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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Feb

Is It Primal? – Popcorn, Corn Tortillas, Rye, and Other Foods Scrutinized

popcornEvery so often, people ask about foods that are clearly not Primal. While the more diehard among you might expect me to ignore and lambast these fine folks, I think this is the wrong tactic. We can’t have any sacred cows (except, perhaps, grass-fed ones) in this business; we must always be willing to examine our beliefs and explore “forbidden” foods. If some of them turn out to be not so bad – or even beneficial – we end up with even more choices. And that’s generally a good thing to have. Plus, even though most of the questionable foods may not end up getting “Primal approval,” at least we’ll be more informed and better prepared to make good choices when we decide to “stray” or cheat. Because cheating is going to happen. Because the 80/20 rule is a good rule to follow. Why not know what we’re getting into? Why not lean toward harm reduction, even as we eat something that isn’t exactly Primal?

That’s ultimately what this ongoing series is all about.

Popcorn

It’s an American tradition, isn’t it? You fork over thirty bucks for a pair of movie tickets, trundle into the theater, and head directly to the concession stand for a gallon of Icee, some nachos, a box of Junior Mints, and a large buttered popcorn (with free refills). For many people, moviegoing just isn’t the same without the feed. As Primal Blueprinters, I’m sure you can handle yourselves at the cinema. The Icees, the nachos, the candies don’t really interest or tempt you – you’ve snuck in a BPA-free container of roasted lamb leg, after all – but the popcorn calls to you. For one, sometimes they use real butter as a topper. For two, most places still pop it in actual coconut oil. For three, it’s salty and, let’s face it, delicious.

Popcorn has gotten some press as of late as a great source of polyphenols. Problem is, all those antioxidants are located in the hull of the kernel, that brown, flaky carapace that gets lodged between teeth and embedded in throats. The hull is also made up of insoluble fiber, which can add bulk to your stool, but it’s not the most digestible nutrient around. If you’re not digesting it, are you really getting the popcorn phytonutrients?

Corn has phytic acid, which can chelate certain minerals in the gut and prevent your absorption of them. However, heat treatment of dried corn reduces phytic acid by up to 52%. Since popping corn requires around 450 ºF of heat, you should be reducing at least a fair bit of phytic acid in the process. They do have a low-phytic acid “mutant corn” that could be a better alternative (PDF), but it’s mostly reserved for animal feed.

Microwaved popcorn is definitely bad. It’s flavored with diacetyl (fake butter flavor), an additive that may exacerbate amyloid plaque progression in Alzheimer’s disease. Then there are the microwaveable bags themselves, which impart a healthy dosage of PFOA to the popped corn. PFOA is a synthetic surfactant also used in Teflon products (and microwaveable popcorn bags). It’s carcinogenic and, upon introduction into the environment (or our bodies), it persists indefinitely.

Verdict: Not Primal, but it’s not the worst cheat snack you can have. If you’re buying at a movie theater, make sure they pop it in coconut oil and add real butter (not butter-flavored soy oil). If you’re doing it at home, use a good pot with ghee or coconut oil. And stay away from microwaved popcorn at all costs. But roasted lamb is unequivocally better for moviegoing.

Corn tortillas

I put grains on a spectrum of bad to better, with wheat occupying the former position and rice sitting at the latter spot. Corn’s somewhere near the middle, closer to rice than to wheat. It’s got zein, a prolamine that bears some similarity to gluten, but it’s not as reactive as gluten in most people (unless there’s a “zein-free” movement sweeping the nation of which I’m unaware). It’s not very nutritious, but then again, neither is rice. So, what’s the deal?

Corn tortillas are probably the best way to consume corn. By their very definition, corn tortillas are subjected to nixtamalization, an ancient form of corn processing that reduces antinutrients like phytic acid, unlocks B-vitamins like niacin, and fights back against mycotoxins. It also increases the available protein content of the corn while increasing the bioavailability of the calcium. In other words, it makes a fairly nutritionally-poor food a bit more nutritious – not all that important for those reading those, who likely have access to a wide range of nutrient-dense foods, but vital for populations who relied on corn for a large portion of their food intake. For us, it makes corn tortillas less problematic.

Even “better” are sprouted corn tortillas, which you’ll probably have to go out of your way to purchase. I don’t buy them, because I only eat corn tortillas when I’m out and my fancy is struck, and Tito’s Taqueria probably isn’t going to have sprouted tortillas. When I do tacos at home, I typically just use lettuce wraps or Primal Tex-Mex tortillas.

