The Weston A Price Foundation and the wider Ancestral Health movement have long advocated the use of traditional food processing methods such as fermentation, soaking and sprouting. It is claimed that these steps, honed over generations, improve the nutritional properties of certain foods, whilst reducing or neutralising toxic and anti-nutritive components.
As a result, many people have taken to making kefir, fermenting their own vegetables or baking sprouted seed loaves. However, several such ancestral foods have found their way down the centuries and quietly entered the industrialised market. I’m talking about common or garden staples like tea, coffee, chocolate, cheese and olives.
It’s easy to forget the ancient origins of these shopping basket basics, and the complex processing they go through before reaching the supermarket shelves. So lets put the WAPF and Ancestral Health thesis to the test and check out the health credentials of these once-exotic commodities.
Source material: Leaves of Camellia sinensis
Origination: China (legend indicates 2700 BC)
Spread: Europe (16th c.)
Processing: picking → oxidising → heating/drying
Demonstrated benefits: Cardiovascular, brain and dental health
Tea is produced from the evergreen Camellia sinensis bushes. Only the tips of new shoots are picked (hence ‘PG tips’), which regrow every week or two for further picking throughout the season. After picking the leaves immediately start to auto-oxidise by their own enzymatic action. This causes them to become darker as tannins (polyphenols) are released. Once they have acquired the desired level of darkening they are heated to halt the oxidising process, then dried.
Green tea is unoxidised (immediately heated and dried after picking) whereas Oolong tea is somewhere in between being only partially oxidised. The typical tea drunk all over Britain is black tea and is fully oxidised. Black tea includes Assam, Nepal, Darjeeling and Ceylon. Oh, and the British favourite of course: Builder’s.
A review by EJ Gardner et al, in Nature in 2007 found clear evidence for a reduction in coronary heart disease with consumption of black tea at greater than or equal to three cups per day.
Tea has a strong anti-caries (tooth decay) action. This seems to be caused by a reduction of oral amylase enzyme, which in turn reduces the conversion of starchy food remnants on teeth into sugars. [Arya V, 2016, FULL TEXT]
Tea, of course, is a herbal medicine. One of the difficulties we herbalists have faced from orthodox science is our claim that many of our medicines have normalising properties, also known as ‘adaptogenic’ effects. This means a herb might, for example, lower blood pressure where it is too high and yet be just as able to raise it when too low. So I was pleased to see just such a response reported for tea drinking: In a 2014 study J M Gostner et al found that black tea consumption in healthy individuals appears to increase immune activation, whilst in inflammatory conditions appears to dampen down the immune response. The authors suggest: –
these bidirectional effects could help to explain why black tea is associated with reduced risk of CVD [cardiovascular disease]. This may involve both enhancing activation status of immunocompetent cells leading to increased immune surveillance and inhibiting low grade inflammation.
A little note of caution: Tea contains moderate levels of caffeine and low levels of fluoride, but at typical levels of consumption (up to 6 cups per day) these are not considered likely to be excessive for most people. Also, one study found that tea consumption was related to recurrence of Clostridium difficile infection [Oman Evans, 2016] suggesting that a nice cuppa might not be the best medicine in that particular situation.
A cup of tea remains the go-to treatment of choice for most of the everyday stresses of life here in England, as it is ‘the great reviver’. For many of us the need to be ‘revived’ punctuates our day and finds itself satisfied by a cuppa on waking, somewhere around mid-morning, at about 4pm and maybe after dinner too. Unless you are a coffee person…
Source material: Seed of coffee tree (Coffea sp.)
Origination: Ethiopia (~10th century AD)
Spread: Yemen (16th c.) middle east, Balkans, Italy, Europe, Indonesia, Americas (18th c.)
Processing: dried → fermented* → roasted
Demonstrated benefits: liver, brain, all-cause mortality
The coffee ‘bean’ is not a bean at all, but rather the seed inside the fruit of the coffee bush. Like cherry stones, these are tooth breakingly-hard in the natural state. There are two methods of production: wet and dry.
*Only the wet process includes fermentation and is used in high-end coffee production (full details of wet coffee production method). Although fermentation is considered to make a finer coffee the health benefits, fortunately, do not seem to depend on this step.
