The Inuit and blubber. The Masai and beef. Dr. Cameron Smith and bags of butter. Come again?
This week’s Smart Fuel  is practically genius – although we wouldn’t necessarily recommend making it your next meal!
It’s a well-known fact that some of the healthiest populations on earth enjoy copious amounts of saturated fat in their diets – enough to thoroughly horrify any American dietitian worth his or her salt. Though we seem to be moving away from the fat phobia that gripped the nation’s nutrition conscience in the 90s, mainstream wisdom still recommends avoidance of saturated fat in the diet.
They wouldn’t be too pleased with Arctic expeditioners.
When we learned that folks crossing the polar ice cap for research (thank goodness someone is doing it) subsist largely on such delicacies as lard balls and butter sticks, we just had to find out more. To learn about this greasy business, we sat down with Smith, an expeditioner, noted author, and anthropology professor at Portland State University.
MDA: What do you eat on an expedition? Why fat?
Smith: “I do eat a lot of fat, because of the three foods you can eat (fat, carbs and protein), you can simply get the most calories per unit from fat, and when you’re dragging every calorie you will have access to in the next 40 days in your sled, you have to pack in as many calories as possible. My colleague, Charles Sullivan, and I make rations from store-bought bulk goods, mixed in various formulas. Note that each breakfast, lunch, and dinner normally has as much as a half stick of butter in it!”
MDA: What is the biggest health challenge, or challenges, one faces in an extreme circumstance such as your expedition?
Smith: “The main worry is to prevent my core body temperature from dropping below a certain point; once you get really, deeply chilled, it can be hard to come back. It’s hard to be sure of how close you are to the line, because as you drift towards hypothermia, you start to get a little loopy. So I have to be very conscious of my state of mind.”
MDA: Is anxiety or stress an issue? Is energy the primary challenge?
Smith: “Fear and stress are significant, and I have to juggle them consciously. But, of course, in part I’m there for stress: I come alive when the pressure is on, and I love to solve awkward, clumsy, terrible problems in the wilderness. That, to me, is adventure; solving unexpected problems, with minimal resources.”
MDA: Do you jazz up the butter to make it more palatable?
Smith: “Nope – I quaff down the food like you wouldn’t believe. While it’s good to have the food taste good, I really inhale it by the time I get to eating, and rarely take time for the luxury of taste.”
MDA: Do people criticize this temporary diet, or do you have the endorsement of doctors/experts?
Smith: “Neither – I wouldn’t care what any expert had to say, to be honest. I don’t eat this way all the time, and anyway, there’s just no other on my expeditions; this kind of eating is the price you pay to travel in these spectacular places, and the price, to me, is well worth it.”
MDA: Based on your personal experience and your professional expertise in anthropology, what sort of nutritional guidelines do you personally follow?
Smith: “Actually, my philosophy comes from a children’s book I read when I was 10 and, like every kid at the time (in the 70s), wanted to be an astronaut. The Russian Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov was asked what he did to stay in shape, and he simply said, ‘Don’t eat like a pig, and run a little every day.’ That’s about it for me. I think more carefully about the food and exercise just before an expedition, and during it, but in the rest of my life, I run a little every day, and moderately consume whatever I like.”
Smith in preparation for a recent solo Arctic expedition.
Next, we spoke to Smith’s colleague, Charles Sullivan, who formulates these lipidacious delights.
Sullivan: “The impetus to develop these recipes came about as a response to the incredibly high price of the commercially made, freeze-dried camping meals, such as those from Mountain House and others. These cost about $7.00 for 10 ounces, and 10 ounces does not provide enough calories for a single meal on a serious expedition. The extremely low cost of my meals is a big advantage when you consider the overall costs of any expedition.
Butter is a key ingredient in all of my meals, so this can only really work in a cold environment. Otherwise the butter would go rancid. These aren’t gourmet meals, but Cameron swears by them. But I know he’ll eat most anything when he’s hungry, and enjoy it. They’re probably not something you’d want to eat at home, but after pulling a sled all day in the freezing cold, I’m sure they taste quite good.
Each meal is packaged in a one gallon, zipper-style, ziploc freezer bag. What’s nice is that the ziploc bag is the bowl. All you do is boil water and pour the boiling water into the ziploc bag. You then have to knead the bag for about five minutes before eating. A spoon is best for eating so you don’t puncture the bag.”
A sample meal: a frozen mixture of butter, seeds, nuts, ramen, potato flakes, dried hummus, and a little sugar.
Arctic expeditioners also frequently rely on meals of tallow, suet, and lard. Next time you’re feeling a little tired of olive oil, just remember…you could be kneading sticks of butter and pulling a sled across the Arctic!
A few resources about saturated fat:
Mainstream wisdom 
(Note: These nutrition links are included as helpful information for our curious and critical Apples. While MDA supports researcher Dr. Mary Enig’s work – and that of many others – in critically examining the so-called lipid hypothesis, Smith and Sullivan do not endorse a particular position on saturated fat and cholesterol.)