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

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!

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. The retinol form of vitamin A (in Cod liver oil) can be overdosed so taking too much can be a bad thing.

    David Marino wrote on June 20th, 2012
  2. Hey is this the same as Tej the east African honey wine made with gesho leaves and roots. Tej’s base is pure wild honey from Africa with certain herbs added depending on which side of the Nile you’re on the blue or white side. The Sudanese have a very tasty blend all their own too.

    I’ve tried them both and I like the Tej blue Nile the best.

    apical meristem wrote on June 20th, 2012
  3. I am now completely confused on sunflower subject. DeVincy said no seeds, they are toxic. I asked before about cold-pressed sunflower oil, like they use in Russia. They said too much O6, no-no, no go, even if it is non-refined and used as a salad dressing. But what the difference between non-refined sunflower oil and sunflower butter then????

    Completely mystified.

    leida wrote on June 20th, 2012
    • Sunflower seeds are a whole food, as opposed to the oil, which is pure fat. Since sunflower seeds are somewhat laden with omega 6, it becomes very concentrated in the oil. The seeds, on the other hand, are lower in fat as they contain protein and carbohydrates as well, along with vitamins and minerals. Hope this helps!

      Chris wrote on June 20th, 2012
  4. I’d love to taste the Mead of Poetry…being a poet and a scholar can’t be so bad!

    Kevin A Goldman wrote on June 20th, 2012
    • Odin carried it back in his mouth, though. Bit of an Alicia Silverstone situation goin’ on.

      Lisa wrote on June 21st, 2012
  5. I have heard of gorillas fermenting mangoes and offering them to females during mating season – I suppose alcohol couldn’t get much more primal than that

    Thea wrote on June 20th, 2012
  6. Well, if someone offers me camel meat, I don’t need to worry about whether it’s primal. Just filled with germs.

    I’m curious about kombucha and other fermented drinks. Being short on time, I didn’t search your site yet to see if you’ve covered those. I’m wondering because I’m stuck on the fact that many traditional cultures have fermented drinks. Obviously the original food, for example, milk, is difficult for a lot of people to drink. So, is it okay then to do something to the milk and drink that? Thanks!

    Barb wrote on June 20th, 2012
  7. How about coconut nectar as a sweetener??

    Violet wrote on June 20th, 2012
  8. Found the info on pectin enlightening. I used to make my own jams and jellies. About the only fruit that did not require pectin to thicken it is apple. So now we see that pectin which is found in apple skins is both a source of MCTs and can improve cholesterol. Maybe there was some truth in that old adage an apple a day. We have a scrawny Gravenstein tree. I think I may just return to making applesauce and apple butters. Good post!

    Snauzoo wrote on June 20th, 2012
  9. Can I just convey my astonishment that the Worker Bees found a link to camel plague. That is so random, it would never occur to me to look for it. That was a confounder to me, thanks for the info.

    Teresa wrote on June 20th, 2012
  10. Great post, thanks Mark! Another mead fan here, since moving to Maine with an abundance of meaderies. Everyone I have introduced to mead loves it. Just don’t expect it to taste like wine.

    Actually, as soon as I read this post I opened a bottle I have been saving for some occasion –

    Siobhan wrote on June 20th, 2012
  11. Aren’t all commercially available pectin products derived from corn? Or have corn byproducts in them like dextrose. I’d say that is most def not primal. And the problem with buying even homemade jam from local farms is that they most likely use pectin from corn. Arg!!!!!

    jamiemadrox wrote on June 20th, 2012
  12. Mark, you don’t do any Summer Solstice things? Todays the Summer Solstice, well by my accounts, and what it says on my ecological calendar. Well I’ll be celebrating my day by eating the freshest summer vegetables and fruits. Along with some bison steak! Fresh start of the Summer.

    Michael wrote on June 20th, 2012
  13. Any thoughts on taking unflavored gelatin? Just started Great Lakes brand.

