culture's diet if you don't have their microbiome? How many health differences between populations are explained by different microbiome heritage rather than diet?
A reader alerted me that the Nytimes has put up the finalists for the meat ethics contest I mentioned before. Foolishly, they are allowing the readers to vote on them (the tyranny of the enthusiatic internet community). And the one that's winning currently is hilariously bad.
My father was an ethical man. He had integrity, was honest and loathed needless cruelty. He was also a meat-eater’s meat-eater...His habit killed him in the end: the first sign of trouble came with gout, then colon cancer, heart problems and strokes, but he enjoyed meat for decades before all that "wretched bother" in a time when ethical issues were raised only by "a handful of Hindus and Grahamists."
Nevermind that those problems aren't even conclusively tied to meat and are common in even vegetarian regions of the world, but the solution they proposes is
In vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat.
Wait, so it's a really unhealthy substance that causes cancer, heart disease, strokes, and gout, so we should grow it in the lab? Sure it might not have "misery" or e. coli, but as they said, it's still meat. At least doctors like Campbell, Fuhrman, Ornish, etc. make sense when they say we should go meat-free, because they say that meat is bad for you and you just shouldn't eat it. I'd personally take lentils any day over lab-grown meat, considering that plain-protein grown in the lab is going to probably be as flavorless as textured vegetable protein (and will need additives in order to taste decent) and at least lentils have been bred for flavor. The inclusion of this essay makes the contest seem even more insincere than it already did.
While I've been acused of doing otherwise, I did not chose to become an omnivore again because of taste. In fact, I had no idea how to cook meat and it took me several years to really get into it and like it. I LOVE hummus, falafal, sambar, dal and all kinds of veggie dishes. I was always perfectly happy eating those things, but my stomach was a wreck all the time. I still love them and have to be careful when I do eat them. In NYC I maintained an expensive addiction to Organic Avenue's raw falafal, which at least didn't seem to cause the inflammation the conventional fried falafal seems to trigger for me.
Which essay is your favorite and why? What do you think of the contest so far? I liked the holistic ecological view of Sometimes It’s More Ethical to Eat Meat Than Vegetables. Of course mathematically, the likely winner is the vat-grown meat essay because it will get all the anti-real meat votes, whereas people without that agenda are likely to fragment amongst the somewhat similar other five.
I wish someone had told me in high school that I didn't have to get up at 6 AM every morning to fuss with my hair in order to get a sleek smooth look. Turns out that the natural oil most American women shampoo out of their hair every day has a function. In its proper place, it keeps hair healthy and shiny. The fact that nearly every shampoo and conditioner in the drugstore is for "dry hair" seems to point to that being an issue for many women. Instead of using the oils naturally produced by our scalp, we wash all that off and then add something similar (but inferior) by "conditioning" our hair.
So "minimalist" hair care comes in. I certainly didn't start doing it because it's more "natural," I started getting interested in it when I started coloring my hair. Coloring your hair makes it more vulnerable to dryness. Also, depending on your color, every time you wash it's likely going to dull it a little. Other reasons that motivate people to chose more minimalist hair care are simplicity, getting a smoother texture, and preserving expensive chemical treatments (perms/straightening/relaxing).
So what is minimalist hair care? It basically posits that the oil in your hair is only an enemy in certain contexts. There is some evidence that constantly washing it out makes your scalpal sebaceous glands overactive, so when you first ditch the shampoo you might find yourself with ugly oily hair until your body figures out that you aren't going to constantly dry it out with shampoo and it doesn't need to overproduce. That was my problem at first, which was particularly bad since I have somewhat long hair.
Luckily there are two things you can do until your scalp adjusts: disperse and spot-reduce. I have a very supportive hair dresser who told me that many celebrities like Julianne Moore don't use shampoo. I don't know if that is actually true, but he told me that using a natural fiber hair brush helps distribute oil properly through the hair, bringing it from the scalp, where it can look dirty, to the ends of the hair, which are more prone to dryness-related damage.
