It’s time for yet another edition of “Is It Primal?” where I determine and decree the worthiness of various foods. First up, I discuss balsamic vinegar – both types – and explain whether or not it belongs in a Primal eating plan. After that, chestnuts get roasted over the open fire of my analysis. Apricot kernels, those weird little almond lookalikes, are next, followed by chitosan. Finally, I cover the safety and healthfulness of Korean nori snacks. Keep in mind, readers: once my edict on a particular food has been handed down, once it has been deemed Primal or not Primal, the word is sacrosanct. It must be hewed to, or else you will suffer the consequences, which can include such horrors as revocation of your Primal Cred card or banishment to Vegan Island.
There are essentially two primary types of balsamic vinegar. The first, made according to traditional practices and standards, involves reducing grape juice (from grapes grown in specific regions of Italy) down to 30% of volume to form a must, followed by a 12-year fermentation of the must in a variety of wood barrels during which time the flavors and various other bioactive compounds form and develop. This stuff is expensive, going for as much as several hundred dollars a bottle. It’s called traditional balsamic vinegar, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.
The second is balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is made using wine vinegar, caramel, and grape must. Basic balsamic vinegars are technically aged, but very rarely for as long as twelve years. A couple months appears to be the minimum.
Vinegar itself, regardless of the origin, lowers the blood sugar response to a meal, improves the glucose tolerance, and even increases the satiety of a meal when taken before or during the meal. Acetic acid is the key here, so rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and even white vinegar will work just as well as the best balsamic vinegar. But some benefits are unique to balsamic vinegar:
Balsamic vinegar inhibited LDL oxidation and macrophage accumulation to a greater extent than rice wine vinegar. In other words, balsamic vinegar – regular old stuff purchased at a Japanese supermarket – may inhibit atherosclerosis.
All this data is beginning to make that pre-dinner salad with olive oil and balsamic look pretty appetizing, eh? I imagine marinating one’s meat in a balsamic vinegar solution would also have beneficial effects on lipid oxidation.
Verdict: Primal (so long as you don’t eat it with bread!).
Unlike most other nuts, chestnuts are relatively low in fat and high in starch. They’re also quite low in phytic acid, so the whole mineral absorption issue won’t affect your enjoyment of chestnuts. Chestnuts are high in carbs, so treat them more like sweet potatoes or white potatoes than almonds or macadamia nuts – as an ideal post-workout snack, perfect for replenishing depleted glycogen stores. Also, because chestnuts are, well, nuts, they offer a pleasantly nutty taste. Some folks are even making chestnut protein powder pudding. I gotta say, it looks pretty delicious.
As far as micronutrients go, chestnuts are notable for their vitamin C, copper, and manganese content. If you’re low on any of these nutrients, chestnuts may be a useful addition.
Roasted on an open fire, cracked and eaten raw off the tree, or whipped into a Neolithic protein powder slurry, chestnuts are solid choices.
There was an episode of GI Joe (yes, I’ve seen a few episodes in my day) from way back where a giant blob was ravaging the countryside. Bullets weren’t stopping it and bombs were ineffective, so the Joes make one last-ditch effort to beat the thing: they bombard the blob with apples. You see, apple seeds – and all seeds from the rose family, which includes apples, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and almonds – contain cyanogenetic glycosides, which degrade to hydrogen cyanide upon digestion. In ample enough doses, apple seeds can kill a murderous, otherwise invincible blob. Apricot kernels are among the richest sources of cyanogenetic glycosides, and cases of acute apricot kernel poisoning have been reported. The average apricot kernel contains 0.5 mg of cyanide (PDF), and the average fatal dose for cyanide in humans is around 1.5 mg/kg bodyweight.
Of course, some people claim that certain cyanogenetic glycosides, such as amygdalin, are actually potent cancer fighters. Apricot kernels also have high ORAC values and lots of phenolic content, but they aren’t alone in that respect. Most plant food has some study or other showing high antioxidant activity. It doesn’t make the food essential or even necessarily worthwhile, particularly if it also comes with cyanide. Eat some blueberries, which are cyanide-free and have far less linoleic acid.
Avoid making apricot kernel meal baked goods. Don’t make apricot kernel meal pancakes, however much coconut butter you incorporate. If a few kernels find their way into your mouth, go ahead and chew and swallow. Just don’t make it a staple, and don’t rely on it to beat cancer.
