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

Every 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 [7] 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.


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 [8], 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 [9]-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 [10]. 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 [11]. Problem is, all those antioxidants [12] 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 [13], 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% [14]. 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 [15]), 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 [16]. Then there are the microwaveable bags themselves, which impart a healthy dosage of PFOA [17] 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 [18] (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 [19] is unequivocally better for moviegoing.

Corn tortillas

I put grains on a spectrum of bad to better, with wheat [20] occupying the former position and rice [21] 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 [22], 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 [23], 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 [24].

Here’s my basic take on the corn tortilla thing: when you’re walking off the mezcal [25] 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 is another grain on the spectrum, just like corn. It’s closer to wheat, though, close enough that the two can enjoy illicit relations [26] 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 [22] cannot and should not eat rye. If you’re trying to avoid gluten [27] 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 [28]). 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 [29] “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.


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 [30] 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?

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 [34] 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 [35], 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 [36] 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 [37].

Sweetleaf itself seems to be a legit product. It was founded by James May [38], 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 [39] suggesting the anti-diabetic, pro-anabolic, anti-autoimmune, and anti-obesity effects of stevia. Since Sweetleaf [40] 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!