Back to Basics
Hana Miller, WEEKENDER | Tue, 05/29/2012 3:17 PM |
Returning to the way our grandparents ate may do us a world of good.
We’ve reached a point in history where we’ve managed to turn something as simple as knowing what to eat into a complicated task. Nobody can be expected to keep up with every latest bit of evidence about what is and isn’t good for us, not to mention the latest ingredients, additives and products that seem to pop up weekly on menus and supermarket shelves.
A trend is emerging among foodies and the health conscious that is actually not a new fad at all, but rather a return to “traditional” nutrient-dense foods. The idea is to keep what you eat as close as possible to the unprocessed and unrefined foods of preindustrial days. Depending on where you are from and where you live, and what is available and eaten locally, this might include the following.
- Raw dairy, unpasteurized and non-homogenized milk that is fresh from the cow, and yogurts and cheeses made from that milk. Many people drink milk for its calcium content, thinking it’s good for their teeth and bones, but the pasteurization of milk – heating it up to kill any present microbial life – renders most of the calcium in milk unavailable to our bodies. Raw milk also contains iodine and vitamin C, both of which are destroyed during pasteurization.
- Whole grains, such as whole-wheat flour and brown or red rice, rather than white rice, flour, bread and pastas. Whole grains are unrefined; they still have husks and are unbleached and unprocessed. This means that they retain a lot of fiber and other nutrients and act as slow-release energy for the body, as opposed to processed grains, which are quickly metabolized into sugars to give the body a quick burst of energy, with the excess stored in the body.
- Bone broths and fish stocks. These provided much-needed calcium to many indigenous people. Many cultures consume “all parts of the animal” – including the bones. Much of the bone matter is either boiled into broth or ground up and added as a powder to food.
- Unrefined fats from animal products and tropical oils such as coconut oil. These are brimming with essential nutrients. Many diet-conscious people take supplements of vitamins A, B and D, but these vitamins are naturally available in beef fat, dairy products, fish liver and fish eggs, among other natural fatty foods. Refined oils such as canola and other seed oils are highly processed, can be carcinogenic and contain very few nutrients.
- Fermented foods. Many vegetables and grains that are fermented, such as sauerkraut and tofu, when prepared in the traditional unpasteurized manner, are more nutritious. Many vegetables and grains contain “enzyme inhibitors”, which make these foods difficult to digest. During the fermentation process, beneficial bacteria help to break down these hard-to-digest foods and make their nutrients more readily available. Traditionally, fermenting foods was also a way to make foods keep longer – which is very important when you can only harvest a staple food at a particular time of the year.
- Local produce. Once upon a time, locally produced organic fruit and vegetables were the only kind of produce available. Without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, early farmers and hunter-gatherers would recycle waste products by composting them to feed the soil and the plants that supported them. The use of chemical products in farming is very harmful to the soil, and the fruit and vegetables produced contain chemicals harmful to humans.
The name most closely associated with this movement toward traditional foods is Weston A. Price, an early 20th century American dentist who connected his findings on the dental health of indigenous peoples around the world with their nutrition and physical health. He found a dramatic difference in dental health, especially the skeletal strength and structure, between those generations who existed before and after access to modern foods such as processed and refined sugars, oils and grains.
One of the co-founders of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes these dietary principles, is Sally Fallon, author of the cookbook Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, whose readership has grown worldwide since its release in 1999.
Fallon’s book, which has no photographs whatsoever, contains a whopping 773 recipes, many of which require preparing ingredients by soaking or fermenting them; it even includes traditional recipes for seemingly exotic things such as fermented meat. Much of the volume reads more like something from a scientific journal than a cookbook, focusing on the benefits or detriments of certain foods and preparation methods while explaining the science of nutrition and traditional diets based on studies of indigenous cultures worldwide that were found to have exceptional nutritional health before being exposed to industrial-era foods.
Michael Pollan, investigative journalist and renowned author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has also gained a wide readership for his thorough and very readable explorations of the ways that the food industry interferes with our healthy eating and cooking cultures. For example, the business of global import and export of food has narrowed our choices and, in some cases, even eliminated the very existence of certain foods. For example, there are endless varieties of apples, yet most of us only know about the ones that can maintain their shape, color, shine and retail value during long journeys across the world. A lot of “traditional” foods have no retail value at all because they are best made at home.
Tracing the complicated connections between the soil, the supermarket and the dinner table, in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Pollan sums up the way to choose what to eat with one simple maxim: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Our world is very different from the one our great-grandmothers lived in, and this is not to say that we shouldn’t eat beetroot because she had never seen one. But when you think about breakfast cereals that come with colorful marshmallows shaped like miniature rainbows and pots of gold, it’s easy to see the point.