On Food Preparation Memes

Link to the Wikipedia article on “Nixtamalization”

Link to the Wikipedia article on “Nixtamalization”

An internet meme is only one type of meme. The current version of the Wikipedia article on memes explains them this way:

A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

Food preparation memes matter when asking which types of food human beings are well adapted to. In “What Steven Gundry's Book 'The Plant Paradox' Adds to the Principles of a Low-Insulin-Index Diet” I discuss the idea of a true paleo diet that avoids grain and New World foods on the grounds that 10,000 years isn’t long enough for our genes to adapt well to grains or New World foods, and many of us have ancestries that have had much less time than that—the 500 some years since Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage—for our genes to adapt to New World food. One key issue is that the natural insecticides (of which many are classed as “lectins”) in edible plants can be hard on gut bacteria that aren’t adapted to them. And while bacteria can adapt very fast for their own benefit, for gut bacteria to coevolve with human beings so that they are beneficial for human beings requires a process in which human beings die or fail to fully thrive when things aren’t right. That process takes a long time.

A much faster type of adaptation is memetic adaptation—in this context, the evolution of food preparation memes. Some of the evolution of food preparation memes happens as a result of those who prepare foods badly dying or failing to thrive, and so having their descendants less represented in the population. But a lot of the evolution of food preparation memes can happen when people notice subtle signs that something they are eating isn’t treating them very well, and then tweaking the way they prepare their food until they feel good after they eat it with the new mode of preparation. Noticing how a particular type of food, prepared in a particular way, makes one feel is a lot easier when that food is one of a handful of staples, rather than just one of many types of food one is eating, as in the modern American diet.

Because of memetic evolution, traditional ways of preparing foods deserve a lot of respect. Conversely, even a food that has been around for a long time may need to be treated as if it is a new, untested food if a key step in the traditional mode of preparation is omitted.

Let me give a few examples of traditional methods of food preparation that may be important.

Rice with Vinegar or Pickled Vegetables: One seeming counterexample to the idea that easily-digested carbs make one fat by stimulating insulin is the many Japanese (and other East Asians) who eat rice at almost every meal and yet remain fairly lean. It is possible that because of a rice-eating ancestry that they have genes that help reduce the insulin spike from rice (I am not aware of any research on this), but another explanation is that they often combine rice with vinegar (to make sushi rice) or eat rice with pickled vegetables. Here is what Jason Fung says about vinegar in Chapter 16 (titled “Carbohydrates and Protective Fiber”) of The Obesity Code:

There are no long-term data on the use of vinegar for weight loss. However, smaller short-term human studies suggest that vinegar may help reduce insulin resistance. Two teaspoons of vinegar taken with a high-carbohydrate meal lowers blood sugar and insulin by as much as 34 percent, and taking it just before the meal was more effective than taking it five hours before meals. The addition of vinegar for sushi rice lowered the glycemic index of white rice by almost 40 percent. Addition of pickled vegetables and fermented soybeans (nattō) also significantly lowered the glycemic index of the rice. In a similar manner, rice with the substitution of pickled cucumber for fresh showed a decrease in its glycemic index by 35 percent.

Genuine Italian Tomato Sauce: In The Plant Paradox, Steven Gundry points to how after the Columbian exchange brought tomatoes to Europe, old-style Italian cooking traditionally peels, deseeds and cooks tomatoes before eating them.

Nixtamalization: In traditional New World cooking, maize (corn) was soaked and cooked in limewater or another alkaline solution, which was then drained before the maize was ground into meal for making corn tortillas. This did a lot to change the set of chemical compounds in the maize. I consider food made from corn suspect regardless, but I consider food made from corn especially suspect if the corn hasn’t been soaked in an alkaline solution along the way.

Soaking Oatmeal in an Acidic Solution: In The Plant Paradox, Steven Gundry recommends against eating wheat, barley, rye or oats. Giving up oatmeal has been a bit of a sacrifice for me, so I was heartened when I was able to find a blog post by Sarah Pope on a traditional way to prepare oatmeal: soak the oatmeal at least overnight in a ratio of 2 cups of oatmeal to 2 cups of water and 1/4 cup lemon juice or apple cider vinegar and a teaspoon of salt, then add 2 more cups of water in the morning and then cook for 5 minutes (I assume five minutes from when the water boils).

Sometimes, good food preparation memes come from modern science rather than from tradition.

Soaking Beans Overnight in Water: A comment by Rich on “What Steven Gundry's Book 'The Plant Paradox' Adds to the Principles of a Low-Insulin-Index Diet” pointed me to Michael Greger’s video “Dr. Gundry’s The Plant Paradox Is Wrong” on nutritionfacts.org, where Michael Greger’s big beef with Steven Gundry is that since beans have a lot of lectins, Steven Gundry’s worries about lectins seem anti-bean, while Michael Greger views nutrition research results as very pro-bean. Here is the first bit of my reply to the comment:

 I loved the videos on the nutritionfacts.org site!

The disagreement between Gregor and Gundry on beans is actually not that big. Gundry is very positive about pressure-cooked beans as a staple, recommending them especially to his many vegan patients. Gregor says that presoaking beans plus regular cooking also works to destroy the lectins.

Eating Carrots Raw: In “The Keto Food Pyramid” I advise:

It is only raw carrots that are OK. Cooked carrots have a higher glycemic index, suggesting a high insulin index.

I expand on this idea in “Why a Low-Insulin-Index Diet Isn't Exactly a 'Lowcarb' Diet”:

Raw vs. Cooked; Intact vs. Pulverized. One of the intriguing facts pointing to the importance of whether a type of cabohydrate is easily-digestible or not is one I discussed in "The Keto Food Pyramid": cooked carrots have a higher glycemic index than raw carrots. The glycemic index isn't the same thing as the insulin index, but within the same food group it is highly enough correlated with the insulin index that I use the glycemic index to guess the insulin index when direct data on the insulin index is not available. What this means is that you have to think not only about the processing of food by big food companies, but the processing of food that you do at home! In addition to what food you eat, you need to think about what you do to it before you eat it. Cooking carrots makes them easier to digest, so they cause a bigger spike in blood sugar. 

I don't know of anyone having done this experiment, but I'd love to see someone measure the insulin index of intact veggies as compared to veggies that have been run through a blender to make a veggie smoothie. I am betting that the veggie smoothie will have a higher insulin index than the very same ingredients if they are eaten intact. 

I should warn that many foods are not safe unless they are cooked. For example, it is widely recognized that beans can be poisonous if not cooked. And cooking can make things tastier. But in relation to causing insulin spikes, the category that matters is “easily-digestible carbs,” and cooking often makes things easily digestible.

Fruit vs. Fruit Juice: One of the big messages of “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid” is that fruit juice has a much bigger insulin kick—which will soon make you hungry again—than whole fruit.

Conclusion: The bottom line is that how food is prepared matters. Because they are tested by time, traditional foods are typically more likely to be safe, but if they aren’t prepared in the traditional way, they aren’t traditional foods. Anything that isn’t a traditional food needs a lot of scientific analysis, with a skeptical eye. Traditional foods need to analyzed carefully, too, but it is modern processed foods that deserve the most skepticism from the get-go, as I argue in “The Problem with Processed Food.”

Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography.