Is It Primal? – Pork Rinds, Cottage Cheese, Monk Fruit Sweetener, and Other Foods Scrutinized

Pork ChicharronIt’s time for another edition of “Is It Primal?” Before I begin, though, I want to reiterate that these are just my general recommendations. People ask for my opinion on various foods, and I provide them with an answer. It’s tough and nigh impossible to delineate Primal or not Primal in black and white terms, simply because the suitability of a food depends not only on the composition of that food, but also the context of the person who’s (considering) eating it. I’ll give you the basics, I’ll give you my opinion, and you have to determine the specifics. Sound good? And hey, don’t throw out your expensive electronics after reading this post.

Anyway, today we’re discussing pork rinds, cottage cheese, monk fruit sweetener, sago, and black elderberry syrup. Let’s get to it.

Pork Rinds

Pork rinds have a long and storied history in every pig-eating country. Walk any major Latin American city and you’ll probably come across someone hawking chicharrones. In Canada, they’re scrunchions. In the US, they’re cracklings (usually pronounced “cracklins”). In Britain, they’re pork scratchings. Most Asian countries also have their own form. Wherever you are, though, the pork rind is essentially the same save for whatever seasonings were applied: slices of the skin fried in its own fat as it renders out.

The resultant fatty styrofoam-esque puffs are ubiquitous at mini-marts, truck stops, and ethnic supermarkets. They’re a rich source of protein, but it’s “unusable” and “useless” gelatin that won’t get you “hooge” or “anabolic” due to a lack of essential amino acids (if you listen to most fitness forums). That’s a simplistic way of looking at protein, as I’ve said before. Gelatin is rich in glycine, improves sleep, helps with joint pain, and can actually be protein-sparing. Most of us aren’t eating enough of the whole animal anymore, so the occasional handful of pork rinds can be an easy way to get your gelatin (though I’d say real bone broth, gelatinous cuts of meat like shanks, and even plain gelatin are arguably superior sources).

If you’re worried about seed oils being used as the frying medium, just check the label. You want “pork skin” and “salt,” ideally. If oils were used, they’ll be listed in the ingredients. This is pretty rare, though, as frying a piece of fatty skin in exogenous fat, instead of using the fat inherent to the skin, only costs the producer more money. MSG is often added, too, so watch out for that if you’re sensitive and wish to avoid it.

Some people crush them up and use them as breading for fried meat dishes. You probably don’t want to make this a regular thing, but it’s a nice alternative to standard breading.

The one thing I’m still wondering after all this: why do I keep misspelling “pork” as “prok”?

Verdict: Primal, as long as they’re cooked in their own fat.

Cottage Cheese

Historically, cottage cheese was made from the skim milk left over after butter making. The resulting product was a salty, low-whey, high-casein source of dairy protein rich in branched chain amino acids.

Since it’s mostly casein, people who react poorly to casein will probably want to avoid cottage cheese, too. And then there’s the talk of A1 casein v A2 casein, with the latter being the safer, more “ancestral” type that’s prevalent in Jersey cows (and buffalo, goats, and sheep) and the former being the dangerous, more “novel” type that’s prevalent in Holsteins and other modern breeds. I’m not sure I buy into the essential importance of it for everyone, but it’s something to consider if you think you’re intolerant of dairy in general (because it might be the A1 casein, not the “dairy”). Unless you make it yourself, though, I doubt there’s much A2-only cottage cheese available on the market.

Some of the higher fat cottage cheeses I’ve seen add various thickeners, binders, and emulsifiers, but if that’s an issue for you, a splash of heavy cream in the cottage cheese is a nice way to get around it and add some fat if you like. Blueberries make it even better. Or you can do it like they did in the old days and just eat some butter along with your low fat cottage cheese.

Verdict: Primal, if you do dairy.

