Month: December 2013

The Psychological High Of Foraging

chickcleaverswildfoodismThere is a peculiar difference between the acquisition of food from the supermarket and from the wild.  It isn’t a tangible difference, one that can be quantified and explained away with numbers and statistics.  It’s much more abstract than that.

The difference is a feeling that evades the supermarket harvester and will never reveal itself inside grocery store walls.  It is only felt by those who have a much deeper and more intimate connection to their food.

For the majority of time on this planet, humans have directly relied on the bountiful offerings that earth has provided.  Harvesting involved not only the physical process of acquiring food, but the emotional feelings of achievement and personal fulfillment that went along with it.  Food, while plentiful, was never a guarantee, and it’s not hard to imagine periods of ample feasting, followed by fruitless episodes of fasting.  The vicissitudes of obtaining food, therefore, aligned the body’s biological and psychological needs – the physical requirement for food and the emotional thrill in finding it.

Contrast this scenario with the modern supermarket shopping experience.  The biological requirement for food is easily met, yet the psychological thrill of seeking and discovering that food is extremely diluted (at best).

Going into the grocery store, the shopper already knows, almost precisely, which foods will be there and where they will be found.  Mindlessly perusing the aisles, dodging the other loaded shopping carts, the shopper may never even entertain the thought of where the food comes from, what conditions it grows in, and how it appears to be so neatly manicured on the grocery store shelf.

There is no hunt for the food, no chase, no challenge, no journey, no story to be told.  And because of all this, the psychological high is restrained.  The connection is lost; the process is too easy.

The forager experiences a different adventure altogether.  His food selection is dictated by the natural laws of his ecosystem – not by the global food network.  As an astute forager, he can predict when and where certain foods can be found.  But his experience is almost always enhanced by the discovery of new areas, new patches, new springs, new organisms, new highs.

As an example, mushroom hunting embodies the essence of this psychological high, where each foray is a treasure hunt into a mysterious world within valleys, riverbanks, fields, and forest floors.  The fungal kingdom is a bit less calculable than that of Plantae – always full of surprises, always feeding the forager’s thrill.  The mushrooms in the grocery store?  Not quite the same.

It’s difficult to put into words the specific feeling evoked when discovering new foods in the wild.  It seems that, at least to me, this feeling fulfills an inherent urge deep within the human spirit – to explore this world and participate in the act of accepting its gifts, while giving thanks in return for all that is selflessly given.

As one who experiences both realms, I can say this:  Shopping is predictable; foraging is boundless.  Shopping is taking; foraging is receiving.  Shopping is an activity; foraging is an adventure.  Shopping provides an account; foraging tells a story.  Shopping feeds the belly; foraging satisfies the soul.


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Adam Haritan

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The Problem With Nut Milks (And A Recipe For Acorn Milk)

acornmilkwildfoodismDairy-free milks are skyrocketing in popularity, and the options presented to consumers seem endless.  While nut milks do offer an alternative to those avoiding dairy, there are two areas in which customers would benefit by increasing their awareness:  packaging and additives.

Packaging

When shopping for nut (and seed) milks, most customers place more emphasis on type of milk rather than type of packaging.  Dairy milk is often sold in “number 2” plastic, also known as high-density polyethylene, while nuts milks are not.  Avoiding plastic jugs and opting for the paperboard cartons may seem prudent, but it isn’t always so.

Nut milks, as well as some dairy milks, are traditionally sold in paperboard containers (also known as gable-top containers).  They’re not, however, solely constructed out of paper.  The outer and innermost layers are lined with a chemical plasticizer (“number 4” plastic) known as low-density polyethylene (LDPE).  Without this coating, the paperboard would become soggy and unable to support the liquid.

poly

What’s the issue with this compound?  LDPE takes a very long time to biodegrade in the environment.  It can be recycled, but the EPA estimates that only about 5.7% of LDPE is actually recycled by consumers.  There isn’t a lot of research examining the effects of LDPE on human health, but let’s think about it:  we’re drinking liquid that has been inconspicuously exposed to plastic, sometimes for weeks – a plastic that also requires an extremely long time to naturally biodegrade.  This is just a hypothesis, but if the plastic leaches into the nut milk and we consume this milk, could routine exposure to non-biodegradable LDPE build up inside our bodies, assuming some of it is incorporated into our tissues?  If this is the case, what are the health implications?  We’re all familiar with the endocrine disrupting properties of plastics (BPA containing or not); is LDPE any different?  Milk for thought.

