Is It Primal? – Chia Seeds, Black Rice, Refined Avocado Oil, and Other Foods Scrutinized

The questionable foods just keep flowing in. As soon as I write a new “Is it Primal?” post, I’m inundated with new stuff to scrutinize. It’s like cutting the heads off the hydra (speaking of which, what are the nutritional qualities of hydra? talk about a sustainable animal food source). Luckily I like writing these posts, so they are probably here to stay. I hope you enjoy them. Well, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Today we’ll delve into the sordid inner world of the chia seed (of Chia Pet fame, yes), the dark underbelly of black rice, the hidden agendas of the refined avocado oil consortiums, the Communist North Korean plot to brainwash minds via sweet potato vermicelli consumption, and how strawberries might actually be trying to kill you (yeah, strawberries). Actually, we’ll just figure out if said foods are Primal or not.

Let’s go:

Chia Seeds

Even though I’ve written about chia seeds already on two separate occasions, people keep asking me about them. So, to start with, read those two posts. They’re high in plant omega-3, ALA, which, according to most evidence, we humans are not great at converting into EPA and DHA, the long chain omega-3s that our bodies truly require. However, I’d like to add a couple new thoughts to the subject:

There’s some recent evidence that moderately-longish term chia seed supplementation (7 weeks long) can actually increase plasma ALA and EPA levels in postmenopausal women. That ALA increased isn’t a surprise, since ALA is the predominant fat in chia, but the 30% EPA increase was a bit of a shock. Perhaps the conversion rate can be higher (although DHA levels slightly decreased). It’s worth noting that these were milled chia seeds, which are easier to digest (and, presumably, absorb the nutrients within) than whole seeds. That could have had a measurable impact.

I’ve been down on fiber in the past. Still am, in fact, provided you’re talking about insoluble, bowel-rending, toilet-bowl-filling fiber. But soluble fiber? Fiber that feeds the gut flora? Fiber that actually promotes gut health? Fiber that gets fermented into short chain fatty acids with a host of health benefits? I’m okay with that kind of fiber, and chia seeds have plenty of it. However, since soluble fiber is “active” in your gut, it can cause gastrointestinal distress, especially if you aren’t used to eating plant matter rich in the stuff.

Verdict: Primal, but be wary of any superfood claims (unless they’re talking about liver and pastured egg yolks), closely monitor your fiber tolerance, and don’t rely on them for your omega-3s.

Black Rice

In previous posts, I’ve suggested white rice as a fairly inoffensive grain. As grains go, rice ranks close to suitable. I don’t recommend its consumption for everyone, at any time, but it can be a valuable arrow in the quiver of the hard-charging athlete in need of dietary glucose, and no longer fearing white rice can definitely make dinner at your favorite sushi joint that much more enjoyable. But what about black rice?

Black rice is actually closer to purple than pure black, with a slightly sweet flavor that lends itself to coconut milk desserts. It is similar to brown rice in that it retains the bran, which means it retains lots of the nutrients, but also lots of the antinutrients. Of course, rice is fairly nutrient-and-antinutrient-sparse either way you go, with few lectins and no gluten, but there is a fairly significant amount of phytic acid in the bran. This website indicates that black rice bran is known for its considerable phytic acid, although I wasn’t able to obtain a solid figure. At any rate, I’d be willing to wager that black rice is also similar to brown rice in that proper fermentation eliminates almost all of the phytic acid (96% of it!), so if you’re willing to do the work, the negatives can be mitigated.

Yeah, yeah, that’s a lot of work, though. Couldn’t I just eat white rice, or, you know, a sweet potato if I was interested in glucose? True, but consider that in nature, color tends to mean polyphenols. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are notorious repositories of antioxidants, and black rice – though not a vegetable – is no different. In fact, the anthocyanin content of black rice rivals that of the blueberry. Anthocyanin, also found in other darkly colored fruits and vegetables like red grapes, blackberries, and purple sweet potatoes, display dozens of beneficial health effects.

Verdict: Not Primal, but if you’re willing to soak and ferment it, it can be a potentially healthy way to get some glucose and polyphenols in your body.

Refined Avocado Oil

As I’ve mentioned before with regards to coconut oil, not all refined oil is unhealthy.

