Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Jan

Is it Primal? – Balsamic Vinegar, Chestnuts, Apricot Kernels, and Other Foods Scrutinized

Balsamic VinegarIt’s time for yet another edition of “Is It Primal?” where I determine and decree the worthiness of various foods. First up, I discuss balsamic vinegar – both types – and explain whether or not it belongs in a Primal eating plan. After that, chestnuts get roasted over the open fire of my analysis. Apricot kernels, those weird little almond lookalikes, are next, followed by chitosan. Finally, I cover the safety and healthfulness of Korean nori snacks. Keep in mind, readers: once my edict on a particular food has been handed down, once it has been deemed Primal or not Primal, the word is sacrosanct. It must be hewed to, or else you will suffer the consequences, which can include such horrors as revocation of your Primal Cred card or banishment to Vegan Island.

Take heed.

Balsamic Vinegar

There are essentially two primary types of balsamic vinegar. The first, made according to traditional practices and standards, involves reducing grape juice (from grapes grown in specific regions of Italy) down to 30% of volume to form a must, followed by a 12-year fermentation of the must in a variety of wood barrels during which time the flavors and various other bioactive compounds form and develop. This stuff is expensive, going for as much as several hundred dollars a bottle. It’s called traditional balsamic vinegar, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. 

The second is balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is made using wine vinegar, caramel, and grape must. Basic balsamic vinegars are technically aged, but very rarely for as long as twelve years. A couple months appears to be the minimum.

Vinegar itself, regardless of the origin, lowers the blood sugar response to a meal, improves the glucose tolerance, and even increases the satiety of a meal when taken before or during the meal. Acetic acid is the key here, so rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and even white vinegar will work just as well as the best balsamic vinegar. But some benefits are unique to balsamic vinegar:

  • Balsamic vinegar inhibited LDL oxidation and macrophage accumulation to a greater extent than rice wine vinegar. In other words, balsamic vinegar – regular old stuff purchased at a Japanese supermarket – may inhibit atherosclerosis.
  • During simulated digestion of meat, melanoidins that arise during traditional balsamic vinegar fermentation reduced lipid peroxidation and heme iron absorption.

All this data is beginning to make that pre-dinner salad with olive oil and balsamic look pretty appetizing, eh? I imagine marinating one’s meat in a balsamic vinegar solution would also have beneficial effects on lipid oxidation.

Verdict: Primal (so long as you don’t eat it with bread!).


Unlike most other nuts, chestnuts are relatively low in fat and high in starch. They’re also quite low in phytic acid, so the whole mineral absorption issue won’t affect your enjoyment of chestnuts. Chestnuts are high in carbs, so treat them more like sweet potatoes or white potatoes than almonds or macadamia nuts – as an ideal post-workout snack, perfect for replenishing depleted glycogen stores. Also, because chestnuts are, well, nuts, they offer a pleasantly nutty taste. Some folks are even making chestnut protein powder pudding. I gotta say, it looks pretty delicious.

As far as micronutrients go, chestnuts are notable for their vitamin C, copper, and manganese content. If you’re low on any of these nutrients, chestnuts may be a useful addition.

Roasted on an open fire, cracked and eaten raw off the tree, or whipped into a Neolithic protein powder slurry, chestnuts are solid choices.

Verdict: Primal.

Apricot Kernels

There was an episode of GI Joe (yes, I’ve seen a few episodes in my day) from way back where a giant blob was ravaging the countryside. Bullets weren’t stopping it and bombs were ineffective, so the Joes make one last-ditch effort to beat the thing: they bombard the blob with apples. You see, apple seeds – and all seeds from the rose family, which includes apples, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and almonds – contain cyanogenetic glycosides, which degrade to hydrogen cyanide upon digestion. In ample enough doses, apple seeds can kill a murderous, otherwise invincible blob. Apricot kernels are among the richest sources of cyanogenetic glycosides, and cases of acute apricot kernel poisoning have been reported. The average apricot kernel contains 0.5 mg of cyanide (PDF), and the average fatal dose for cyanide in humans is around 1.5 mg/kg bodyweight.

Of course, some people claim that certain cyanogenetic glycosides, such as amygdalin, are actually potent cancer fighters. Apricot kernels also have high ORAC values and lots of phenolic content, but they aren’t alone in that respect. Most plant food has some study or other showing high antioxidant activity. It doesn’t make the food essential or even necessarily worthwhile, particularly if it also comes with cyanide. Eat some blueberries, which are cyanide-free and have far less linoleic acid.