Monk Fruit Sweetener

Deep in the forests of Guangxi, shrouded by mountain mists and tended to by mystical centenarians, grows the monk fruit. Its persistent vines studded with heart-shaped leaves curl around whatever they touch, and legend has it that the monk fruit vine sustains its caretakers by enveloping them and transmitting pure life-force directly into their hearts. What about the rest of us? Those who aren’t lucky enough to have a symbiotic relationship with a magical vine? Can we get anything of use from the monk fruit vine?

Maybe. The monk fruit itself appears to have some interesting components, similar to stevia, including a group of triterpene glycosides (called mogrosides) that are sweet but non-caloric. Like stevia, monk fruit mogrosides have some health effects beyond just being sweet without being caloric:

I’d say it’s worth a shot if you’re looking for a non-caloric, natural sweetener, especially if you don’t like the taste of stevia. Seeing as how one study gave dogs up to 3 grams per kg body weight without affecting body weight, food consumption, hematology, blood chemistry, urinalysis, organ weight, or histopathology, the monk fruit extract appears to be fairly non-toxic. And if you have the climate to grow monk fruit, you might try setting up that whole symbiotic relationship/lifeforce exchange thing (perfect for people who telecommute).

Verdict: Primal, especially if you’re okay with stevia.


Sago is palm starch, derived from young palm trees. It’s that stuff you often see people on the nature channel pounding into oblivion in order to render it into a somewhat edible powder. For folks who can’t just waltz into a Whole Foods and buy fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables or whose traditional hunting and foraging grounds have been severely marginalized by corrupt government officials and the large corporations who line their pockets, sago provides a valuable source of carbohydrate calories. Palms can grow where other food crops often cannot, so it’s undoubtedly better than nothing.

The problem is that carbohydrate is basically all sago provides. There’s essentially no protein, even less fat, and almost no micro-nutrition (save for a few measly milligrams of calcium and a little over one milligram of iron). Unless you have no other options, if you’re looking for starch, just eat some tubers. If you have the chance to try a traditional dish that uses sago, like the Malaysian fish sausage known as kerepok lekor, go for it. Just don’t rely on sago unless you have to, especially when plenty of more nutrient-dense starch and carb sources abound.

Verdict: Primal, but probably not worth your time.

Black Elderberry Syrup

I’ve always liked the sound of black elderberry syrup, probably because it sounds like something Bilbo Baggins would pour over his seed cakes. Actual elderberries are slightly toxic, in fact. The seeds, leaves, and twigs of the plant contain glycosides that convert to cyanide in the body, while the fruit flesh itself has other toxic components that must be nullified with heat. That’s probably why elderberries aren’t sold in bins along with blueberries and blackberries, instead generally being found in heated, concentrated syrup form in the health food aisle.

Elderberries do have potential as health boons. Like any other colorful berry, they are extremely rich in polyphenols, for one, and these elderberry plant compounds have been shown to inhibit osteoporosis in a diabetic mouse model and reduce lipid oxidation and oxidative stress. But you can say the same about polyphenols from other colorful plants. Anything unique to the elderberry syrup itself?

I think so. Traditionally, elderberries and their syrups were used as immune assistants. And, as is often the case, modern research appears to confirm some of the older justifications for use of the substance. For instance, it’s been shown to improve resistance against the flu virus. In vitro research shows that elderberry extract is deadly against pathogenic upper-respiratory bacteria (cold) and influenza (flu), and that elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent swine flu infection. That said, a 2010 meta-analysis found that while the efficacy of elderberry extracts and syrups was “promising,” further research is needed.

As for the syrup part of “black elderberry syrup,” I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s sugary, but you’re not pouring this stuff over pancakes. It’s medicinal. You’re taking a teaspoon at a time, maybe a bit more or a bit less, depending on what the label recommends. At most, you’re getting five grams of sugar, which isn’t anything to worry about.

Verdict: Primal and perhaps quite useful in times of (minor) sickness. Just don’t pour it over pancakes (seed cakes from the Shire are acceptable, however).

That’s it for today, folks. If you’ve got questions about other foods, don’t hesitate to write in or leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

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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