Additives

Look at the ingredient list for most dairy-free milks.  Very rarely do we only see the two most important ingredients: water, and the nut (or seed).  Instead, we’re given a catalog of additives, including vitamins, sugars, thickeners, preservatives, and flavors.  Are they necessary?  Why are they added?

Carrageenan, for example, is a polysaccharide extracted from seaweed that is used as a thickener in many nut milks.  It isn’t as innocuous as one would think.  In one study, researchers found that exposure to carrageenan in concentrations less than those found in the typical diet increased cell death, reduced cell proliferation, and induced cell cycle arrest in human intestinal epithelial cells (1).  In another study, intestinal epithelial cells exposed to carrageenan upregulated the inflammatory response (2).

Of course, these two studies don’t rule out the use of carrageenan completely.  And going back to LDPE – the “number 4” plastic – it may not be the absolute worst thing ever if our milk comes into contact with a synthetic compound that biodegrades at an extremely slow rate.

But we’ve got to ask ourselves this question:  why exactly are these substances in our food supply?  Are they added to benefit human health?  Probably not.  Would our bodies become deficient in a particular substance should they not be included?  Again, probably not.  Do they increase shelf life?  Yes.  Do they make shipping and storage easier?  Yes.  Do they improve flavor and mouthfeel (and sales)?  Yes.  Do most of the benefits accrue to the companies who produce these beverages?  Yes.

If something is added to our food supply, and it’s not there to provide nutritional support, it’s probably not going to be the best thing for our bodies.  Now, I am all for looking at things in the context of the bigger picture, but when the bigger picture becomes inundated with products that have absolutely no traditional use, nor research demonstrating their positive effects on human health, I’ve got to ask myself, “Is this okay?”

If you are on the quest towards optimal and adaptive health, and you feel it’s important knowing what substances your body is routinely exposed to, familiarize yourself with all the things that pass through your mouth.   And then ask yourself, “Is this okay?”

Acorn milk

Not all nut and seed milks present the same problems.  The issues stated above refer mostly to the store-bought varieties, and not to those made at home.  Unless you’re deliberately adding thickeners, highly refined sweeteners, and unmarked natural flavors into your concoctions, home-made nut milks can be quite nutritious and satisfying.

Acorn milk is truly a wild beverage that can easily be made with very little cost.  In order to create the drink, acorns must first be processed (gathered, dried, shelled, leached).  On the final day of leaching, decant the final leaching water (this will not be the water used for milk) and transfer the wet acorn mush to a nut milk bag or cheesecloth, allowing the excess water to percolate into a jar or bowl.  Once the acorns stop dripping, squeeze the cloth or bag to allow any remaining water to drip.  The water you have collected will be used for acorn milk.

On the stove, bring the liquid to a boil.  Once cooled, add in a sweetener of your choice (maple syrup or honey works well), and enjoy.  Any unused liquid can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.


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Adam Haritan

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Traditional Use Of Animals As Medicine

Indianwildfoodism

Credit: Edward S. Curtis, 1910

When thinking of natural medicine, most of us think of plant medicine.  After all, most supplements sold in stores, other than vitamins and minerals, are derived from plants and sold as tinctures, capsules, powders, etc.  But if we’re looking at medicine in the context of a wild food diet, it would be unreasonable to think that all remedies stem from the plant kingdom.  In fact, indigenous cultures across the world utilize natural medicines from many kingdoms, Animalia included.

Today, this practice is not uncommon among modern, domesticated humans, although it may not be so obvious.  For example, gelatin is a popular joint-support supplement, and is derived primarily from pork skins, horses, cattle bones, or split cattle hides.  Fish oil is another highly touted supplement indicated for a variety of conditions, and is obviously derived from the tissues of oily fish.  Gelatin and fish oil are sourced from animals that are used both as food and medicine, thus fulfilling the famous dictum, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

Many indigenous cultures implement extensive strategies that include animals for the treatment of illnesses.  To these individuals, animals are not exclusive sources of concentrated protein, nor just good sources of fatty nourishment.  Their utility extends far beyond the provision of macronutrients, supplying important therapeutic agents as well.