    Amy wrote on June 20th, 2012
  14. years ago, i read a story about an account of an escaped convict in Tasmania around 200 years ago.

    he managed to be rescued by an aboriginal tribe (before they were decimated). one thing he wrote was that for special occaisions the various local tribes used to gather at a place where there were a grove of a kind of Eucalypt whose sap/nectar used to gather in cupped areas near the roots. he described that this “fermented” and was very much enjoyed by everyone!

    i have made mead before, most australian honeys are from eucalypt trees which should not be used as the eucalyptus oil part of the honey ferments as well, making the mead taste like liquid compost!

    have had great success with Macadamia Honey – very rich

    Stewart wrote on June 20th, 2012
  15. -As for non-human produced alcohol – some animals can (and do) consume fermented fruits and nectars in the wild. Check out this article:

    -I tap sugar maples here in Vermont. Interestingly, the difference between the ‘lower’ grade B and the higher grades (Fancy, Medium and Dark grade A) is that the sap that makes grade B has been allowed to sit in the buckets/collecting tank longer before being boiled down into syrup. I’ve heard that its natural bacteria working in the sap that leads it to have the darker color and stronger flavor in the grade B than the sap which is boiled down earlier. Perhaps the extra minerals/phytochemicals are the result of a mild fermentation?

    markkuto wrote on June 20th, 2012
  16. Sunflower butter sounds like a terrible frankenstein concotion. Thanks for pointing out the facts.

    TrainerMike wrote on June 20th, 2012
  17. I want to drink Camel milk right now! I wonder if their fatty humps render into a tasty cooking fat?

    Stark Brandstone wrote on June 20th, 2012
  18. Mead or this maple syrup might have too much sugar or honey in it? Does the label indicated how much sugar content does this one have? i know that it is a good source of antioxidant for the body but would it be better if you will take astaxanthin instead? According to what I read at that astaxanthin is one of the most powerful antioxidant, but I’m willing to try this meaderies even though you said that it doesn’t taste that good.

    Andrea Watson wrote on June 20th, 2012
  19. what’s your view on dairy? I am addicted to yogurt and milky drinks and have very strong cravings and almost compulsive tendencies with this food group….can’t work it out…

    kirsty breen wrote on June 20th, 2012
  20. Camel Milk Cheese?

    Charles Astley wrote on June 21st, 2012
  21. I am just curious what people do with cod liver oil. Do you just add it to a plate of meat and vegetables? Make salad dressing with it? Do you saute or fry things in it?

    SK wrote on June 21st, 2012
    • I just choke mine down… Doesn’t taste all that great and I wouldn’t want to taint the rest of my food with the flavor!

      Abbe wrote on June 21st, 2012
  22. Solstice is certainly perfect timing to mention the beloved mead. :)

    cj wrote on June 21st, 2012
  23. Good to hear mead is primal…I’ve got 4 gallons of mango mead fermenting in the garage, and another 3 gallons of blueberry mead in the refrigerator that’s about a year old…YUM!!!
    (I’ve even taught my daughter how to brew…nothing like passing on something as important as this hobby)!

    Matt wrote on June 21st, 2012
  24. What about gum?

    anon wrote on June 21st, 2012
  25. I would so try camel meat. I like maple syrup, but I don’t use it often. I prefer honey :)

    Lisa wrote on June 21st, 2012
  26. Hi Mark,

    I would like to know how about the king of fruit that can be found widely in Asia–> Durian? Is it primal?

    Ann wrote on June 21st, 2012
  27. What about coconut sugar?

    katie wrote on June 21st, 2012
  28. what about the fact that pectin leaches micronutrients from the diet? I have a great study on this … as does guar gum.

    mc wrote on June 23rd, 2012
  29. Great post! Mead actually dates back 20,000 to 40,000 years ago ( If you are looking for a good mead, B. Nektar Mead is bottled just around the corner from me in Ferndale, Michigan and it is awesome! They have a list on their site of places that carry their stuff in different states. Luckily in Michigan it is 500+ stores. :)

    Stacy wrote on June 23rd, 2012
  30. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the link-back in the mead section. As a fellow paleo/primal person, I would tend to think that mead walks the line on whether or not it is ‘ok’, but honey does go back quite a ways, and there is archeological evidence going back to China 9000 years ago that alcoholic drinks were made with honey, so that much is true.

    Is my site biased? Well, it sort of has to be biased about mead, since the site is dedicated to providing information to mead-lovers. I guess by that standard, this site is biased about paleo/primal! LOL. All the data I list so far as how far back it goes comes directly from archeological discoveries, and the information they post, not speculation on my part. I link my sources whenever I can find them online.

    Thanks again for the shout-out, and for a really good article.

    Vicky Rowe wrote on June 24th, 2012
  31. After tasting organic grade b maple syrup it’s hard to go back to the old stuff. I learned a lot about it here… It’s recommended for the lemonade diet, but I find it to be a great treat on all types of food, too.

    laura wrote on June 24th, 2012
  32. Krill oil – cost FAR outweighs any benefits for me. 