Avoid making apricot kernel meal baked goods. Don’t make apricot kernel meal pancakes, however much coconut butter you incorporate. If a few kernels find their way into your mouth, go ahead and chew and swallow. Just don’t make it a staple, and don’t rely on it to beat cancer.

Verdict: Not Primal (avoid poisonous things).


Chitosan comes from the deacetylation of chitin, the substance that makes up exoskeletons. The structural cohesion of insects, crustaceans, and even fungi depend on chitin; that’s the stuff that gets stuck in between your teeth after a meal of shrimp with the shells on (or crickets). It’s unclear whether humans fully (or even partially) digest chitin, as chitinase – the enzyme that digests chitin – isn’t found in all human gastric juice samples. Researchers have found that gastric juices from Westerners (who eat fewer insects and are exposed to fewer chitinous parasites) are less likely to have chitinase, while gastric juices from non-Westerners tend to have more chitinase. The point, though, is that people can produce chitinase that degrades chitin, and if they don’t, eating more chitin-containing foods should stimulate chitinase production.

  • Chitosan supplementation may reduce cartilage destruction in autoimmune arthritis.
  • In healthy men, pre-breakfast supplementation with 3 grams of chitosan increased fecal excretion of dioxins and PCBs, two prominent types of xenoestrogenic compounds found in most modern diets.
  • A chitin-glucan supplement (extracted from fungi) lowered oxidized LDL in humans. Oxidized LDL is likely causally related to atherosclerosis (as opposed to just plain ol’ LDL), so this could be a helpful supplement for people at risk.

When I’m presented with a shell-on shrimp, I do one of two things. If it’s a massive jumbo shrimp, I’ll usually remove the shell. If it’s a smaller, more manageable shrimp, I’ll eat the entire thing without blinking. The legs are my personal favorite, particularly if they’ve been crisped up in a bit of butter. So yeah, I eat a fair amount of chitosan/chitin. Our ancestors (and every other current culture that utilizes the insect kingdom for food) did too. If you don’t believe me, try removing the shells from a few hundred crickets. It’s far easier – and more nutritious – to simply eat the entire thing. Thus, I think it likely that chitosan is an ancestral soluble “fiber” source, one that we should probably incorporate. I’m not so sure we need to take chitosan tablets, but you might consider hoofing it down to the local Oaxacan restaurant for some chapulines (lime and chile crickets) every now and then, or at least nibbling the shrimp shells and legs when no one else is watching.

Verdict: Primal.

Korean Nori

I feel like I’ve been writing about seaweed a lot lately. Is it just me? Am I crazy?

Anyway, several readers have asked about Korean nori, worried about radiation, contamination, and ingredients used.

I wouldn’t worry about radiation from the Fukushima incident. If you look at a map, Fukushima is on the north east coast of Japan, while Korea lies to the west. Preliminary research indicates that ocean currents have directed any contaminated water out across the Pacific Ocean, rather than back toward the Asian mainland. SeaSnax, who sources their nori from Korean waters, recently had their products tested for radiation and heavy metals and got a clean bill of health.

The ingredients are usually okay. Avoid anything roasted in soybean or other vegetable oils, obviously, but I wouldn’t fret too much over a little sesame oil. True, sesame oil is high in fragile linoleic acid. True, linoleic acid has the tendency to oxidize. However, sesame oil is also imbued with natural antioxidants, like vitamin E, and it appears to be more resistant to thermal and light oxidation than soybean oil. The amounts used in most nori snacks are also so low that they shouldn’t cause much trouble. Just avoid products with excessive sugar and any questionable ingredients. In my experience, it’s no trouble finding a relatively pure Korean nori.

The safest bet is to get your own dry roasted nori sheets and add your own seasonings. Brush with bit of olive oil or butter, sprinkle some sea salt, pop in the oven for a few minutes, and you’ve got yourself a solid snack. Use it as a wrap, shred it for salads, or eat it as-is. Add other seasonings, like chili powder or curry powder.

The nutrition facts on the Wiki page (which draws from the USDA database) look incredible until you realize that they’re talking about 100 grams of nori. A single large sheet is about 3 grams. So, if you want to obtain (in percentages of RDA) 78% of niacin, 60% of thiamine, 194% of riboflavin, 475% of folate, 253% of vitamin C, 371% of vitamin K, 28% of calcium, 88% of iron, 85% of magnesium, 100% of phosphorus, 50% of potassium, 35% of sodium, 38% of zinc, and several thousand percent of iodine, along with 41 grams of protein, you’ll have to eat about 33 large sheets of nori. They’re still impressive, and nori is still nutritious, just not the savior you might have assumed.

Verdict: Primal.