Verdict: Not Primal (avoid poisonous things).
Chitosan comes from the deacetylation of chitin, the substance that makes up exoskeletons. The structural cohesion of insects, crustaceans, and even fungi depend on chitin; that’s the stuff that gets stuck in between your teeth after a meal of shrimp with the shells on (or crickets). It’s unclear whether humans fully (or even partially) digest chitin, as chitinase – the enzyme that digests chitin – isn’t found in all human gastric juice samples. Researchers have found that gastric juices from Westerners (who eat fewer insects and are exposed to fewer chitinous parasites) are less likely to have chitinase, while gastric juices from non-Westerners tend to have more chitinase. The point, though, is that people can produce chitinase that degrades chitin, and if they don’t, eating more chitin-containing foods should stimulate chitinase production.
A chitin-glucan supplement (extracted from fungi) lowered oxidized LDL in humans. Oxidized LDL is likely causally related to atherosclerosis (as opposed to just plain ol’ LDL), so this could be a helpful supplement for people at risk.
When I’m presented with a shell-on shrimp, I do one of two things. If it’s a massive jumbo shrimp, I’ll usually remove the shell. If it’s a smaller, more manageable shrimp, I’ll eat the entire thing without blinking. The legs are my personal favorite, particularly if they’ve been crisped up in a bit of butter. So yeah, I eat a fair amount of chitosan/chitin. Our ancestors (and every other current culture that utilizes the insect kingdom for food) did too. If you don’t believe me, try removing the shells from a few hundred crickets. It’s far easier – and more nutritious – to simply eat the entire thing. Thus, I think it likely that chitosan is an ancestral soluble “fiber” source, one that we should probably incorporate. I’m not so sure we need to take chitosan tablets, but you might consider hoofing it down to the local Oaxacan restaurant for some chapulines (lime and chile crickets) every now and then, or at least nibbling the shrimp shells and legs when no one else is watching.
I feel like I’ve been writing about seaweed a lot lately. Is it just me? Am I crazy?
Anyway, several readers have asked about Korean nori, worried about radiation, contamination, and ingredients used.
I wouldn’t worry about radiation from the Fukushima incident. If you look at a map, Fukushima is on the north east coast of Japan, while Korea lies to the west. Preliminary research indicates that ocean currents have directed any contaminated water out across the Pacific Ocean, rather than back toward the Asian mainland. SeaSnax, who sources their nori from Korean waters, recently had their products tested for radiation and heavy metals and got a clean bill of health.
The ingredients are usually okay. Avoid anything roasted in soybean or other vegetable oils, obviously, but I wouldn’t fret too much over a little sesame oil. True, sesame oil is high in fragile linoleic acid. True, linoleic acid has the tendency to oxidize. However, sesame oil is also imbued with natural antioxidants, like vitamin E, and it appears to be more resistant to thermal and light oxidation than soybean oil. The amounts used in most nori snacks are also so low that they shouldn’t cause much trouble. Just avoid products with excessive sugar and any questionable ingredients. In my experience, it’s no trouble finding a relatively pure Korean nori.
The safest bet is to get your own dry roasted nori sheets and add your own seasonings. Brush with bit of olive oil or butter, sprinkle some sea salt, pop in the oven for a few minutes, and you’ve got yourself a solid snack. Use it as a wrap, shred it for salads, or eat it as-is. Add other seasonings, like chili powder or curry powder.
The nutrition facts on the Wiki page (which draws from the USDA database) look incredible until you realize that they’re talking about 100 grams of nori. A single large sheet is about 3 grams. So, if you want to obtain (in percentages of RDA) 78% of niacin, 60% of thiamine, 194% of riboflavin, 475% of folate, 253% of vitamin C, 371% of vitamin K, 28% of calcium, 88% of iron, 85% of magnesium, 100% of phosphorus, 50% of potassium, 35% of sodium, 38% of zinc, and several thousand percent of iodine, along with 41 grams of protein, you’ll have to eat about 33 large sheets of nori. They’re still impressive, and nori is still nutritious, just not the savior you might have assumed.
That’s all I’ve got this time, folks. If you have any questions about any other foods, supplements, drinks, or condiments, be sure to send them along. Thanks for reading!
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.