As we explored in our post Coffee – its light and dark side, coffee has many benefits in a host of diseases from dementia to stroke, and importantly is associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality, when it comes to health this is the single most important marker of all! Benefits seem to increase up to 6 cups per day. Decaffeinated coffee appears to be as beneficial as the untampered-with variety, which is great news for anyone who is genetically a slow caffeine metaboliser. [see our post for details]
Coffee appears to have considerable liver-protective effects too. Studies have confirmed that coffee consumption is associated with improved outcomes on many parameters of liver disease including the rate of liver fibrosis progression and the incidence of cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma [Feld J, 2015]. Recent studies involving alcoholics found a strong liver-protective effect of coffee drinking that increased with dose, with those drinking over 4 cups per day having an 80% reduction in the incidence of liver cirrhosis [MedPage Today, 2006]! The mechanism is as yet unknown but some researchers suspect the high levels of polyphenols found in coffee may be responsible [MedPage Today, 2016].
Coffee drinking has also been associated with a dose-dependent risk reduction in the following (RR=relative risk):
- Skin melanomas. [Wang J, 2016] ~ 3% RR reduction per cup per day
– confirmed for ground/filtered but not instant coffee [Lukic M, 2016]
- Diabetes [Ding M, 2014] ~ 6% RR reduction per cup per day
Finally, the World Health Organisation has recently come under fire for suggesting that coffee may be carcinogenic. They had previously rated coffee as “possibly carcinogenic” but last year changed their mind. In its latest review, they found “no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect.” How disappointing for them!
3. Dark Chocolate
Source material: Seed of Theobroma cacao tree
Origination: Central America (1500 BC)
Spread: Europe via the Spanish (17th c.)
Processing: fermenting → drying → treading → export
Manufacture: roasting → shelling → grinding → refining, conching and tempering
Demonstrated benefits: improves markers of heart health and metabolic health.
The tree from which the cacao seed is gathered was named by Linnaeus as Theobroma – meaning ‘Food of the Gods’. Among the central American peoples of antiquity, it was indeed held in great esteem.
The production of chocolate is a long and complex process, and one that is virtually impossible to carry out at home as the step known as conching involves repeatedly rolling the cocoa mixture between shaped metal rollers. Attempting this in a bowl with a wooden spoon results in something quite unlike the chocolate we all know and love.
Despite the sugar content, dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids and above) have clear health benefits. Including improved arterial function [Loffredo L, 2014], exercise capacity [Taub PR, 2016], inflammatory response [Kuebler U, 2016]
In what has been touted as the ‘strongest evidence yet‘ for the health benefits of cacao authors of a recent meta-analysis [Xiaochen Lin,2016] identified that regular consumers of flavanol-rich cocoa products (dark chocolate and cocoa beverages) had:
- increased HDL cholesterol
- improved insulin sensitivity
- reduction of elevated triglycerides
- reduced c-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation)
Interestingly, whilst most of the health effects attributed to cocoa are believed to be due to its polyphenol content (primarily flavonoids) it has been pointed out that metabolites produced by the bacteria and moulds involved in the fermentation stage of production may be at least partly responsible. [Petyaev IM, 2016]
A little note of caution: Avoiding excess sugar is easy if you pick high cocoa solid chocolate, but even then you need to make sure you are not overdoing it: caffeine and theobromine in cocoa can induce arrhythmias and even stimulate the central nervous system, causing restlessness and agitation in some people [Sanguigni V, 2016]. Also, a recent study found that 99% cocoa chocolate exacerbated acne in acne prone males, indicating that it is the cocoa rather than the sugar aggravating the condition [Vongraviopap S, 2016].
Source material: Milk
Earliest evidence: Poland (5500 BC)
Spread: Europe, Britain (16th c.) , China (1600 BC)
Processing: curdled → fermented/cured
Demonstrated benefits: a high-quality source of protein, bioactive fats, minerals and fat-soluble vitamins. May aid in weight loss, diabetes prevention and bone health.
We are talking about traditional cheeses here made from whole milk, curdled and inoculated with a starter culture then ripened for a time – not the processed, reduced-fat or fiddled-around-with rubbish that some try to pass off as ‘cheese’! Fortunately, there are still dozens if not hundreds of real cheeses available throughout the UK, and between them, the supermarkets do a good job generally offering a wide selection.