Here’s my basic take on the corn tortilla thing: when you’re walking off the mezcal sweats on a Puerto Vallarta night and you come upon a vendor serving up lengua and birria and cabeza tacos on corn tortillas, don’t ask the dude for a lettuce or cabbage wrap. Don’t probe your addled brain for the Spanish pronunciation of “GMO.” Just take the tacos, get extra hot sauce and cilantro, and put them in your mouth. Okay, fine – remove the second tortilla layer if you must.

Verdict: Not Primal, but sometimes you just have to do it.

Rye

Rye is another grain on the spectrum, just like corn. It’s closer to wheat, though, close enough that the two can enjoy illicit relations and produce viable gluteny offspring. Rye contains gluten, albeit a weaker form of it. It’s still gluten, though, and celiacs and the gluten-sensitive cannot and should not eat rye. If you’re trying to avoid gluten for general health, like I am, you’ll also want to avoid rye.

Another reason that many people avoid wheat, their gluten-sensitivity status notwithstanding, is a lectin called wheat germ agglutinin, or WGA. WGA can perforate the stomach lining and interact with insulin receptors, among other interesting effects (which I wrote about here). Sounds like another reason to choose rye over wheat, eh? Well, despite the fact that you don’t have to make that decision (hint: you can choose neither), rye (and barley, for that matter) has a lectin that strongly resembles WGA “with respect to [its] chemical, physical, biological and immunological properties.” In other words, rye has its own form of WGA that probably acts pretty similar on our bodies and our guts.

Some folks get test results showing that they’re “wheat-intolerant” without being intolerant of rye. That’s fine. Just be careful if you do decide to stray and snack on rye bread; most rye breads are cut with wheat flour, since making a pure rye loaf apparently takes some culinary knowhow, and the resultant product – being dense and heavy and dark – isn’t quite what most people expect from bread. I’d also be leery of considering rye harmless, as I suspect that the real reason people don’t seem to complain much about rye is that it’s a virtual rarity when compared to the ubiquitousness of wheat. Besides pumpernickel and the odd chance you have a Reuben sandwich, just how often do you come across rye?

Verdict: Not Primal.

Wasabi

Whenever a noxious, overly complex food or condiment that “takes some getting used to” arrives on my plate, I tend to assume that it must contain some incredible health benefit, or else why the heck would anyone ever think to start eating it? Wasabi is no different. Possessing a unique hotness that affects the nasal passageways more than the tongue, wasabi grows naturally in Japan, where it’s been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. Nowadays, it’s used in Japanese cuisine, particularly with sushi. A dollop of the green grated wasabi root atop a slice of mackerel sashimi with several drops of soy sauce is pretty much close to perfection, I gotta say.

So, I obviously approve of the stuff, but what’s so great about it? Since it was a traditional medicinal herb, what are the potential health benefits?

  • 6-MSITC, a major bioactive compound derived from wasabi root, possesses “anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-platelet, and anti-cancer” properties. Unlike common over the counter NSAIDs, which tend to inhibit both COX-1 and COX-2 (major inflammatory enzyme pathways), it inhibits only COX-2.
  • A wasabi leaf extract was able to suppress oxidative stress and the resultant DNA damage in H. pylori-infected gerbils subjected to physical stress.
  • Grated wasabi used in a marinade can protect the food from bacterial contamination.

And it’s one those things that only a human could learn to love, which is what’s so great about it. You could give a dog wasabi twenty times and it would never learn to enjoy it. What is it about humans that we’re able to turn culinary misery into hedonistic bliss? Who was the first person to grate some wasabi root over a piece of raw fish, pop it into his mouth, and think it was a good idea? I don’t know, but I’m glad it happened.

Plus, wasabi is a great way to get a few good laughs at the expense of naive, avocado-loving children. “Oh, that? That’s guacamole. Try a spoonful!” It always works.

Verdict: Primal.

Sweetleaf Flavored Stevia

I’ve discussed stevia before and given my full approval. That hasn’t changed, but what about Sweetleaf flavored stevia, which includes “natural flavors”? Natural flavors have gotten a bad rap in some circles because they can sometimes refer to MSG, which some folks try to avoid. But the natural flavors that contain MSG are in foods where the umami unctuousness makes sense: your crispy chips, your ranch dressings, your processed salty snacky carby junk. It just doesn’t make sense to stick MSG in some lemon-flavored stevia. Unless you’re a fan of fish sauce in your lemonade, the two flavors would simply clash.

So I wouldn’t worry about natural flavors in Sweetleaf. They’ll likely be made up of essential oils, extracts, and other similar compounds.

