Opinion

Traditional foods: did our ancestors have it right?

30 August 2016

Amy Lance_Waitrose buyer

When relocating to the US for the summer I was not expecting to reassess my food choices or decisions, I was pretty comfortable with my diet in the UK; I was eating well and enjoying what I believed to be healthy balanced meals. I have always experimented with new ingredients and eat a vast selection of fresh produce anyway. So I was looking forward to California’s freshly pressed corn tortillas, tacos and breakfast burritos, as well as an unlimited choice of pizza toppings, and large salads that actually fill you up as opposed to the sparse lettuce leaves and a token cherry tomato we are familiar with in the UK. Not to mention the huge range and diversity of food at the supermarkets, delicious Napa Valley wine and trendy Californian micro-brewed beer. I have enjoyed all these tasty American delicacies but thanks to Apricot Lane Farms, I’ve also been lucky to experience a new outlook on food and have never felt better

Molly Chester, who with husband John runs the farm, is a food enthusiast who has been involved with food working as a private chef in Los Angeles as well as being co-author of traditional foods cookbook Back to Butter. Molly has introduced to me the concept of going back to basics, understanding my food choices in more detail and focusing on traditional foods. Traditional foods are the real, whole, unprocessed ingredients of our great-grandparents’ kitchen. We lived on these simple foods for centuries, before so much of our food became processed, convenient and had to satisfy our modern lifestyles. 

Diet dilemma

Diet is a word that is used every day by so many. I have come across so many so-called diets over the last past 10 years it’s difficult to name them all, Vegan, Paleo, Low GI, Atkins, Ducan, 5/2, Juice Fasting, Gluten Free and I’ve even heard of a Cookie Diet. Diet and nutrition is the subject of so many social conversations. Also, in trying to minimise our deficiencies and supplement our often low-nutrient food choices we take convenient vitamin and mineral supplements. I’m not interested in adopting a new diet, feeling hungry every five minutes, cutting out large food groups or having to take daily nutrition supplements, I don’t want to be “on a diet” I just want my food to be delicious whilst supporting my lifestyle and providing all of the nutrients that I need. After three months on the farm I have now been persuaded to eat more traditional foods and focus on the versatility of many traditional ingredients and of course, most important; enjoy every meal.

Traditional food movement

Molly along with authors such as Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig have contributed to placing traditional foods under the spotlight over the past few years. Not forgetting Dr Weston Price, who was a much earlier researcher of traditional foods, Price researched diets across many different communities in Africa, Europe and Canada in the 1930s. He undertook research to understand links between diet and health. Much of his work led many to re-assess the value of technology and industrialised food. This was the start of a movement focusing on how our ancestors’ diets were more nutrient dense and supported a far healthier lifestyle than many diets in 2016.

Rethinking the research

From an early age in the UK and globally we are taught to avoid saturated fats, cut down on meat, eat a balanced diet of carbohydrates, fats, protein and dairy amongst other things, often taught by showing the pictorial food plate with each food group taking up a section of the plate. Although, some potent research contradicts what is ingrained into us at this young age. Take the debate surrounding saturated fats as an example. Often seen as the evil in modern diets, saturated fat plays a very important role in our bodies, as one of the main components of cell membranes it us also vital to good bone health, protects the liver from toxins, allow us to utilise essential fatty acids effectively, and additionally, many saturated fatty acids have antimicrobial properties.

It’s a similar story with cholesterol; it plays an important role in good health. So, to reduce heart disease we could follow a diet that provides increased quantities of good quality animal protein (rather than reducing or avoiding it as we were once taught) rich in fats and vitamin B6 and B12 and avoiding vitamin and mineral deficiencies to create strong cell structures and good antimicrobial activity. Eating traditional foods may increase your intake of saturated fats, for example using butter again rather than a processed spread.

The quality of the products that we consume is key to ensuring the foods are as nutrient dense as possible. Surprising to many, some research has shown that grass-fed beef has nearly a third fewer calories than grain-fed, four times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and a ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 of approximately 2:1. This is far closer to the diet that humans ate many years ago. Admittedly, it’s been such a surprise to me despite working in the food industry for the last eight years how nutrition really can vary depending on growing technique, soil quality, variety or rearing practices. I have also started using techniques that can be applied in the kitchen to ensure that you get the most out of products, for example soaking grains, nuts and seeds for improved digestion.

Understanding fats

I thought I understood food well, but I didn’t understand it enough. Another example of how eating and researching traditional foods has helped me is the need to understand fats in more detail. I really didn’t realise how critical choosing the right fat to use in cooking was. Of course if you are cooking on a high temperature you don’t want to burn the oil or cause it to go rancid, this could cause the oil to be unsafe for consumption, you need to know your oil and the make up of your oil to understand how it should be used safely and best. A mistake I was making every day was cooking with olive oil on way too high a heat rather than using a fat solid at room temperature which could withstand higher heat, such as coconut oil or even lard. This theory really does depend on us choosing our fats carefully, maybe knowing a tad more about our food and avoiding many processed foods and refined carbohydrates that are so accessible to us and most importantly concentrating on traditional, fresh, good quality, nutrient dense grass-fed meat, butter and oils.

Carbs aren’t empty calories

Many people refer to refined carbohydrates as empty calories, although luckily, the un-refined, traditional alternatives are packed full of a lot more nutrients, whole grains for example provide vitamin E and B, key minerals and fibre, all of which can be compromised once processed. Unwanted additions can also be made whilst processing such as the use of bleaching agents for perfectly white flours.

The traditional carbohydrate theory is simple, stick to unrefined/ unprocessed grains and sugars to get the maximum nutrient content, highest purity and benefit from the calories, maximising on nutrient-dense foods. It’s surprising how many simple refining processes can affect the quality of the food. While, often thought to be a healthy, convenient snack, puffed wheat, rice cakes and many breakfast cereals are heat-treated or processed in high pressure and may not be ideal snacks. So simply a blanket removal of all fats and carbohydrates from our diet is not the answer.

Fermentation is another traditional method of food preparation that I had not really considered as healthy. As pickled ginger may assist digestion when eating sushi, the same is the case with many condiments or drinks alongside meals such as a sauerkraut or a kimchi (Korean spicy pickled cabbage). It’s been really interesting to try a selection ranging from fermented ketchup to kefir (a fermented milk drink from the Caucasus mountains) and kombucha. Kombucha, my favourite find is a traditional fermented Chinese Tea, traditionally called the ‘Tea of Immortality’, it is easy to make, good for assisting digestion and packed full of probiotics.

So I guess, most of what I have learnt and realised whilst being on the farm is the benefit of understanding foods in far greater detail, identifying what is the most nutrient dense option, whilst still enjoying eating a healthy, fresh, balanced diet.

Since returning from the US I now think twice before shopping, cooking and eating, if my great-grandmother wouldn't recognise it as good food, I may reconsider eating it myself. We are what we eat after all…

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