Australian Functional Ingredients – by Vic Cherikoff

Superfoods, wild foods and super-nutrition

I have an alternative title for this rave because we are not being told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Let me know what you think.

The Lies of the Health Industry and the Crimes of Food Distribution

What lies are we being told by nutritionists who say we can get healthy on a diet of foods bred for supermarket distribution chains and not for our ideal nutrition?

Are the foods that you rely on for your good health and well-being even worth eating at all?

Think about the fruits and vegetables on your weekly shopping list or in your supermarket trolley. Are there some that you buy nearly every shop? Notice that apples, bananas, oranges, zucchini, pumpkin, potatoes, carrots and many more of our staple foods are available all year round?

I’ll have more to say about the number of ‘fresh’ foods which we eat on an annual basis later but just think about how the stores manage to offer seasonal produce all year. Sure, some is imported so we get Californian oranges in Sydney but most fruits and vegetables are picked unripe, stored chilled for up to 6 months or more, gas ripened as needed and slowly released to the distribution chain to end up on the ‘fresh’ produce shelves of a store near you.

So let’s look more closely at the actual foods themselves:

Let’s use corn or maize as an example:

Corn is the result of genetic engineering by Aboriginal peoples in Mesoamerica some 6300 years ago. It is a purely human invention that does not exist in nature and can only survive if sown and protected by people. Recently, biologists examined the DNA (genetic material) of corn and its relatives. They discovered that the ancestor of corn is a wild grass from Mexico called teosinte.

Teosinte, like the corn we know, has kernels. But its kernels are covered by a stone-like, hard to digest fruitcase, suitable for an unscathed passage through an animal’s digestive system. It is thought that cross?fertilization of teosinte with an ancestral form of maize, which has kernels with no fruit-case, ultimately produced the many varieties of corn we have today.

During the period 4000 to 3000BC there was a shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to early farming in the present?day Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Puebla and Oaxaca. It is likely that small bands of people followed the seasonal patterns of plants and animals in order to live. During this period, they experimented with parched grains and cereal meal used to make flat breads and later tortillas and enchiladas.

When Christopher Columbus came to America in 1492, he observed maize growing on the island of Haiti and his writing of this becomes the first known written record of that plant. Native Americans who domesticated corn developed five different types: pop, flint, dent, flour, and sweet corn. These differ in the hardness of the seed coat and in the kind and amount of starch or sugar stored in each kernel.

This was (my source for the above).

There are now hundreds of varieties of corn.

Modern super-sweet corn has twice the sucrose content of ordinary sweet corn and probably six times the amount in the ancestral maize where the sugars were converted to slow release (low glycemic index) starches. Water content is also up while dietary fibre is down from the ancient grains and so the micro-nutrients are all less concentrated. While corn is a striking example of how to breed rubbish food from healthy precursors, the rest of our foods are similarly compromised. Elevated levels of sucrose and water at the expense of dietary fibre, protein and beneficial micro-nutrients are the norm.

The above will probably anger agricultural scientists who think that these leaps in genetic engineering are massive benefits for farmers (yes, it increases their incomes if the food industry can convince consumers this is food) and they will wave the flag as heroes ‘feeding the world’. But ask the question; what are they feeding us?

Our modern times have not been the pinnacle of human development as far as health and well being are concerned. From archaeological evidence and from records of living cultures such as that of the Australian Aborigines, the quality of life and nutritional status have been on a downward trend through time. Anthropologist, Peter MacAllister in his book, Manthropology describes the fossilized footprints of a group of Australian Aborigines, presumably a 5 member hunting party, running on the edge of a large mudflat out in Western New South Wales. They were obviously running barefoot over this soft ground and moving like this in a group was probably a routine they did every few days – nothing really special and probably just like us going to the supermarket to get something for the next few days’ meals.

