It’s time for another edition of “Is It Primal?”, where I do my best to rescue certain foods from Primal limbo (if they deserve it) and banish others to Primal exile. And sometimes, I’ll keep a food languishing just because there’s really nowhere else to put it. This week I have five foods. Some, like sunflower oil and wheat germ, are quite common. There’s a good chance you have, or soon will, encounter them out there in the wild, and I hope to give you the tools to handle them. Other foods, like skyr and corn smut, won’t be quite so common (unless you’re a time traveler from 16th century Mesoamerica or an Icelander), but you never know when you’ll have the opportunity to eat some corn fungus and acidified cultured cheese yogurt. You want to be prepared. The last food isn’t really a food, but rather a supplement that attempts to replace a food.
Sunflower oil a seed oil made from, you guessed it, sunflower seeds. Since we tend to avoid the seed oils (or at least limit them as much we can), it seems like sunflower oil is a definite “no.” But wait – why exactly do we shy away from seed oils?
The omega-6 content – We already get plenty of omega-6 fats in our diets, especially since the physiological requirements for these technically essential fatty acids are so incredibly low. Eat some chicken, a couple egg yolks, maybe a handful of nuts every once in awhile, and you’ll get plenty of omega-6. Throw in some food sauteed in soybean oil, some mayo made with canola oil, and some store-bought salad dressing and you’re risking throwing off your healthy omega 3:6 ratio.
The rancidity– Seed oils are usually exposed to the three main agents of oxidation – heat, light, and air – either in the factory at conception, on the store shelves, or in the restaurants. Seeing as how most seed oils are very high in fragile polyunsaturated fats, exposing them to the three agents of oxidation tends to easily oxidize the fats. Oxidized omega-6 fats are better left uneaten.
However, not all sunflower oil is high in omega-6. Standard (high-linoleic) sunflower oil is indeed high in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fat, but high-oleic sunflower oil is at least 82% oleic acid, the same monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, lard, and your very own adipose tissue, while being extremely low in PUFAs (I’ve even seen a sunflower oil with just half a gram of omega-6 per tablespoon, comparable to macadamia oil). Monounsaturated fats are far more resistant to oxidation. They’re even producing high-stearic sunflower oil, which is high in both oleic and stearic acid (a saturated fat extremely resistant to oxidation). Although a good bottle of olive oil, a nice pat of grass-fed butter, or a tub of red palm oil are going to be better, more nutrient-dense sources, I don’t see much wrong with either high-oleic or high-stearic sunflower oil. They’re totally tasteless, which makes them a good oil for Primal mayo.
If you’re worried about GMOs, sunflowers have yet to be genetically-modified. The different versions are developed using good old-fashioned cross-breeding.
Verdict: Primal. Just be sure to go for cold-pressed (which preserves vitamin E and reduces oxidation), high-oleic/high-stearic sunflower oil.
In case you’re wondering why wheat germ is even worth considering, it’s the gluten. Or, more specifically, it’s the relative lack of gluten. See, the oft-cited reason for avoiding wheat and other grains like barley, rye, and spelt is the presence of gluten, a common allergen, promoter of inflammation, and all-around jerk. Since gluten is a protein residing mostly within the endosperm of a grain, and the germ, which is the largely protein-free (but not totally) part of a wheat grain that eventually germinates (hence, “germ”) and grows into a new plant, has very little gluten, some people were wondering whether incorporating wheat germ into the diet would be akin to using real soy sauce. That is, since there’s not much gluten, perhaps a fairly gluten-tolerant (as much as you can be) person can eat a little wheat germ now and then.
You certainly can, but I still wouldn’t. Wheat germ has a little something called wheat germ agglutinin, a particularly potent lectin that protects wheat from insects, yeasts, and bacteria. It also tries to protect wheat from other, larger predators, like hairless bipedal agrarian apes, by attacking and perforating the intestinal lining. There’s also evidence that WGA interacts with insulin receptors (PDF) in fat and liver cells, even going so far as to replicate the effects of insulin (like blunting the breakdown of fat within cells). Insulin plays an important physiological role in the shuttling of nutrients, but only when the presence of those nutrients trigger the insulin. Mimicking the effect of insulin with a foreign plant protein? Eh, I’m a little nervous about that. Luckily for most grain eaters, cooking, or at least boiling, deactivates most WGA (in bread, pasta, muffins, etc). But if you’re eating straight-up wheat germ, which folks usually use raw (because of enzymes, or something) in smoothies, oatmeal, or as a vegan ice cream topping, you’re getting a nice big unaffected dose of wheat germ agglutinin. I mean, it’s right there in the name: WHEAT GERM agglutinin.