    Nut butters – I have no choice but to avoid as I’ve yet to find a brand which doesn’t contain sunflower, rapeseed or palm oil (or a combo – ‘Sunseed’ is popular. It was invented by Walkers as a ‘healthy’ oil for frying its starchy-tuber based snack products (crisps to me, chips to you) and, as is probably self-evident, is a 50/50 blend of sunflower and rapeseed. 

    I remember being one of the fools (okay f**kwits!) who fell for the agave hype when I tried dieting the CW way about 15 years ago. We have a self-styled diet and fitness guru over here called Nigel Denby (he’s almost our Oz in a way, having been the go-to guy for many a daytime telly presenter. He has his own range of ‘health’ crap, amongst it something called ‘Sweet Freedom’ – part of his ‘Diet Freedom’ range of low-fat, high-carb crap – aka agave syrup/nectar. This is the spiel from his website, actually read the testimonials here: –

    What concerns me most, is that he’s marketing this as ‘the ideal sweetener for diabetics’. I did do a mental ‘face-palm’ at the quote from the guy who mixes it into his oatmeal along with a tablespoon of EVCO! 

    I’m looking to move back to Yorkshire, and have been looking into sources of raw dairy (I was raised on raw milk/cream – never did me any harm!) trying to hunt down raw Channel Island dairy rather than that from Holsteins. 

    Now, I realise dairy is a Primal grey area but I do eat a fair amount (there’s a reason I need it but if I were to explain, you’d think me insane!). Except, according to the BDA, I’m mostly dairy-free (even though I eat feta, mozzarella, roquefort, goats’ cheese, ewes’ milk yoghurt, goat cream, etc.) because the BDA defines dairy as ‘cows’ milk and its products’ – milk from any other ruminant isn’t dairy!

    I’m addicted to sheep yoghurt it has to be said; I’m TRYING to limit it, but it’s nigh on impossible! I know it’s (probably) not Primal, but I don’t give a damn, it’s gorgeous stuff; smooth, creamy, without that acidic sharpness present in cows’ and goats’ yoghurt. It’s naturally more set than cows’ or goats’ (bit like the consistency of Fage/Total). Thankfully there’s only one store chain which sells it (unfortunately, they do offer Internet shopping…). It’s not cheap, though; a 1lb tub is £2.12/$3.31 and only really contains 3 servings. No idea why I can’t get sheep’s cream, though…

    Sorry bleating on again, aren’t I…? Rather baad habit of mine (as are godsawful puns!)

    So, is non-cow dairy preferable to cow dairy, even though it’s not primal…? I do use cows cream a fair bit, for economic reasons; 100ml goats’ cream is 60p/94c; 100ml cows cream can cost as little as 20p. 

    I’ve been emailing dairies which sell raw milk/cream for when I go back home (whenever that is!) can’t find any CI farmers, so it’s Holstein Friesians. I’m just worried it’s going to be prohibitively expensive – but there are so many reasons for going raw (as one farmer I spoke to put it, pasteurised milk is ‘cow pop’. He drew comparisons between Fanta and orange juice (okay, we all know neither’s particularly healthy, but you get the idea)) I’d love to have it at least 3 times a week. 

    Okay, I’ll bugger off now! ;oD

    Sarah wrote on June 28th, 2012
  33. Be careful with Cod Liver Oil. I started taking it about 1-1/2 years ago. Around a year ago, I developed the symptoms of Palmo-Plantar Psoriasis. The skin on my palms and tips of my fingers would blister, peel and crack. Very painful and inconvenient. It has taken me a year through a process of eliination to figure out it was the daily cod liver oil and liverwurst several times a week that was causing it. Doctors could not figure out what was wrong, but I suspect it was a Vitamin A overload. I stopped eating the Cod Liver Oil completely and only eat liverwurst occasionally and am feeling fine now.

    Mule wrote on June 30th, 2012
  34. Living in Quebec, I have this childhood relationship with Maple Syrup… I think it’s an acquired taste… but it is soo good. Traditionally we put it on eggs and ham… real nice, I just had a little on my eggs this morning… its one of my breakfast permutations…

    And yes, b grade is much better taste wise, less shugary, more of the woody taste. The darker grades come from the botom of the verry lar pan they boil the syrup in, thus has more of the solids in it… Yummy…

    Serge wrote on February 11th, 2013
  35. I’ve read that Cod oil isn’t as high grade as some of the other cold water fish oils like salmon and herring etc.
    Cod liver oil is essentially the fore-runner to our omega 3 fish oil supplements, (which none brag about using cod as a source)

    Manny"the health nut" wrote on March 12th, 2013

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