Spot-reducing means getting rid of oil where it looks bad instead of washing your whole head. My hairdresser recommends vinegar rinses, but I prefer dry shampoo. I also do the Aveda red staining conditioner every week (luckily it doesn't have much actual conditioner so it doesn't make my hair oily), which extends the time I can go between colorings (I do Herbatint every 3 months with some staining/henna in between to minimize my exposure to some of the more questionable things that even Herbatint contains). After awhile you shouldn't have to do much spot-reducing. When done properly, no one should know that you are doing minimalist hair care.
This year I did a vegan(and later semi-vegan) paleo self-experiment that I never wrote up. I guess I never wrote it up because it wasn't terribly successful and I didn't finish the run I wanted to try. I wanted to go for a month on this diet, but I only made it a week on totally vegan and two more weeks on a modified version.
Why did I do this to myself? Is curiousity a good enough reason? After all, a similar diet is eaten by most of the Melanesian foragers popular in the paleo community. I also had a fantastic amount of access to amazing and cheap sources of starch in NYC. There are other reasons, but I feel they would weigh this post down with too many details about my personal life at the time.
The original diet was based on fruit, roots, nuts, coconut, tubers, and other assorted vegetables. At the local market I could get ten green plantains for a dollar. I could get a massive true yam as big as my head for about two dollars.
From the outset I was limited by my own food sensitivities, which limit vegetables, particularly brassica vegetables. These contain large amounts of galactans and raffinose, so-called FODMAPs that wreck me, but for vegans they are one of the best sources of calcium. I also seem to be sensitive to something in nuts, so I tried to limit them.
So my diet was mainly:
A typical meal was chopped starch boiled in coconut milk with some vegetables and a serving of fruit on the side. I focused on fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin A because I knew I would need more since I am a poor convertor of beta-carotene to retinol.
Where is the protein? I thought perhaps I wouldn't need much if I were only eating this way short term, but after a couple of days I felt a little off and I figured it would make a difference. I added skinless urad dal, the rare legume that doesn't upset my stomach. I stopped buying cocoyam because it was mediocre and taro because it was too hard to cook. The major issue I seemed to suffer from was just not feeling very energetic, so I gave up on the vegan angle and added in shellfish and then regular fish.
Oh great, another taro-ble meal
The shrimp-spinach-coconut milk curry from Primal Blueprint Quick and Easy Meals became a staple. But even while eating fairly energy-dense dishes like this, I still was usually getting fewer calories a day than I was used to. When I read about the two low-reward food self-experiments at Whole Health Source, in hindsight I realize that I was on a pretty low-reward diet. Lots of plain bland boring starches. Even when I tried to make them more exciting with spices I seemed to make it worse since most spices tend to dampen my appetite. I started making smoothies towards the end because it was just so hard for me to eat enough starch. And I knew that if I didn't get enough calories I would feel tired and irritable.
Don't get me wrong, I love plantains. I love them fried in bacon fat. But boiled in coconut milk I got sick of them pretty quickly. If there is one lesson I learned from this is that you can make some pretty cheap and delicious meals out of starch cooked in leftover animal fat. And really, did it make sense for me to stuff myself in imported coconut products and shrimp when I had local meat? This plus issues with low energy led me to end the experiment about a week early. I had similar, but worse, problems on a raw vegan diet.
Perhaps this diet would be a good one for someone who wants to save a lot of money or lose weight? I also think it could be hacked by fermenting some of the starches, which would increase their caloric value and some fermented starches (like fufu) are quite tasty. A low-meat diet based on traditional African recipes that involve starches with animal broths and fermented fish sauces would also be a lot more delicious. I also didn't try supplementing the diet with DHA, taurine, and carnitine - nutrient candidates that might be the missing piece in understanding why some do not do particularly well on plant-based diets.
Self Experiment Results