Verdict: Not Primal.
On December 19th of every year, Skyrgámur (or “Skyr Gobbler”) comes down from the mountains of Iceland to ransack homes for fifteen days in search of his precious, tangy, fermented, cultured skyr. Skyr, for those who don’t know, is a thickened cultured milk product, a sort of acidified cheese, similar in taste to Greek yogurt, only even thicker. As to why the Skyr Gobbler was so skyr-crazed, who knows? Perhaps this sort-of Santa Claus needs the probiotics to fight off his legendary IBS. Or maybe, seeing as how Iceland has a strong tradition of powerlifting, he’s doing a lactose-intolerant version of GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) in order to support his heavy squatting and deadlifting. Or it could be that Skyrgámur has forsaken his country’s powerlifting lineage and is secretly a practicing member of bodybuilding.com who needs a slow-digesting protein source right before bed. Since skyr has all the whey drained out, its casein content fits the bill. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that skyr exerts a strong pull on those who’ve known its pleasures. But is it Primal?
If you eat dairy, sure. If you can get your hands on it, yeah.
What’s interesting about skyr is that it’s a traditional dairy product that’s also low in fat. That is, modern low-fat versions of skyr aren’t bastardizing a sacred food; they’re actually continuing the tradition. Back in the day, milk (cow and sheep) was generally allowed to sit for a day, often on ice, to allow for separation of cream and skim. The skim (which wasn’t actually non-fat, but rather lower-fat) would run out the bottom of a bowl with a hole in it, leaving the cream to be turned into butter or used right away. Milk from a previous batch of skyr would inoculate the new milk, beginning the cycle anew.
Verdict: Primal (if you tolerate dairy).
“Corn smut.” It sounds dirty, like something from a genre of videos Iowa Big Agra lobbyists order on Pay Per View in DC hotel rooms when their employers pick up the tab, but it’s not like that at all. It’s actually a pathogenic fungus that afflicts corn crops, infecting the corn, threading its fungal fibers through every segment of the plant, and producing large unattractive tumors. Now, when I say “pathogenic,” I refer to the fact that it’s bad for the corn. It’s not actually bad for us. In fact, those tumors, also called galls, are actually delicious, nutritious amalgams of expanded enlarged kernels, fungal threads, and blue-black spores that taste a bit like earthy, woody mushrooms. The Aztecs (who coined the word “huitlacoche”) loved it so much that they’d purposely infect their maize crops with the fungus.
When you eat huitlacoche, you’re eating a mix of corn and fungus. The two have fused together to become a powerful functional food, as explained in one extensive paper (PDF) studying the nutritional qualities of corn smut. It’s got indolic compounds (also found in crucifers, thought to be protective against certain cancers like breast cancer due to their inhibitory effect on estrogen metabolism), polyphenols like anthocyanins (the same ones found in blueberries, gives the corn smut spore its blue-black appearance), and soluble fiber. It also increases the protein content and quality of the corn.
You’re not likely to go eat a big bowl of huitlacoche for breakfast. No, you’re more likely to happen across it while traveling, eating out at a traditional Mexican restaurant, or visiting a friend who’s cooking up some real Mexican food. In that case, I’d suggest you try it.
Verdict: Not exactly Primal, but interesting and seemingly nutritious enough that I wouldn’t sweat it too much.
Desiccated Liver Tabs
Desiccated liver tabs come up a lot in these discussions. For those of you who can’t, or won’t, eat real grass-fed liver – maybe you hate the taste, maybe you can’t find a good clean source, or maybe you just can’t find the time to prepare it – the prospect of a handy way to get your liver without having to eat it or cook it is appealing. Are they Primal?
For the most part, yes. They should give you the B-vitamins, iron, and vitamin A for which liver is so renowned. Most desiccated liver tabs are defatted, however, which means the fat and cholesterol are largely absent from the finished product. If you were eating fresh liver, the fat and cholesterol would be a plus, but in dried, desiccated foods, I’m wary of oxidized fat and cholesterol. Unfortunately, this probably means that liver tabs are missing much of the choline, which in liver is bound up in phosphatidylcholine, a phospholipid found in animal cells. So there’s a give and take.
A way around this (without eating fresh liver) would be to go for a freeze-dried liver pill, like this one. That way, you preserve the fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients without risking oxidation. Plus, the organs come from organic grass-fed New Zealand cattle.
That’s it for today, folks. Keep the questions coming, especially regarding questionable foods, and thanks for reading!
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 three decades researching and 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 Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.