Cheese is nutritionally dense, being a good source of calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc and selenium, along with the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and to a lesser extent the water-soluble B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B8, B9, B12) – although these are higher in whey cheeses. Concentrations of B12 (essential for nerve health) and K2 (vital for manoeuvring calcium to the bones rather than letting it end up in the arteries or other soft tissue) are particularly high in some cheeses as these vitamins are produced by the microbes used in the cheese culture. Cheese is typically high in both protein and fat. The saturated fat in cheese has led to it being considered unhealthy but recent studies are showing that this reputation is undeserved.
A great summary of the health benefits of full-fat cheese (and other dairy products) can be found in an open source paper: Regular-Fat Dairy and Human Health: Synopsis of Symposia Presented in Europe and North America (2014–2015) from which the following points are taken:
- Despite being high in saturated fat, dairy products contain the most diverse variety of fats of any food, including short and medium chain fats, odd chain length lipids, conjugated linolenic acid and natural trans-fats with important bio-active properties.
- In the Nurses Health Study, cheese was found to be neutral in relation to weight gain but contributed to weight loss where carbohydrates were also reduced. In randomised controlled trials total dairy intake is associated with increased lean mass and reduced fat mass. In children low-fat and fat-free milk were associated with greater weight gain, whilst full-fat milk was associated with less weight gain.
- In the EPIC study, cheese consumption was inversely associated with diabetes risk. In relation to metabolic health, compared to other sources of fat, cheese does not adversely affect cholesterol levels.
Thus, the effects of cheese on metabolic health highlight the pitfalls of basing dietary guidance on nutrients, rather than foods.
In a recent randomised cross-over study, cheese and meat sources of saturated fat led to a more favourable metabolic profile than an equivalent calorie low-fat diet [Thorning TK, 2015], whilst another study showed that dairy cheese produced more favourable results than a vegan cheese alternative with similar levels of saturated fat [Elieke Demmer, 2016]. I have to add that one would have to be unhinged to think that the vegan ‘cheese’ used in this study was anything but a vile contrivance unfit for human consumption.
Finally, as we reported in a recent post, cheese production has been identified as the most environmentally sound farming practice for temperate climates (Study: dairy, not plant-based diets is the best way to feed the planet). Please do read that post as it will make your heart sing and puts an end to the nonsense talked about cereal grains being the best thing to grow to ‘feed the world’. Cheese wins this challenge hands down!
Source material: Fruit of Olea europea tree
Earliest evidence: Crete (3500BC)
Spread: Mediterranean, California (via Spanish c.1500), Australia, South Africa
Processing: harvest → brine fermentation or air curing → bottling [ref]
Demonstrated benefits: cardio-protective, anti-inflammatory, bone health
Olives are too bitter to eat straight from the tree but the process of curing makes them edible. Although strictly a fruit the olive has a very high oil content and is low in sugars.
Processing can be by brine fermentation or lye curing (with sodium hydroxide) to remove the bitter component. Some olives start black, others green, but green olives can be converted to black olives by oxidising in air. Canned black olives are often treated with ferrous gluconate to stabilise their colour.
Most of the research is focused on olive oil, where the health benefits are most striking for unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). Why should this be? It seems that the additional benefits come from the phytonutrients that remain in the oil from the fruit pulp and skin, and it is these which give extra-virgin olive oil a slightly cloudy green colour. A recent summary of the benefits of EVOO said:
Recent epidemiological research has shown that regular consumption of olive oil is associated with increased longevity. This benefit is partly due to the olive oil’s unequivocal cardio-protective role. There is converging evidence on the benefits of olive oil for preventing several CVD risk factors, including diabetes, MetS and obesity. Olive oil is also implicated in preventing certain cancers, with the most promising findings for breast and digestive tract cancers, although the data are still not entirely consistent and mainly from case-control studies.
Eating olives will almost certainly convey all the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil and then some. Olives contain a huge range of important phytonutrients and research is ongoing and enthusiastic. Recent discoveries include a role for olives in bone health and osteoporosis prevention [Chin KY, 2016]; potential anti-cancer activity (bowel cancer) [Juan ME, 2008]; and anti-inflammatory action [Yap WH, 2015].
So there you have it: Five traditional foods, packed with health-giving properties, developed by the ancient peoples of the world. Best of all they are widely available and easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Make sure they are part of your weekly shop. These guys do…