Is It Primal? – Cod Liver Oil, Sunflower Butter, Mead, and Other Foods Scrutinized

It’s time for another round of “Is It Primal?” This time, I’ll be covering six questionable foods. First, I tackle whether or not cod liver oil has a place in a Primal eater’s pantry (or fridge), and whether standard cod liver oil is worth it. Then, I get into the suitability of mead, that honey wine popularized by the Vikings, followed by maple syrup. Is it another “safer sweetener,” just like honey, or is it sugar masquerading as a health food? After maple syrup, I dig into pectin, binder of jam and jelly; and sunflower butter, also known as sunbutter, a popular replacement for peanut butter. Finally, I scrutinize the food about which literally everyone in the Primal blogosphere has been wondering, the food that’s getting an entire panel at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium, the food that we’ve all been eying in the meat section: camel meat.

Let’s get to it.

Cod Liver Oil

This one’s easy to answer. Cod? It’s a rather lean fish from colder northern waters – definitely Primal. Liver? It’s harder to get more Primal than liver, to be honest. And although processed seed/vegetable/hydrogenated oils aren’t Primal, most other oils, like coconut, olive, and palm, come highly recommended. So, yes, cod liver oil is Primal.

But what we’re really wondering is whether or not we should eat the stuff. Should we?

Perhaps. Cod liver oil is a fish oil, so it’s a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA. If we’re not regularly eating fatty fish, we should be adding a supplementary source of omega-3s to our diets. Cod liver can be that supplementary source. However, cod liver oil isn’t just a way to get omega-3s; it’s also rich in vitamin A and vitamin D. In fact, in cold northern climates that get little sunshine, cod liver oil was (historically) a common way for people to obtain enough vitamin D to avoid rickets and other maladies. I wouldn’t rely on it solely for my vitamin D requirements, but it can provide a nice whopping dose of pre-formed vitamin A for those who don’t eat animal liver.

And as Chris Kresser said, cod liver oil is a sacred superfood for fertility and pregnancy. However, he recommends the fermented cod liver oil from Green Pastures, which is cold-treated, rather than heat-treated, and contains only the vitamin A and vitamin D naturally found in fish liver. Many people suspect other cod liver oil brands use synthetic vitamin A, which acts differently than foods that contain vitamin A.

Verdict: Primal.


If any alcohol is Primal – and I’d argue that moderate alcohol consumption absolutely has a place in many a Primal living plan, including my own – then mead, or honey wine, must also be included. Why?

With evidence of production as far back as 9000 years, mead was likely the first alcoholic beverage produced by humans (that reads a bit like I’m suggesting other animals, or perhaps aliens, produced alcohol before us, doesn’t it?). Even if you don’t accept that admittedly biased source of information (, really?), the fact remains that humans have been eating honey for tens of thousands of years. Somewhere, sometime, Grok must have left a stash of honey out a bit too long and had it ferment on him. After tentatively tasting enough of the bubbly, funny-looking result and enjoying the effects, this would become a regular thing. This is speculation of course, and it doesn’t mean mead is good for us, but I’d argue that we certainly have a long-standing tradition of enjoying fermented honey-based beverages. And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

Seriously, though: if you’re okay with honey and alcohol, mead is a decent option. It’s gluten-free, at least, and contains a fair amount of antioxidant activity (less than red wine, but more than white wine or a disgusting concoction known as “soy-mead”).

Verdict: Primal as much as any alcohol is Primal, especially if it’s the Mead of Poetry, made from the blood of the wise Norse god Kvasi, which turns its drinker into a great poet and scholar.

Maple Syrup

Sugar’s sugar’s sugar, right? That’s often the general message floating around our circle, but I’m not sure it’s entirely correct. After all, fruit has sugar, but it’s also got fiber and phytochemicals and vitamins and minerals, and it’s handled differently in the body than, say, a bottle of fizzy HFCS. Same goes for honey, for which I did an entire post where the basic conclusion was that honey was a “safer sweetener” than plain white sugar. Then again, something being “natural” doesn’t make it healthier, as is the case with agave nectar; a previous “Is it Primal?” revealed that agave nectar is treated just like sugar and HFCS in the body and that raw white sugar actually contains more antioxidants than the vegan sweetheart. Which brings us to maple syrup – where does it stand?

