Plant applications

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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The 10 most common medicinal plants used by Native Americans

ArtemisiatridentataIn the United States, it’s easier, now more than ever, to acquire calories.  What was once limited to wild pursuits has been tremendously simplified to the process of supermarket harvesting.  And because of this, humans now have a steady supply of calories at their fingertips.

What’s not so easy anymore is the acquisition of medicine.  At first this may sound confusing, as pharmaceutical drugs are readily available from a variety of outlets.  What I am referring to, however, is natural medicine.

The domestication of our food, from the wilderness to the farm, correlates with a decline in phytonutrient levels.  Plant phytonutrients, some of which are antioxidants and anti-microbial compounds, benefit not only the plant itself, but the consumer of the plant as well.  A modern diet of cultivated foods lacks the presence of these natural medicines, and because of this, the health of the standard bitter-deficient dieter suffers.

The conventional solution?  Prescription drugs.  After all, a medicine-deficient dieter has to make up for the loss somehow.  And just what are the most commonly prescribed drugs in America (1)?

  1. Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen
  2. Generic Zocor (simvastatin)
  3. Lisinopril (Prinivil/Zestril)
  4. Synthroid (levothyroxine sodium)
  5. Norvasc (amlodipine besylate)
  6. Prilosec (omeprazole)
  7. Azithromycin (Z-Pak/Zithromax)
  8. Amoxicillin
  9. Generic Glucophage (metformin)
  10. Hydrochlorothiazide

Seems like we have no shortage of individuals with pain, high cholesterol, hypertension, hypothyroidism, acid reflux, bacterial infections, and to top it all off, type 2 diabetes.

It also seems this is what one would expect when most of the medicine in our food is bred out, purified and patented by drug companies, and sold back to us alongside a deficient diet of domesticated food.

Life wasn’t always this way, however.  Native Americans were very aware of the synergy between plants and humans, and incorporated various plants into their lifestyles for not only calories, but for medicine as well.

Daniel E. Moerman, a Native American ethnobotanist, compiled a book examining the plants traditionally used by indigenous cultures in America*.  In a previous post, I discussed the plants, according to Moerman’s research, with the greatest number of uses in several categories, and here I will be presenting the 10 most utilized plants by Native Americans for medicinal purposes.  Among 2,582 species analyzed, this is the list of plants Moerman provides, along with the number of uses amongst different cultures.

  1. common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), 355
  2. calamus (Acorus calamus), 219
  3. big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), 166
  4. fernleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium dissectum), 139
  5. common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), 132
  6. Louisiana sagewort (Artemisia ludoviciana), 128
  7. devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), 128
  8. common juniper (Juniperus communis), 117
  9. Canadian mint (Mentha canadensis), 115
  10. stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), 114

Many of the plants in this list are native to North America.  Some, however, were introduced in either pre- or post-Columbian times.  Regardless, the Natives were able to utilize an extensive pharmacopoeia to treat a variety of ailments, and did so successfully.  This is a perfect example of using food as medicine, alongside medicine as food.

Today, a different picture is painted.  What was once common knowledge has been lost or almost entirely forgotten.  Not only do people experience sickness due to poor dietary choices, but the issue is exacerbated even more by the lack of expertise in natural treatment.  The outsourcing of our food is essentially leading to the outsourcing of our medicine, ultimately resulting in a sick population that cannot take care of itself.

Something needs to change, evidenced by the fact that 7 out of 10 Americans are taking at least one prescription drug, with more than half that number taking two (2).  I understand the use of medicine in emergency situations, but the reasons for most of today’s prescription sales are due to poor lifestyle habits.  I also understand that a single plant may not hold the cure for a disease.  Cinnamon may not cure diabetes.  Congestive heart failure may not resolve itself through the supplementation of hawthorn alone.  But when used in conjunction with proper diet and lifestyle practices, they may certainly help.

Plant medicine is not wishful thinking.  Plants have been a part of our diet since the beginning of our existence, and surely serve essential functions in keeping us well.  We do not get sick because we lack enough pharmaceutical drugs to keep us well.  We get sick because we lack plant medicine.

If you’re looking for a good place to start, the list above may help.  Reward your body by incorporating more wild plants into your diet.  You deserve it!

*Moerman, D. E. (2008) Native American Ethnobotany. London: Timber Press, Inc.

Clay Removes Tannins From Acorns

redoakOne of the most under-utilized foods in our current culture is the acorn, the majestic nut of the oak genera (Quercus).  Many people think of the acorn as a strictly Native American food, but its consumption has been documented all over the world, including in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa.

There are plenty of resources available detailing the instructions on processing acorns (web sites, videos, books) in order to decrease their levels of tannins, so I will not belabor the subject.  Once you master the art of leaching, you may be interested in another traditional processing method to remove the tannins.  This involves the use of clay.

You see, tannins are astringent substances of plant origin that, when consumed in sufficient amounts, can interfere with mineral and protein absorption.  In small amounts, however, they can be quite beneficial.  It is rarely discussed that, in addition to hot and cold water leaching, mixing clay (specifically red clay) with non-leached acorn meal can reduce bitterness, increase palatability, and decrease tannic acids.