That’s all I’ve got this time, folks. If you have any questions about any other foods, supplements, drinks, or condiments, be sure to send them along. Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Thanks for posting about chestnuts! I’ve been trying to find a reliable primal opinion about them for a while.

    Allison wrote on January 15th, 2013
  2. I’m new to Primal/Paleo eating…only about 8 weeks in. Comment by Anders Emil ‘Vinegar is definitely number one reason why I’m primal and not paleo’ has confused me…what is the difference?

    Joanna wrote on January 15th, 2013
    • Paleo, as I understand, literally doesn’t eat anything a caveman wouldn’t have had access too… They probably didn’t know how to make vinegar, most of them probably didn’t have reliable access to salt (depending on locality) and i’m sure a plethora of other things (cheese and alcohol) where as primal is just more of a loosely understood idea of what our bodies can handle digesting optimally, for health… in reality, everyones body is different, and just cause mark says balsamic is “primal” doesn’t mean you should eat it. I eat good quality vinegars because they are good for my body, and because it doesn’t cause a negative reaction in my body, or give me carb cravings, which is the determining factor for all foods I eat. It’s like a cost benefeit analysis for your body, determined by you, based on how you feel. We are the best at fooling our own selves. But that is part of the journey.

      Kevin wrote on January 15th, 2013
      • Thanks Kevin. I obviously have more reading to do! Am enjoying reading Primal Blueprint, and based on these responses, am now learning there is a difference :) I thought it was all one and the same! so its good to get the clarification.

        Joanna wrote on January 16th, 2013
  3. I love the verdict on balsamic….I have to admit I was worried there. I use balsamic a lot….not with bread though :)

    Steve wrote on January 15th, 2013
  4. Dear Mark, I’ve just become aware of and interested in your website and am currently reading the Primal Blueprint book with great interest. BUT…today’s post saying “Keep in mind, readers: once my edict on a particular food has been handed down, once it has been deemed Primal or not Primal, the word is sacrosanct. It must be hewed to, or else you will suffer the consequences”….you are entering control freak territory, SEVERELY diminishing your credibility. Be careful there Mark. Leave things open please. I want to stay interested in this.

    Read more:

    Ancy wrote on January 15th, 2013
    • Ancy, I was being sarcastic. Just having a laugh.

      Mark Sisson wrote on January 16th, 2013
      • I got the sarcastic part and derived mirth but the plain words read as quite the heavy-handed ministration. That was some powerful literature operating.

        Animanarchy wrote on January 21st, 2013
  5. Does this apply to water chestnuts as well, or are those different?

    ben wrote on January 15th, 2013
    • Those are a different thing, yeah, theyre not related to tree chestnuts

      cTo wrote on January 16th, 2013
    • Horse chestnuts are apparently poisonous and overly bitter to boot, no matter what you do to them. Sadly, all of the chestnut trees near me are horse chestnuts.

      Bill C wrote on January 16th, 2013
  6. Wow I’m going to try chestnuts in my protein power – never thought of that!

    Braden wrote on January 15th, 2013
  7. Joanna- here’s a link to an article Mark wrote on that subject dated 11/12/08.
    Good question- was wondering that myself.

    john wrote on January 15th, 2013
    • Thanks for your response John, I’ll definitely have a look. I’m reading the Primal Blueprint atm.

      Joanna wrote on January 16th, 2013
  8. Balsamic vinegar (at least the cheap stuff), can sometimes have quite a bit of sugar in it to mimic the flavor found in the best quality stuff. I’d read the label before you buy.

    Some are fine, just be aware.

    Drumroll wrote on January 16th, 2013
  9. My wife and I each ate 8-10 organic apricot kernels twice a day for years. I never got sick. Now we have gone a few years without them. We have experienced no noticeable difference in our health.

    David Marino wrote on January 16th, 2013
  10. Strongly disagree on the apricot kernels. I have a friend that fought cancer for 2 years via traditional methods, got sick of it and went on just B17. Cancer is completely gone.

    Did you know that if you give an ape (or most animals in captivity) a peach or apricot, they will discard the flesh and go straight for the kernel?

    One more anecdote: I have one grandma who has always thought apple seeds are poisonous… she has tons of health issues including cancer. My other grandma has eaten the entire apple her whole life (likes the taste) and is healthy as a horse.

    Check out this video:

    Basically when people say there is no evidence that amygdalin cures cancer it’s because there is no money in it like there is in cancer drugs/treatments.

    Dave wrote on January 16th, 2013
    • Three things:
      – Anecdotes tend to be of little worth as evidence. Cancer is something that incorporates many factors – oxidative stress, vitamin, mineral, pesticide, toxin intake, normal kind of stress… your anecdotes give far too little information to rule out ALL of those factors (as well as combinations of those factors) in favor of amygdalin.