Interestingly, refined avocado oil is even more oxidatively stable than unrefined avocado oil, and this difference in stability comes primarily down to the difference in chlorophyll content. That is, the chlorophyll in unrefined avocado oil – it’s what makes it green (and admittedly attractive) – reacts with light to form oxidation products. Refined avocado oil, which is a pale yellow bordering on clear, contains almost no chlorophyll and shows essentially zero traces of oxidation – 0.1% free fatty acids (in order to qualify as “extra virgin” in the eyes of the International Olive Council, olive oil must register below 0.8%) and a peroxide value of 0.1 mEq/kg (the IOC demands less than 20 mEq/kg of its extra virgin olive oils).

With a neutral flavor, a similar fatty acid profile to olive oil – 70% MUFA, 12% Omega-6 PUFA, 1% Omega-3 PUFA, 12% SFA – and a smoke point suitable for high heat cooking, refined avocado oil can be a useful addition to your Primal kitchen.

Verdict: Primal, so long as you’re using expeller-pressed refined avocado oil.

Korean Sweet Potato Vermicelli

I love sweet potatoes. If I’m going to eat some starch, chances are I’ll reach for a sweet potato. Maybe it’ll be a purple Okinawan. Maybe it’ll be a Japanese white. Maybe it’ll be an orange garnet yam, or a classic yellow sweet potato. Whatever it is, it’s probably a slightly sweet tuber. Why, you might ask?

They’re delicious. They’re loaded with minerals (especially potassium), antioxidants, and vitamins. They’re “cellular carbohydrates,” starches made up of actual, cohesive cells, as opposed to “acellular carbohydrates,” which a recent paper (PDF) fingers as a potential cause of the obesity epidemic. That paper’s a great read, by the way.

But sweet potato noodles are not quite sweet potatoes. They’re made up of sweet potato amylopectin, the fast-digesting, fast-absorbing starch that’s been connected with the development of insulin resistance. Sweet potato starch is just that – starch. It doesn’t have the fiber or the micronutrients. Heck, sweet potato starch noodles don’t even look like they’re made from sweet potatoes; in their uncooked state, they’re dull, grey lifeless looking things. And since it’s been dried and extracted and pounded into oblivion, sweet potato starch is a prime example of an acellular carbohydrate, a dense carbohydrate that may promote an inflammatory intestinal microbiome (like I said, read the paper!).

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a little dish of acellular carbs now and then, especially if your training and your glucose tolerance support their consumption. Just don’t make them a staple if you’re trying to lose weight. Don’t have soybean oil stir-fried sweet potato vermicelli just because it’s from a “safe starch”. Don’t think the fact that they come from sweet potatoes will make any difference to your insulin resistant body.

Verdict: Not so Primal.


You might be wondering: why are strawberries even deserving of scrutiny? I mean, these are berries, the fruit that pretty much everyone agrees is good for you. You get Dean Ornish, Gary Taubes, one of the banana fetishists, Sally Fallon, and any Primal or paleo person in a room and, once the dust has settled, each and every one of those people will nosh on some strawberries.

Well, a reader asked a question. When that happens, I like to answer, especially when it concerns the strawberry. The reader had heard that before the 19th century, the strawberry was a small, sour, oft-ignored wild fruit that no one really cared about until an enterprising farmer decided to breed the sweetest ones for several generations, eventually ending up with what we know and love today. If that was the case, and the modern strawberry is a recent “invention,” shouldn’t we scrutinize its place in the modern Primal fruit platter?

Sure, let’s scrutinize. References to the strawberry date back into antiquity; in one of his writings, Pliny the Elder counts it among the natural products of Italy, while Ovid’s Metamorphoses contain a reference to “the soft strawberries growing beneath the woodland shade.” By 1300, the strawberry was being formally cultivated in Europe, by 1597, Shakespeare was dropping lines about strawberries into Richard III (I know, I know, Shakespeare liked to coin phrases, but I don’t think he coined the strawberry), and by 1820, what was once just three varieties of strawberry had ballooned into thirty.

I’ve had wild strawberries, and they’re small, sure, you can’t dip them into chocolate too well, of course, and the stems are longer than the berry, but they are sweet and tasty nonetheless. As for nutritional differences, wild strawberries are generally higher in antioxidants than cultivated strawberries (probably because they deal with a lot of oxidative stress out in the great outdoors). I’m not sure this matters a ton, however, since cultivated strawberries still rate higher than other fruits like kiwi, apples, apricots, and peaches. Plus, a recent study found that strawberries activate a uniquely beneficial antioxidant pathway in those who eat them, and I’m pretty sure they used cultivated strawberries.

Verdict: Primal.

Thanks for reading today, folks. I hope you learned something. Let me know your thoughts on these foods (and any other foods you’ve been wondering about) in the comment section!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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