Well, maple syrup defeats agave nectar and white sugar in the antioxidant department, but that’s not very difficult. It’s also been eaten for centuries as a traditional food, perhaps even longer, since the native Americans were producing maple syrup when the Europeans arrived in the Americas. A recent study identified 54 phenolic compounds in real maple syrup, including one dubbed quebecol that actually forms during the process of boiling sap down into syrup. Since honey owes its unique metabolic effects to the presence of dozens upon dozens of phenolic compounds, I would guess that maple syrup is one of the safer sweeteners.

When it comes to sugar, all maple syrups, regardless of the grade, are almost entirely sucrose. Grade B maple syrup, however, is darker, richer, more complex, and contains more minerals (and, probably just like the darker honeys, more phytochemicals). Go for grade B (whose name may change in 2013), and make sure you get real maple syrup, not just “syrup.”

Verdict: Primal limbo, but use caution, as it’s still sugar.


Although it is used to gel up any number of ultra-sweet jams, jellies, and fruit-based desserts that generally aren’t Primal, pectin is an innocent bystander. Sure, it enables the production of sticky sweets, but you can’t really blame pectin for its inherent gelatinizing ability. It’s just a soluble plant fiber, a prebiotic that happens to be a cornerstone of the Smucker’s empire. As such, it has some interesting effects on the human metabolism upon ingestion:

Like with most prebiotics, fermentation of pectin by gut flora can result in the production of butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid with benefits to our metabolic health.

Pectin lowers LDL cholesterol, which may not mean much if it’s not also lowering total LDL-P (particle number), but it probably doesn’t hurt. Oh, and it’s better than wheat fiber at lowering cholesterol.

Pectin also reduces the postprandial insulin and blood glucose responses to meals containing carbohydrates.

Despite the above effects, do I recommend going out and buying pectin packets to use as supplements? Not really. Just eat fruit and vegetables, which are the richest sources of pectin in our diets, and you’ll likely reap the benefits. I suppose you could also try making some low-sugar jam, especially if you’re the type of lucky dog to have an entire forest of wild raspberries at your disposal.

Verdict: Primal, depending on where you get it.

Sunflower Butter

In response to the epidemic of peanut allergy among the nation’s children and the first commercial attempts at a replacement being miserable, disgusting failures, the Agricultural Research Center devised a worthy, safe replacement using sunflower seeds in place of peanuts. However, they didn’t just grind up some seeds, add a bit of salt, and call it a day. They were trying to replicate peanut butter – texture, taste, spreadability, everything – and that meant the use of additives and stabilizers. A 2005 paper (PDF) reveals how they arrived at the optimal sunflower butter: by roasting the seeds in soybean oil, adding salt, lots of sugar, and a healthy dose of hydrogenated cottonseed and canola oils to act as stabilizers. Sounds delicious, huh?

That said, not all sunflower butters are hydrogenated abominations. Health food and quality grocery stores will carry good stuff, or you could just make your own batch. Sunflower seeds, like most other seeds, are definitely Primal, albeit a little high in omega-6 for constant consumption. The thing about sunflower seeds is that they take work to eat. They’re self-limiting. You have to remove the shell and all you get is minimal payoff in the form of a tiny seed. If you’re doing sunflower butter, all you have to do is unscrew the top and you’ll be swimming in the stuff.

Verdict: Primal, but be careful with overdoing it. And watch your ingredients.

Camel Meat

This was my favorite option provided by you guys. Not sure why anyone would wonder about camel meat being Primal or not, but here goes.

Meat is meat, for the most part, and that goes for camel meat. It’s usually treated as a red meat, albeit a tough one that requires braising if you get an older animal (though meat from the younger camels is sweeter and more tender). High in iron, copper, and zinc, camel meat is like most other red meats in mineral content. Though camel meat is fairly lean (I’ve seen estimates of between 4-10% fat), the camel’s hump is almost entirely fat, primarily saturated and monounsaturated. Camel meat is about 44% saturated fat and camel hump fat is 60% saturated (mostly palmitic and stearic acid). I’d imagine you could let your local camel farmer know that you’ll “take all the humps your customers don’t want” and make a killing.

I’ve heard excellent things about the richness of camel milk. If you do dairy and have access to camel milk, try some. It’s incredibly creamy and has even shown anti-cancer effects in vitro.

One word of caution, however: know your source, especially if you plan on eating raw camel liver. You wouldn’t want to be the one guy in your circle of friends who comes down with bubonic plague, would you?

Verdict: Primal.

That’s it for today, folks. Be sure to write in with any other foods you’d like me to scrutinize. Take care and Grok on!

TAGS:  is it primal?

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 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.

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