Perhaps the most common question I get from readers is some variation on the classic “Is X Primal?” Probably a half dozen times a day, “Is this Primal?” or “Is that Primal?” pop up in my inbox, often attached to some ridiculous food or product. My personal favorite was “Is whole wheat bread Primal?” (it’s not), closely followed by “What’s more Primal, red or black licorice?” But that’s not to suggest that all I get is nonsense. Some – most, even – are actually quite reasonable queries about foods that either seem to reside in Primal limbo, get talked up by people who you’d think would “know better,” or just taste really good and have people hoping that somehow, someway they’re compatible with Primal living.
Today, I’ll be scrutinizing ten commonly asked-about foods. Let’s go:
It often feels like the coconut enjoys deific status in the Primal community, and for good reason. It’s rich in medium chain triglycerides, a relatively rare type of fat with some intriguing health effects, particularly for weight loss and brain health. Its flesh can be pulverized and combined with water to form a creamy, milky beverage that works well in curries, coffee, and with berries, or dried and ground to form a useful flour. But what about the water? The water is where all the sugar lies (16 grams in 12 ounces), so it’s natural for some people to be suspicious. Sugary drinks, whether they be soda or juice, are generally frowned upon.
But coconut water has some cool stuff going on. It contains five electrolytes the human body needs to function – potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphate, and calcium. In a pinch, it can double as a short-term IV hydration fluid. It’s good for a hangover (or so I hear). It can rehydrate athletes after exercise, and though it isn’t particularly more effective than something like Gatorade, it’s certainly tastier and healthier.
Verdict: Primal, but kinda sugary, so go easy on it unless you’re in Thailand sipping on fresh young coconuts (because there’s nothing quite like cold coconut water straight from the coconut), nursing a hangover, or training hard and need the hydration.
Chocolate milk? You’re probably wondering why this one didn’t get tossed out as nonsense, and I don’t blame you. For one, it’s dairy, usually low-fat and ultra-pasteurized. Two, it’s full of sugar. Three, it’s chocolate milk. What’s the deal here?
Chocolate milk is actually enjoying a renaissance in the fitness community. Over the past several years, a number of studies have teased out the recovery benefits provided by post-workout chocolate milk:
- Muscle protein turnover and performance enhancement after endurance training – Following a 45-minute run, trained subjects who consumed fat-free chocolate milk (as opposed to a carbohydrate only beverage, like Gatorade) experienced improved muscle protein turnover and a higher treadmill time to exhaustion.
- Improved recovery after prolonged endurance exercise – Following several cycling sessions, subjects who consumed chocolate milk were able to recover more quickly for a subsequent session to failure. They lasted 51% and 43% longer than the cyclists who had a carb-only beverage or just water. An earlier study found similar results.
It seems like it’s the protein content of chocolate milk, paired with the sugar content, that provides the benefits over just water or Gatorade. I’ll agree that if there’s a “good time” to consume sugary beverages, it’s immediately after a long workout, because the sugar will be primarily (if not completely) used to fuel your energy-sapped muscles. Throw in some high quality dairy protein and you have yourself a decent recovery drink. Better than Gatorade, at least.
But really? If I were you, I’d just eat some meat, a piece of fruit, and have some water. Or if you do milk, have plain whole milk, preferably raw, skip the “chocolate,” and eat a banana. That way you get the dairy protein and some fast-acting sugar.
Verdict: Not Primal.
We tout dark chocolate over milk for several reasons:
- Dark chocolate generally contains more cacao, which is the source of all the polyphenols and other antioxidants that provide most of the health benefits associated with chocolate.
- Dark chocolate generally contains less sugar than milk chocolate, making it healthier and giving it more of a complex flavor profile (rather than just cloyingly sweet).
- Dark chocolate contains healthy fats, like stearic acid (which has a neutral effect on LDL), while the milk in most milk chocolates comes from powdered dairy. It can also be adulterated with vegetable oils (because using cocoa butter in milk chocolate when soybean oil is available is just crazy talk, right?).
- Dark chocolate is more filling than milk chocolate. For the most part, you don’t see people going on three-bar 85% cacao dark chocolate binges. Polishing off a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, though? Who hasn’t done that at least once?
That said, in recent years a new wave of “dark” milk chocolates has surfaced, sporting higher cacao contents, complex flavor profiles, and lower sugar counts. Slitti’s Lattenero 70%, for instance, is 70% cacao. If you go with one of these bars, and you’re okay with dairy, I don’t see a problem with it, especially since the presence of milk proteins do not seem to affect absorption of polyphenols. Besides, it’s not like chocolate – dark or milk or dark milk – should be anything but a treat.
Verdict: Potentially Primal.
Everything that’s good in good dark chocolate can be found in cocoa mass, which is simply the fermented, roasted, ground, crushed cocoa beans. Cocoa mass has both the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter, but that’s it. No sugar, no flavorings, no binders, no emulsifiers. It’s the last step before undergoing either Dutch processing or Broma processing, the former of which removes most of the phenolic content and the latter of which preserves it (along with some bitterness). Cocoa mass, then, contains all the antioxidants, all the phenolic content, and all the bitterness. It’s great stuff if you can handle it. If you can’t, you might try melting a nugget in a small saucepan with some coconut milk. Add a bit of cinnamon, some cayenne, and a teaspoon of sweetener (honey, maple syrup, stevia), and you have yourself a delicious way to eat real cocoa mass.