      – Some evidence is needed for the
      animals in captivity claim.

      – There is plenty of money to be made in selling amygdalin. Just like there is plenty of money to be made selling herbs and other supplements. These products can’t be patented the way drugs can, but the potential profit margins are still huge.

      P.S. I used to think the way you do, I really did. But eventually I realized that these sort of statements make little sense. They’re convenient, but meaningless once you stop and think a bit more critically.

      Jonathan wrote on January 16th, 2013

    cTo wrote on January 16th, 2013
  12. Glad to hear all the benefits of my beloved balsamic (and apple cider) vinegar!!! Awesome, thanks

    Meredith wrote on January 16th, 2013
  13. Does anyone know if chitin can be broken down the same way as animal connective tissue in hot water?

    Dalton K. wrote on January 17th, 2013
  14. Hello, I would like to subscribe for this website to obtain most up-to-date updates, thus where can i do it please assist.

    Zuupdesign wrote on January 17th, 2013
  15. Hi Mark – Great post. One quick question, given that Balsamic Vinegar contains sugars, doesn’t that make it non-Primal, or at least something you should eat in limited quantities?

    Canuck wrote on January 21st, 2013
  16. Since I have moved to South Korea I eat more seaweed than is natural for any one person. Instead of “sushi” (or kimbap for Koreans) I use it like my friends here -take a small sheet in your chopsticks and lay it on top of some food (rice, mashed sweet potato, etc), wrap it with the chopsticks and shove it in your mouth. DELICIOUSSSSS.

    Jase wrote on January 28th, 2013
  17. Hi! Great post, I’ve been having doubts about vinegar for so long. But my questios is, what about calcium? I heard and read that vinegar makes your body loose calcium :/

    Cavegirl hug!

    DeboraPaleopez wrote on July 5th, 2013
  18. You mention eating chestnuts cracked and raw off of the tree, but I thought raw chestnuts were poisonous. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Kat wrote on August 11th, 2013
  19. Re the balsamic: what do you all think about flavored white balsamic vinegars? I enjoy drizzling a peach one over full fat Greek yogurt. Per the company that sells it, it contains no sugar, but since it’s sort of sweet and tastes like peach it clearly has peach juice in it. I say a little is ok, but what do you think?

    LH wrote on August 28th, 2014
  20. This article should say ‘there has been one report’ of apricot kernel toxicity, not reports, since the pubmed report of toxicity that is linked to is the only one in the database.

    Only the beta-glucosidase enzyme can break down the bonds of amygdalin, releasing its constituent molecules :glucose and the toxic cyanide and benzaldehyde. However, the body contains only trace beta-glucosidase, so most amygdalin is excreted intact in the urine, the cyanide unreleased and inert. Cancer cells, on the other hand, contain 100 to 3000x more beta-glucosidase than normal cells. Studies by Kanematsu Sigiura at Sloan Kettering and other studies have proved that it works. A handful of highly questionable studies casted doubt on the successes and the treatment was marginalized as inconclusive.

    The reason no one has ever died from seed consumption is that cyanide metabolizes immediately. The only people who have ever experienced significant toxicity are fools who did no research on the subject and consume many times more seeds than are needed, and all at once. Only pure, lab-extracted cyanide has ever been used as a poison. Again, no cyanide-containing compounds like amygdalin have ever killed anyone, only extracted cyanide.

    Then you refer to the lethal oral dose, which would require 180 kernels eaten in one second (impossible), and assumes all kernels would be unlocked by beta-glucosidase (impossible). Cyanide plummets in potential lethality when exposure is spread over a matter of seconds and minutes, let alone hours. The reality of the treatment is 5-7 kernels eaten a few times a day across many hours. It is completely harmless.

    I love this blog, but this a really poor treatment of the subject.

    Pat C. wrote on April 9th, 2015
  21. I was worried about the sugar content. My bottle of balsamic goes for about $20 but is sooooo worth it. However, it does have 5 grams of sugar per serving. Some have more or less and I think I should stay away from balsamic glaze. It goes great with everything from salad to just dipping broccoli and cauliflower florets in it.

    Rebekah H wrote on April 14th, 2015
  22. Well, if you have to eat an ass salad, make it a big one. Because a small ass salad definitely won’t satisfy. However, you might actually mean a “big-ass salad” instead of a “big ass salad.” Because I don’t know what the hell an ass salad is, but I do know what a compound adjective is.

    Ima Ho Chang wrote on May 23rd, 2016

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!