It’s been awhile since we’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? I had thought I’d exhausted the pool of foods and supplements for the “Is It Primal?” series, and that I’d be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Well, I was wrong. The questions about specific items have been pouring in unabated, and today it’s time to cover the next round of questionable foods. First up are nut milks, a perennial favorite of the dairy-free paleo world. Then I cover the widely used root with purported aphrodisiac qualities, maca, followed by stinky, smelly, grimy, pungent fermented tofu. There’s that word – “fermented” – that always makes us stop and reconsider a food. After that, I explore the suitability of azomite, a garden soil amendment and livestock feed supplement that some humans use as a mineral supplement. Last up are glass noodles made from mung bean starch.
The nut milk area is that rare grocery store intersection of otherwise disparate dietary persuasions where strict paleos sporting Cordain print Ts (not sure if such a thing exists but it should), board shorts, and bleeding callouses awkwardly butt heads with vegans looking for something to pour over their quinoa-hemp-sprouted lentil granola. Whatever their background, most people turn to nut milks for what they do not contain – casein, lactose, saturated fat, and the like – rather than for what they contain. And let’s face it: nut milks aren’t very nutrient dense. A mere handful of almonds goes into the average jug of store-bought almond milk, and you’re not even getting everything the almond itself offers. You’re getting but a crude extract.
Store-bought nut milk, in my experience, is just cloudy water. This could all be solved if nuts would just grow breasts, but I don’t see that happening (although that opens up a huge opportunity to GMO researchers).
Verdict: Primal, but why bother?
Maca root is, well, a root that hails from the Peruvian Andes. It’s actually a member of the brassica family, along with broccoli, cabbage, kale, and other similar vegetables. In Peru, maca root was traditionally used as a root vegetable (like a turnip or radish), as well as for its pharmacological properties as an aphrodisiac and subtle stimulant. Incan warriors, the stories say, would use ample amounts of maca root as a preworkout booster before battles.
Does it work?
Yeah, there’s good evidence that it’s an effective adaptogen, with habitual Andean consumers of maca showing lower levels of the inflammatory cytokine IL-6 and better general health. Adaptogens are substances that improve and support the body’s natural regulation of stress. Rather than push you in one direction regardless of your health status, they right the ship. You’re still doing the work. The adaptogen is simply helping you do it. If a heightened stress response is required for health, an adaptogen will theoretically enable that. If a lowered stress response would help more, it’ll enable that too. So maca isn’t working like Viagra. It’s not forcing the issue. It’s helping you deal with the stressors that may be inhibiting your sex drive without actually affecting the reproductive hormones.
Maca has an oddly malty taste that some enjoy and some find repugnant. If you add it to a smoothie, including some cocoa powder can really make the maca more bearable. I’d shy away from raw maca and opt for gelatinized (cooked) maca, since that’s how it’s traditionally been consumed.
There are two kinds of stinky tofu. There’s tofu that’s been left out and forgotten underneath the dorm room bed of some college freshman “trying out” vegetarianism (and probably Buddhism) for half a semester. Don’t eat that. Definitely not Primal. There’s also fermented tofu, tofu that’s been deliberately inoculated with probiotic bacteria and left to ferment and complexify and, yes, develop a particular odor. Though it’s soy and tofu and these are usually off limits, the fermentation muddles what would normally be a cut and dry dismissal.
That’s fermented soy in general. What about stinky tofu? Stinky tofu has an impressive variety of probiotic bacteria, but we know very little about the potential therapeutic (or toxic) effects of the species therein. Several novel strains have been isolated from stinky tofu brines, strains that have never been studied or found in other foods. Chances are they’re safe and perhaps even helpful, since stinky tofu is a traditional food with a solid history of safe consumption and other fermented foods are beneficial. But we can’t know for sure.
Should you eat it? Industrial stinky tofu often gets a quick one or two day vinegar brine akin to mass-produced pickles. It’s stinky but not technically fermented, so steer clear. If you’re going to splurge on some stinky tofu at a Chinese restaurant, try to confirm that it’s the legit stuff and then give it a whirl.
Verdict: Not Primal, but worth trying the real stuff if you come across it.
Millions of years ago, settling volcanic ash joined with mineral-rich river water in an ancient seabed to form azomite, a trademarked silica ore extracted from a Utah mineral deposit whose unique geologic history gives it an interesting mineral composition. A teaspoon of the stuff represents a veritable who’s who of trace minerals (PDF), making it quite attractive to certain parties interested in upping their mineral intake – especially the hard-to-find minerals that don’t come in your average supplement. The Weston A. Price Foundation calls it a superfood.
It’s not sold for human consumption, however. It is sold for livestock feed supplementation, indicating that mammals can consume it safely enough, but I don’t know – I plan on living way longer than a cow, a goat, or some chickens somewhere. I don’t base my safety assessments on whether or not a goat can eat it without keeling over. That said, it’s probably a good source of minerals, including the trace ones whose health effects we don’t know much about but which may be important and crucial. Its composition may be similar to the dirt and dust we accidentally consumed as wild humans living and eating outside, so I suppose there’s an argument for a light dusting on the salad every now and then. Then again, the real “benefit” from dirt lies in the steady exposure to low levels of soil-based bacteria; azomite is sterile and lifeless and a poor source of these probiotics.
Verdict: Not Primal. Maybe useful, probably safe, inadequate evidence either way.
Mung Bean Starch Glass Noodles
Right off the bat, this one has a few hits against it. First, they’re noodles, and noodles are usually advised against. Second, they’re made from refined starch, which we tend to avoid if we can. Third, the starch is derived from a legume, a food group that’s off the Primal menu for the most part. And yet despite all those strikes, I’m generally supportive of glass noodles while eating Primal. How can this be?
The noodle is just a medium of energy delivery. It’s not inherently bad.
Mung beans are an excellent source of resistant starch. You know, that starch that doesn’t really act like most starches. That starch that doesn’t spike blood glucose, that actually improves our ability to tolerate glucose and increases insulin sensitivity. If you want to hear more about resistant starch and why you should probably be eating it, just read the Definitive Guide to Resistant Starch I wrote a few months ago. Resistant starch explains why in a recent study into the glycemic index of six different Thai noodle and two rice varieties, glass noodles elicited the lowest GI response of all.
Mung bean starch is just that – starch. The protein is removed during the starch refinement process and with it, the lectins, phytic acid, and other potential antinutrients. Mung bean starch shouldn’t pose any issues in that respect.
Other types of glass noodles are made from other starch sources that may not be as beneficial as mung bean starch. Just look at the ingredients. They should read mung bean starch and water, nothing else.
That’s it for today, folks. What do you think? Are you going rush out and try something new, or throw something out? Did I crush any dreams?
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.