Just make sure you’re really getting 100% cocoa mass and nothing else. Here’s an example of a good 100% product. Or you could dig up some unsweetened baker’s chocolate, which is high in antioxidants and is basically just cocoa mass formed into bars.
If dark chocolate and cocoa mass are Primal, then cocoa butter definitely qualifies, too. It’s mostly saturated (stearic acid) fat, with about 30% monounsaturated, and a paltry amount of polyunsaturated fat.
From what I’ve seen, cocoa butter as a cooking fat hasn’t really gone mainstream, so you’ll probably have to pay a premium for it. I don’t see any huge advantage to it (besides maybe the LDL-neutral stearic acid content), but if you can get a good price, go for it.
Goat Whey Protein
If cow whey is Primal – and I think it is, which is why I use it in Primal Fuel – then goat whey is also Primal. In fact, I strongly considered using it and might have were it not for the high price of goat whey. You see, there’s simply not as much goat milk whey produced in this country. It remains a niche product, a product with low supply and high prices.
However, if you’re willing to pay for goat whey protein, there are a couple potential benefits that could distinguish it from cow whey:
- It tends to be less allergenic than cow’s milk. Oftentimes, folks who can’t tolerate cow dairy protein will be able to tolerate goat dairy protein. If you have problems with cow whey, but still want a quick and easy protein source, goat whey will probably work well.
- Goat milk oligosaccharides have displayed intestinal anti-inflammatory effects in animal models of colitis. If the goat whey protein you’re using retains these oligosaccharides after the purification process (and one study confirms that raw goat whey at least starts out with oligosaccharides present), it may not just be less inflammatory than cow milk whey, but positively anti-inflammatory.
Sacha Inchi Seeds
The next South American superfood (I for one am sick of these superfoods always being a berry or a bean or a root of some sort; I hereby nominate capybara glandular extract in juice form as the next big South American superfood/MLM scheme), sacha inchi seeds are omega-3-rich “Incan peanuts” that have been eaten for hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of years by people living in the Amazon. How rich in omega-3? Well, one site boasts that their sacha inchi seeds contain 13 times more omega-3s than salmon (ounce for ounce), without those “unpleasant fishy flavors and aftertastes.” Yeah, I hate life every time I eat a big piece of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, too. I practically have to hold my nose and force it down to avoid that disgusting fishy flavor.
Problem is that the omega-3 in a sacha inchi seed – 50% of the total fatty acids – is all alpha linoleic acid. It’s not the EPA or DHA that our omnivorous bodies utilize best; it’s the ALA that we have trouble converting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ALA, and it’s probably beneficial to people who don’t get any actual animal-based omega-3s, but it can’t beat a simple, tasty can of sardines. Oh, and the fatty acid composition of a sacha inchi is about 34% omega-6 linoleic acid, a pretty hefty dose.
I think sacha inchi seeds are fine as a snack. Just don’t think they’ll replace marine-based omega-3s.
Verdict: Primal to a point.
The bad is that hominy is corn, a grain with questionable health effects. We generally avoid grains, and they are definitely not Primal. The good is that hominy is nixtamalized, a traditional corn preparation process which increases the protein availability, breaks down phytic acid, kills off mycotoxins, and increases the calcium content.
I often talk about foods existing on a spectrum of suitability, and corn is no different. If wheat, barley, rye, and other gluten-containing grains are at one (bad) end, and rice is at the other, nixtamalized corn lies somewhere in the middle, perhaps sharing a ride with oats.
Verdict: Not Primal, but “less bad” than some other grains.
Glycomaize is just a catchy name for waxy maize, a type of corn-based starch that looks like wax under a microscope and contains high amounts of amylopectin. Amylopectin is the plant equivalent of glycogen; its glucose subunits are highly branched and easily digested. This quality has earned it a reputation among gym rats as the quickest way to SLAM GLYCOGEN INTO YOUR STARVING MUSCLES TO THE POINT OF ENGORGEMENT. Even if waxy maize were able to supranaturally pump you full of glycogen (which it doesn’t appear to be any better at than other sources of starch, according to this well-researched article from Bodybuilding.com), I question its value for most people.
If you want some carbs after a workout, eat a sweet potato. Unless you’re training twice a day and getting paid for it, you don’t need to have fully-replenished glycogen stores immediately after a workout. The potato, maybe some coconut water, maybe a banana, and a bit of meat will do the trick just fine. And, they’re actual food that you have to cook, chew, and swallow. They will sustain you, satisfy you, and keep you full, whereas tossing some corn starch down your gullet will only add cheap (yet expensive) carb calories that your satiety hormones probably won’t even acknowledge. Helpful for an elite athlete training two or three times a day, but not for the average (or even above average) fitness fan.
Verdict: Not Primal.
Banana flour is actually plantain flour, meaning it’s made by grinding up the banana’s starchy, less-sweet cousin. It’s not going to be very sweet, and it’s usually combined with standard flours because of the difficult texture and consistency.
According to the FAO, neither plantains nor bananas contain significant levels of any known antinutrient or food toxin. They are the very definition of a “safe starch,” then. If you’re looking for something starchy and you engage in sufficient activity to warrant its inclusion in your diet and you’re able to come up with something edible without adulterating it with wheat flour, go ahead. Just don’t let banana – or plantain – flour become a gateway to daily Primal approximations of baked goods and you’ll be fine.
Verdict: Primal, but likely easy to abuse.
Well, that’s it for today. If you’ve got any foods (or food-based items) that you’ve been wondering about, feel free to drop a comment in and I’ll try to do a follow-up next week. Thanks for reading!