Two researchers, Timothy Johns and Martin Duquette, studied the uses of clay amongst the Pomo people of California and the natives of Sardinia (1).  These geographically separated groups produced acorn bread in slightly different ways using clay to increase palatability.

To make acorn bread, the Pomo would mix clay with ground acorn meal in a ratio between 1:10 and 1:20, to which water would then be added.  Small loaves would be formed and baked in an earth oven for 12 hours.

In Sardinia, the natives would stir clay with cold water, then add the mixture to a pot of dried acorn meats (1:8, clay to acorns).  After boiling for five hours, ash from grape vines would be combined, allowing the entire mixture to cook for a few more minutes.

Through these methods, as much as 77% of the tannin content could be reduced without any prior leaching.  But when Johns and Duquette experimented with the adsorption capacity of clay for tannins in the laboratory, they discovered something different*.  Only about 8-12% of the tannin content of acorns could be reduced in the recommended amounts by the Pomo and Sardinian natives.  This is clearly not a significant reduction, and could render the acorns slightly toxic with levels of tannins still too high.

How, then, were the natives able to consume the acorn bread, and how did Johns and Duquette arrive at the original reduction number of 77%?  It turns out that when acorn bread (with clay) is baked in oven temperatures at or above 100° Celsius for many hours, the tannin content can be reduced by several times what can be achieved through laboratory adsorption alone.  According to the researchers, heat may increase the adsorption capacity of the clay for tannins, but more likely increases catalytic activity in actually breaking down the tannic acids.

Takeaway message:  If you’re looking to use clay for the purpose of leaching acorns, using heat will dramatically improve the leaching process for the reasons stated above.

Oak trees are found in abundance all over the world, which means that food is available for all who are interested.  Acorns are very nutrient-dense at around 13% fat, 41% carbohydrate, 8% fiber, and 3.5% protein (2).  I encourage you to gather acorns and learn the traditional art of processing and cooking them, both through leaching and through the addition of clay.

Acorns are true superfoods, and making them a regular component of your diet will benefit your health, your family’s health, and the planet’s health.

*Adsorption, different than absorption, is the adhesion of a chemical species onto the surface of particles.  In this example, tannins are adsorbed by the clay.


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Adam Haritan

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The 10 Most Utilized Plants By Native Americans

westernredcedarIf the saying is true, that we are what we eat, it’d be fair to say most Americans are walking columns of corn, soy, and wheat.  These three crops are grown in abundance for many reasons.  Most people consume manufactured forms of these foods, like wheat-based cereals and breads, soy-based emulsifiers and oils, and corn-based … well, pretty much everything from sweeteners to thickeners.  Animal feed is also supplemented with these crops, so when we’re eating the animals, we’re essentially eating more corn, soy, and wheat.

And then there are hundreds of other reasons why these items are mass-produced.  We produce fuel, plastics, paints, pharmaceutical excipients, candles, etc. from food crops.

Here is a chart detailing seven major agricultural crops produced in the United States in 2011.  It does not include root, citrus, and vegetable crops, like potatoes, tomatoes, and oranges, but instead presents a more generalized snapshot of American agriculture.  Take a look (click to enlarge):

majorcrops

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to very many people.  From a Wild Foodism standpoint, however, these foods aren’t too exciting nor promising.

As a resident of North America (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be exact), I am far more interested in the foods that the Natives utilized as treasured resources, rather than the foods that make the most profit.  This is valuable information for anyone attracted to Wild Foodism.

Believe it or not, there are indeed certain species that once possessed more utility than someone today might imagine.  These plants were incorporated into cultures as drugs (medicine), food, fiber, dyes, and other things (incense, talismans, toys, fragrances, tools, etc.).

I have included two charts, similar to the one above, examining the most utilized plants in Native American culture.  Both tables are taken from Daniel E. Moerman’s tome, Native American Ethnobotany (2008).

The first table outlines the 10 plants with the greatest number of uses, and with uses in all five categories (click to enlarge).

Moermantable1

The second table outlines the 10 plants with the greatest number of uses, regardless of category (click to enlarge).

Moermantable2

It’s important to note that not all of these plants grow throughout North America.  Western red cedar, for example, is primarily found in the Pacific Northwest.  Stinging nettle, on the other hand, grows throughout most of the United States and Canada.

If you are not familiar with these organisms, I encourage you to seek out more information regarding their uses.  There are reasons (very good reasons!) the Natives chose these particular plants to be their allies in everything from medicine to food.

Sure, Triticum aestivum (common wheat) may serve a purpose in your life.  If nothing else, it’s pretty neat to watch bread rise with the help of yeast.  But never forget:  dietary diversity is crucial for robust health, and consuming an agricultural diet of corn, soy, and wheat in their various adulterations may not be the greatest health strategy long-term.

What is a great strategy, however, is to include more wild foods into your lifestyle.

What can you do right now?  Take a look at the latter tables above and see which plants inhabit your ecosystem .  Research their traditional uses and begin to incorporate them into your life.

And ask yourself, from what building blocks do you want your body to be built?  The genetically modified, chemically-laden inferior foods of agriculture, or the wild and hearty organisms of the natural world?


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Adam Haritan

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