Sweetleaf itself seems to be a legit product. It was founded by James May, who fell in love with the herb in 1982 after a Peace Corps volunteer brought some back from South America and let him try it. After 25 years of battling regulation and industry opposition, in 2008 he finally succeeded in getting the FDA to authorize stevia as GRAS – generally recognizable as safe. Before the GRAS decision, you had to buy stevia as a topical lotion or nutritional supplement, but now, it can be sold on store shelves as a healthy sweetener. And healthy it is.

In my previous stevia post (linked above), I showed that not only is stevia harmless as a non-caloric sweetener, it actually possesses significant health benefits. Well, the evidence in favor of stevia keeps coming in. Most recently, Suppversity went over the latest research suggesting the anti-diabetic, pro-anabolic, anti-autoimmune, and anti-obesity effects of stevia. Since Sweetleaf is pure stevia leaf extract with no other sweeteners added for bulk (like erythritol), you’re not getting diluted stevia. You get all the bioactive compounds that have the health benefits.

It’s a nice story, a good company, and a solid product made by a good man who was instrumental in making stevia widely available in this country (even going up against the likes of Donald Rumsfeld), so I think it’s a worthy addition to your sweetener arsenal.

Verdict: Primal.

That’s it for today, folks. If you’ve got any more foods you want scrutinized, please, send them along and I’ll do my best to address them. 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. I save bacon grease and make my popcorn in that! My mom taught me that many, many years ago and to this day, it makes the best popcorn E.V.A.H!!!!

    Peggy wrote on February 12th, 2013
  2. Thanks for this post. I often wondered about popcorn popped in virgin coconut oil. I use a cast iron pan on the stove. Would you please comment on xylitol. I’ve used it in the past as it was promoted as a healthy alternative to sugar; however, recently I’ve been reading a lot of negatives regarding the processing. I no longer use it because I’m not sure. I would appreciate your comment.

    Evelyn wrote on February 12th, 2013
  3. Mark, I read your posts every release and enjoy them immensely. I recommend them to friends and clients. And I’m finally getting around to saying thanks! Great work with your inspirational attitude and well researched posts. Today I was just so thrilled you gave Sweetleaf Stevia the thumbs up, as I have read conflicting information about stevia. Very happy to be able to continue to enjoy it.

    Kylie wrote on February 12th, 2013
    • I’ve also read a lot of conflicting information. Does anyone have any good resources they could share?

      Chad wrote on February 19th, 2013
  4. Balanced Bites has some strong opinions about stevia – see here for blog about Truvia. You don’t specify about green vs white stevia above – thoughts?

    Cledbo wrote on February 12th, 2013
  5. That was a GREAT article. I am celiac so totally gluten free and mostly corn free too because of reactions. I am curious about “grains” that are not really grains: quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat and teff, which I think is actually a grain but it’s protein profile is very high and apparently it is very healthful. I would LOVE to see a primal vs. not primal verdict on these grains. I am planning to do a major low carb overhaul based on the primal diet with some omissions for yoghurt (I know many do not agree with yoghurt but I am afraid to have no dairy calcium source). Anyway my research is stating that I could eat these grains in portion control once baby weight is off without it sparking cravings, but I would love the primal perspective on it as there are so many different approaches and opinions.

    Sarah wrote on February 12th, 2013
    • i’m pretty sure he did quinoa and different varieties of rice before (white, brown, wild, etc…) Just use the handy search bar up top and you should find your answers.

      jrVegantoPrimal wrote on February 13th, 2013
  6. Rye whiskey, on the other hand, totally gluten-free. We have an awesome local one that actually tastes like grain, if you can imagine that in a good way. (That’s the white liquor straight from the still, too!)

    Xenocles wrote on February 12th, 2013
  7. Wasabi is primal if you can get the actual vegetable itself and grind it yourself. And by the way, when you do that, it becomes much less of a sinus-clearing food.
    I would hesitate to call the stuff you get in tubes primal, as it contains added sugar and other nasties.

    Boo wrote on February 12th, 2013
  8. http://titostacos.com/ I thought I saw you in line there Mark :)

    Asplode wrote on February 12th, 2013
  9. Two words: wasabi powder. Add water a little at a time until desired consistency an let the tears flow. Just make sure it’s 100% pure.

    And I agree that when in Mexico, If you’re not eating fresh corn tortillas you’re insane. Tacos al pastor. Or even better, the stewed offal variety pot…

    Graham wrote on February 12th, 2013
  10. I am on a zein-free diet, alas.