However, these hunters were clicking along at 37kph (around 23mph). Compare this to the World record holding sprinter, Jamaican Usain Bolt who had state-of-the-art running shoes and clothing, a specially designed running track, a commitment to years of training and a special diet to enhance his performance. Usain peaked at the 60m mark during his 100m sprint at 42kph (26mph). Our Aboriginal hunters probably also ran at 37kph for a lot longer than the 9.53 seconds that Usain lasted and the runner on the outside edge of the mudflat had to run a little faster than his mates. Just to keep up he topped 45kph, at least on that bend.

The reason Aborigines could manage this feat of performance was their greater muscle bulk (longer, thicker muscle fibres, exercised more often and more strenuously than we do today). The point MacAllister did not explain was that this muscle mass and performance was supported by their wild food diet. Components in their diet provided sustained energy, allowed for greater prolonged energy expenditure or stamina and aided in a speedy recovery after exercise.

Aborigines also at a far wider selection of foods than we do today. Most of us shop throughout the year for relatively the same ingredients. Wheat is obviously the mainstay in Caucasian cultures while rice is more the staple in Pan Asian ones. Nevertheless, if we add up the number of different food ingredients eaten in modern societies, it might reach 60 to 80 in total for more adventurous diners.

Compare this to Aborigines living in the Western desert which traditionally supported an average of one person per 100 square miles in a worst case scenario (for example, during a 10 year drought) and a family could rely on a peak of 150 foods in good times. In more lush environments where population densities were high as in the wet tropical rainforests or monsoon savannah forests then the food number soared to over 650 different foods.

So hunter-gatherers out?lived, out-performed (mentally and physically), ate better quality foods and enjoyed a greater selection of them. They also had far more free time and closer-knit communities and family support systems to reduce stress of survival and procreation but what about their general health?

Well. Free-living hunter-gatherers never knew about what are now called the diseases of civilization but would be better called diseases of nutrition;

Obesity
Type 2 diabetes
cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis
obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema
chronic liver disease or cirrhosis
metabolic syndrome
nephritis or chronic renal failure
stroke
cancer
prostate problems and urinary tract infections
hypertension
mental diseases including depression, senile dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, insomnia
chronic fatigue
arthritis including gout and restless legs
osteoporosis and menopausal symptoms
macular degeneration
dental caries, gum disease
loss of hearing
autoimmune diseases
food intolerances
allergies
acne and asthma
eczema and psoriasis
the list goes on…

Aborigines had wild foods for sustenance and these played a protective role in their health and well being, guarding against developing the above conditions from poor nutrition.

Additionally, the number of plants known as bush medicines and their range of uses in a wild pharmacopoeia reflected the absence of these diseases.

There were plenty of treatments for burns, cuts and abrasions; spear wounds, contusions and other battle wounds; skin conditions from sunburn to insect stings; indigestion and headaches; from snake bite to broken bones; and persistent general sicknesses which were probably viral or bacterial and transmitted between language groups on the infrequent occasions that they congregated.

So are wild foods really that much better for us?

The Australian Aborigines have the longest living culture on the planet and not just by a few hundred years or even a few thousand years but tens of thousands! What’s more, Aborigines were living to 60 and 70 years of age while their contemporaries in ‘civilized’ Britain or its colonies were lucky to manage 35 years of age. Villagers and townsfolk were dying of plagues and viruses spread by close human contact, unsanitary conditions and living in conditions which fostered large populations of rats, mice, flies, cockroaches and other pest species.

OK. Today we have better living conditions with improved sanitation, clean water, education (what did the Romans ever do for us?), hospitals and early diagnosis of diseases and lots of pills to pop before invasive surgery becomes an intervention. And we are living longer even though we suffer all those lifestyle diseases the Aborigines never had.

And how about our quality of life today?

Is coping with the symptoms of any, several or many of those conditions in any way pleasant? Do you think that pills are the answer to good health? Like most of us, you probably have a cupboard full of vitamins, minerals, vitamin?mineral combinations, fish oils, joint health preparations, performance enhancers, herbal remedies … the list goes on and on and they would have cost many hundreds of dollars. Has taking any of these really made a difference to your health? Do you still regularly take any pills and do any make a real difference apart from possibly alleviating a few symptoms (rather than curing the disease)?