This post will focus on three areas of the world, briefly summarizing the ethnozoology of the cultures within these environments.  It’s important to understand the value that animals contribute to certain groups of people, as some individuals, here in modern civilization, might associate the use of animals with abuse, greed, and waste.  While these terms may accurately describe some conventional methods of animal harvesting, they cannot be generalized to include traditional animal preparation involving responsibility, intention, and care.

Brazil

Home to over 200 indigenous cultures, Brazil is unique in that it possesses between 15-20% of all the world’s biological diversity.  Wild food and medicine are utilized not only by the inhabitants of remote areas, but by those who live in civilization as well.  And as you might guess, animals are important to the medicinal strategies implemented throughout Brazil (1).  Of the 354 animals used as medicine, 157 of them are also used as food (about 44%).

The animals used as both medicine and food can be divided into 6 categories in descending order of use: fish (77 species; 49.0%), followed by mammals (35; 22.3%), reptiles (20; 12.7%), birds (11; 7.0%), crustaceans (9; 5.7%), and mollusks (5; 3.2%).  With many coastal areas, it is no surprise that fish and other aquatic organisms comprise the largest portion of animal medicine in Brazil.

Looking deeper, we find that certain animals are used primarily for medicine, and not so much for food.  The Boa constrictor (B. constrictor), for example, is utilized for rheumatism, lung disease, and thrombosis.  Other animals, however, are used primarily for dietary nourishment, while their various bodily components provide medicine.  The caiman animals, which include small crocodilians, are hunted for their meat, while the teeth, skin, fat, and penis are used for conditions including asthma, stroke, bronchitis, backache, and sexual impotence.  Likewise, the meat of armadillos is consumed, while the tail and skin are used to treat earaches and asthma.  Amulets made from animal parts are also worn by individuals as protection, further demonstrating the numerous roles animals play in the well-being of Brazilians.

India

In India, medicinal animal use has been documented not only in Ayurvedic medicine, but in indigenous culture practices throughout the country as well (2).  Approximately 109 species of animals are used as medicine in India.  In descending order of use, mammals rank highest (44 species; 40%), followed by invertebrates (24; 22%), birds (18; 17%), reptiles (12; 11%), fish (9; 8%), and amphibians (2; 2%).

While animals provide medicine for a variety of ailments in India, the majority are used for respiratory problems (42 species, 38.5%).  Rheumatic pains (32, 29.4%) and gastric disorders (22; 20.2%) rank second and third, with other conditions including skin issues, impotency, and eye and ear problems.  For example, legs of the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), a large bird in the pheasant family, are used to treat ear infections.  Paralysis and sexual impotency are treated with oil from the red velvet mite (Trombidium grandissimum).

Animal flesh, while providing substantial calories and macronutrients, ranks highest in medicinal use among animal parts.  Honey, milk, mucus, and eggs are also widely used, as well as urine, fat, blood, and antlers.  But even though numerous animals and animal parts are indicated for various ailments, knowledge about animal medicine is fading and falling out of practice, especially when compared to plant medicine.  India is becoming more modernized like most areas of the world, and traditional methods of living and healing are slowly becoming replaced by conventional standards.

Korea (Jeju Island)

Compared to the Korean Peninsula, Jeju Island retains a more abundant biological diversity, as it experiences climate conditions ranging from the subtropic to subarctic.  The island is situated to the south of the Korean Peninsula, and was created through volcanic activity approximately two million years ago.

It is estimated that about 77 species of animals are used by the inhabitants of Jeju Island (3).  Fish occupy the greatest number of uses (28 species; 36%), followed by mammals (15; 19%), mollusks (13; 17%), arthropods (8; 10%), birds (4; 5%), and echinoderms (3; 4%).  Much like Brazil, Jeju Island relies heavily on aquatic organisms for food and medicine, as evidenced by the proportion of these animals used.