    Laura wrote on February 12th, 2013
  11. I have one of the pickiest guts known to mankind. It tolerates very few carby foods, and it is very happy when I put popping corn in a brown paper lunch bag with a slab of coconut oil, on a (tough) plate, put it in the nuker, stand (way) back and let it rip. Then I add butter and popping salt. I think corn is closer to my roots than rice–at least that’s what my personal gut-ometer tells me. And, hey, since this site is about making our own health decisions…I vote for popcorn once in a while.

    DThalman wrote on February 12th, 2013
  12. what about quinoa??

    lisa wrote on February 12th, 2013
  13. Ingredients from a small pack of wasabi given to me with my sashimi in Sydney, Aus. Mind you, it was made in Japan:
    Hydrogenated corn syrup, water, horseradish, mustard, high fructose corn syrup, sunflower oil, soy finer product, salt, rapeseed oil, spice extract, emulsifier (sucrose eaters of fatty acids(e473)), beta- cyclodextrine(e459), aluminium potassium sulfate(e522), artificial colours (f.d.&c. Yellow #5(e102), blue #1(e133)).

    Seems like an overkill of ingredients to me!! Haha

    Zander wrote on February 12th, 2013
  14. popcorn ROCKS!

    David hudson wrote on February 13th, 2013
  15. “Plus, wasabi is a great way to get a few good laughs at the expense of naive, avocado-loving children. “Oh, that? That’s guacamole. Try a spoonful!” It always works.”

    Why, just why would you do that to your child? :)

    Mustafa wrote on February 13th, 2013
    • + 1….I was wondering the exact same thing…and was amazed no one had mentioned the possible trust issues toward the reaction-seeking parents?..Could be a scary “fire-mouth” experience to a young one!

      Donna wrote on April 24th, 2013
  16. “turn culinary misery into hedonistic bliss” As someone who periodically enjoys eating something that sets my mouth on fire, makes my eyes water and my nose run, that resonates with me. But, now I’m seriously craving something spicy! And don’t have anything readily available.

    b2curious wrote on February 13th, 2013
  17. Wow this happened to me!!!

    “Plus, wasabi is a great way to get a few good laughs at the expense of naive, avocado-loving children. “Oh, that? That’s guacamole. Try a spoonful!” It always works.”

    First time I was exposed to the sushi, I took a spoonful of wasabi:

    * My eyes glazed
    * My heart stopped
    * Tears flowed
    * I could not speak
    * I thought I was going to die right there

    Friends in the table got really scared. After a while (for me it was hours, real time it was less than one or two minutes) I could react and drink some water

    But now I am a proud wasabi master!

    WildGrok wrote on February 13th, 2013
  18. I’m happy to report that I don’t use any stevia at all these days. Why is that a good thing, you ask? I think stevia is a great food, but not using it means I’ve almost completely weaned myself off of sweets.

    But for those of you still addicted, I highly recommend stevia as a substitute sweetener.

    Doug wrote on February 14th, 2013
  19. Out of all the foods listed above tortilla chips have to be the hardest for me to give up. I try to buy organic whenever possible.

    Bald and Angry wrote on February 15th, 2013
  20. Hi there,
    Great article, thanks. Now, I tend to stay far away from Stevia given the mixed information surrounding it, so I was wondering if you had an alternative to the same. Also, it would be great if you did a couple of YouTube cooking videos for both primal and paleo diets. Let me know what you think.
    Alana

    Alana wrote on March 17th, 2013
  21. Whole Foods sells organic, 100% sprouted corn tortillas made by Food for Life. Made with Lime…Can’t stop eating them. Hummus and bacon. Or uncured salami, gorgonzola, romaine and mustard…And for Wasabi, pure rhizomal powder from http://www.wasabi.co.nz…..

    Barry wrote on November 18th, 2013
  22. This is why I love Mark… He is so REASONABLE- It was b/c of Mark and his 80/20 suggestion that I have been able to follow primal living…otherwise, I would have fallen off the wagon and not done it at all. By staying 80/20 I have greatly improved mental and physical health- It’s hard to find people as intelligent as Mark to follow and I am grateful for finding this site (actually a friend found it and told me about it)

    ella wrote on November 24th, 2013
  23. are corn tortillas really gone through this process? would white wheat tortillas make more sense as they have the bran and phytic acid remove (at the taco stand) ?

    also the weston price foundation reccomends rye freshly ground to use as a starter for other grains to break down phytic acide. it seems to be the healthiest grain

    ej wrote on July 10th, 2014
  24. also i have heard that the wasabi generally served in sushi places is actually horseradish root colored green. can you confirm or deny this?

    ej wrote on July 10th, 2014

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