The Australian National Cancer Council has a statement on its website which says that most diseases today, including cancer, can be treated by better nutrition. They don’t say by taking more pills. They also don’t recommend supplements of any kind as few are much better than the synthetic chemicals used in tablets, capsules and powders. Most fruit or vegetable juice drinks could scarcely be called food. Most do not include fibre in the first instance and have been pasteurized compromising the nutritional quality further. But the main objection is that they are made from poor quality produce which is high in water, high in sugar (predominantly sucrose) and nutritionally dilute.

Homo sapiens and their predecessors have been on the earth for one million years or more. For 90% of this time our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Agriculture started only 10 000 years ago and there has not been enough time for our species to evolve any new mechanisms required by recent changes in our food supply but presumably our bodies have evolved for eating what hunter-gatherers ate.

So what about the current quality of modern foods?

Up until the end of the 1990s, nutritionists only focused on what they call the proximate macronutrients and a handful of micronutrients. Way back in 1985, Nutrition Professor Stewart Truswell simplistically described the ABC of Nutrition in a way which is probably a popular perception of nutrition today:

Man needs oxygen and enough food energy (kilojoules or calories), water, 8 to 10 essential amino acids in proteins, essential fatty acids, for example, linoleic acid, a small amount of carbohydrate, 13 vitamins, and 18 elements scattered across the upper half of the periodic table (in addition to carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen).

Together they add up to over 40 nutrients and many are normally taken for granted (and it is considered that) the minor nutrients will be present in sufficient amounts in a mixed diet of foods.

For some of the nutrients, you can have too much of a good thing.

Generous intakes of saturated fat raise the plasma cholesterol concentration and contribute to coronary heart disease. People with high salt intakes have more hypertension. Too much food energy leads to obesity.

Truswell continues to describe water and fibre as nutrients and concludes …

“All the many other substances in foods are non-nutritive. They produce most of the flavour, colour and other sensory qualities. In most natural foods there are inherent substances that are potentially toxic but usually present in small amounts, for example, solanine in potatoes, nitrates and oxalates in spinach, thyroid antagonists in brassica vegetables, cyanogenetic glycosides in cassava and apricot stones, etc. Then there are substances to which only some people are sensitive – for example, in some people, wheat causes gluten sensitivity, broad bean causes favism, and cheese can have a negative effect in patients taking MAO inhibitors. Other toxins get into foods when their environment is unusual, for example, toxic shellfish after a ‘red tide’, or if polluted with industrial contaminants, such as methyl mercury, PCBs, etc. Microbiological infection can produce very potent toxins, such as botulism and aflatoxin. Some functional food additives can cause sensitivity reactions in a minority of people (or hyperactivity in a large number of others).”

Source: British Medical Journal, Vol 291 23 November 1985. pp1486 – 90

It has only been in the last 10 years or so that antioxidants (the ‘non-nutritive’ compounds that “produce most of the flavour, colour and other sensory qualities” in foods have been found to be as important a group of nutrients as the vitamins or the macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates, fibre and hence, energy). Some have yet to be discovered and some are even tasteless, non-aromatic or do not have other sensory attributes apart from protecting us from scavenging free radicals; repairing cell components, including our DNA; acting as enzyme regulators; and exhibiting effects from antiviral, antimicrobial, anticancer, anti-tumour, from stimulating cell division to initiating cell death in rogue cells, not to mention a few hundred other functions.

Nutritionists HAVE been lying to us because they didn’t know any better and they are still repeating the same stories while waiting for science to catch up to the reality of what we have done to our foods. Two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables daily might sound healthy but we now know that most modern foods fall way short of those wild foods which supported our ancestors’ ideal nutrition.

There are still some fruits, herbs and vegetables available which can rightly be called superfoods. What the components they contain can do is another story and which I’ll address in a short while unless you just have to have a sneak peek.

Please read my follow up article on The Perfect Diet.

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Vic Cherikoff