Since the 13th century, Jeju Island has been a major horse-breeding region.  It is no surprise, then, that out of all the animals used as medicine, the horse (Equus caballus) is used for approximately 14 different ailments.  Horse bones are decocted, simmered, extracted, or powdered to treat a variety of conditions, primarily bone diseases and arthritis.

Another common treatment involves the Korean blackish cicada (Cryptotympana dubia).  The larva is juiced and ingested orally for the common cold, cough, and fever.  Interestingly, recent research has confirmed antimicrobial action by a peptide extracted from the Korean blackish cicada, which is effective against two antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains: methicilin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (4).

The list of ailments treated is vast, ranging from genitourinary system disorders to poisonings.  And although animals still play a major role in traditional Korean medicine, knowledge regarding their value has the potential to be lost on Jeju Island, as most of it is retained by the aging senior population.

By now, it’s quite apparent how important animals are in the traditional medical systems of various cultures.  Those who live closest to the land understand the value all organisms provide in maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem, both external to the body and within.

An adulterated form of this practice is still performed today in American medicine, as animal-derived substances comprise a portion of the pharmaceutical drugs on the market.  For example, Premarin, a medication consisting of conjugated estrogens, is derived from pregnant mares’ urine.  The cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a small insect native to South America and Mexico, is used to produce a red-colored dye as coloring for ointments and pills.  The difference today, however, is that many people may not even be aware that they are consuming animals as part of their medical treatments.  Such is the unilluminated life of the modern domesticated human.

What do we make from all this?  Understand that medicine does not start and end with the botanical world.  Animals have always been essential to the livelihoods of various peoples, providing food, shelter, warmth, protection, tools, companionship, and medicine.  Certain movements today promote the abstinence of all animal products.  While individual choice must be respected for any reason in doing so, realize that by eschewing an entire kingdom of life, all medicines derived from it are withheld as well.

If you are unfamiliar with the traditional use of animals within your ecosystem, I encourage you to research for yourself and discover all the fascinating ways natural Homo sapiens have always interacted with the kingdom Animalia, both for food and medicine.


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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Plant medicine and inflammatory bowel disease

AloewildfoodismOftentimes it is said that herbs don’t work.  Better be careful, we’re told, or they will cause irreparable harm.  Such is the mindset behind conventional wisdom*.

Here is a case demonstrating that certain plants, when administered for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, improve the outcome of the condition without causing any adverse events.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a condition of chronic inflammation in the digestive tract.  The two most common types of IBD include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and are among the top 5 most prevalent gastrointestinal disease conditions in the United States.

Currently, there is no medical cure, yet plants from all over the world are showing efficacy in the treatment of the disease.  In a recent meta-analysis from the World Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers discovered that certain plants may safely induce clinical response and clinical remission in patients with IBD, without causing significant adverse events (1).

The meta-analysis combined the results of 7 separate studies, and revealed these important findings:

  • Clinical response, indicating therapeutic effect on IBD, was significantly demonstrated by Aloe vera and wheatgrass (Triticum aestivum).
  • Clinical remission was significantly demonstrated by wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata).
  • The number of patients experiencing adverse events or serious adverse events was not significantly different between those receiving the herbs compared to placebo.

Essentially, we have 4 plants that may safely provide relief for those experiencing inflammatory bowel disease, a condition with medical costs of $1.7 billion per year (2).  Some of the plants can be foraged from the wild, and all can be purchased in supplement form, making it very easy to receive their medicine.

The researchers are not stating, nor am I, that Aloe vera, wheatgrass, wormwood, and Indian frankincense definitely work one hundred percent of the time for the treatment of IBD.  But when no medical cure exists, and the cost for IBD looms at $1.7 billion per year, herbal avenues ought to be explored and pursued, especially when clinically shown to provide relief.

If you are suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, know that there is indeed hope.  It may not come packaged with a set of instructions and a receipt from the pharmacist, but it has been my observation that good things actually do come from the ground.

*Yes, I’m well aware that certain plants are not effective for certain ailments.  I’m also aware that plants are very powerful, and may contain toxic compounds that confer negative effects on the human body.  But generalizing an accusation by claiming that ALL herbs definitely do this, or ALL definitely cannot do that, is amusing at best.