A Nutty Idea

The case of the Sacha Inchi nut.
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The health benefits of eating nuts are the subject of many great debates. But rather than penciling in almond butter on the grocery list (never use a pen in dietary matters, you’ll regret it), I one morning decided to plant some nuts, a non-polemical, arms-length way of enjoying nature as a passive bystander–not a ravenous epicure. A nutty idea indeed. Well, I’ve already told a half lie. It isn’t really a spontaneous act when you’ve been planning the deed for weeks—for the circuitous machinations of international post for goods originating from the jungles of Peru is a tad slow and anything but extemporaneous. This is a small price to pay for the pleasure of growing rare flora. And a behemothian nut tree providing tutelary shade for the ancient temples of the Incas is sufficiently rare in my book (I’m using ink now)! But I’m leading you astray. The large tree, plukentia volubilis if you feel compelled to convey this information to a botanist, is nothing short of a lilliputian vine (probably a monster vine, but we shall see)! And I decided to write this article because my precocious vine, it’s two years old now, is showing signs of its precociousness! Something non-leafy is happening—and so soon. Will I be digging through boxes of Christmas tinsel to find out whether or not that nutcracker is, as Aunt Jane insists, strictly ornamental? I can already hear the tintinnabulation of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in my head, and I must try to get it to stop.

Except for toothpicky fashion models and the hopelessly sedentary figures at Madame Tussauds, we all eat food. That is a given. One would therefore think that our knowledge of any and all types of comestibles would be rather immerse, but there’s a dearth of information on such subjects. We are kept in a darkened room. Our food, for instance, isn’t adequately labeled. And it’s sad to say that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are allowed to go to the prom unchaperoned—why is that? But let’s try to return to the subject of nuts, entering the discussion by cracking the shell of this carapace of a question: Are processed foods bad for you? Now everybody should agree on this one, and most people are probably chafing at the bit to say heck–yes!

But let’s have a closer look. If you were to eat raw, unprepared, scrumptiously green leaves of Egyptian Taro (for the sake of your enjoyment of this article you’ll have to pretend that this is a real likelihood), you would feel as though steel bolds were suddenly perforating your cheeks and your tongue would be seeking to be relocated to some other part of your anatomy). Taro a little too exotic for you? You’ve probably heard of spinach then. Raw spinach, for one, is full of nasty things such as oxalates . These are anti-nutrients and you’ll be happy to know that they won’t kill you (unless you happen to believe that clutching a plate of raw spinach, held in place by a thin membrane of bpa free plastic–which still manages to leach estrogen-like compounds into your leafy greens–is going to provide you with some talismanic comfort as you take a fateful plunge off the top a tall building. While these anti-nutrients may not kill you then and there, you should know that these substances interfere with your uptake of vital nutrients (iron and calcium). In fact, cooking certain foods makes some nutrients more bio-available, but it also destroys others (vitamin C, for instance, is easily destroyed by heat). So here’s the rub—raw spinach has an impressive list of nutrients, but these are partly unavailable owing to the nefarious and clandestine work of anti-nutrients. And most nuts are chock-full of phytates, another class of antinutrients, but we’ll be getting to that later. But for the moment and in preparation for the test at the end of this lecture, you may want to commit the following to memory: cook your spinach.

Most experts (except for the one that always sits at the back of the bus, making rude sounds on sharp turns and then having the audacity to blame it on the borborygmus than often accompanies hungry school children ) agree that fermented foods have many healthy attributes. Sauerkraut, miso, and yogurt are all healthy choices (for those of you in the habit of daily demonizing dairy (or prone to excessive alliteration), then drop that last one and forgive my impertinence). And you can probably guess where I am going with this—if you ferment food, or cook it, you are processing it in some way–and that’s not always a bad idea.

Nuts can be eaten raw. So what about raw food? Is raw food the cat’s meow? Well, it may be for cats. Cats are obligate carnivores and must eat meat, preferably raw. Humans are a little more cheeky about the whole thing, eschewing the trappings of a strictly carnivorous life for something more unhinged. This introduces a lot of complications and makes life hell for nutritionist. But why not be like the aardvark and just eat ants? However, H. sapiens are obstinate and our motto is “when in some doubt–overreach.” On a dare we’ll eat chocolate covered grasshoppers (better than termites, Aaron Aardwark!) but baulk at being called insectivorous. We’ll eat fruit, but will refuse to be boxed in by the term frugivore. Some find a steak pretty tasty, but can’t pretend to be as carnivorous as the bobcat. And we haven’t done nearly enough to merit the hemovore label, except for international bankers, who have done yeomen’s work in this regard and are the essence of overreach. In short, we admit to nothing–but do it all. No wonder there’s such confusion. So what about raw food! Should we become raw foodists? Actually this was inadvertently answered in our discussion of processed food, and our little foray into felines and bloodsucking bankers has made a muddle of that fact. Still, you get the picture. Some foods are okay eaten raw while others, like spinach, are not. But what about nuts? Raw or roasted? Well, soaked and dehydrated at a low temperature is the current, though somewhat impractical answer. But can you imagine soaking chia seed? The water turns into a gel and soaking is useless since you can’t ditch the water! I wish someone would really sort all of this out.

Before we continue, I should acquaint you with this twofold problem: well designed studies are expensive, and you can’t get a patent on a natural substance. Given these realities, many pertinent questions go unanswered. Don’t expect the bells and whistles of twice baked, hot smoked, randomized, double blind, placebo controlled studies for that scrawny herb in your garden. If a drug company can’t make make a handsome profit, no study on a natural substance will be funded. Period. But you will know, the constant trumpeting is deafening, how wonderful statin drugs are at lowering your cholesterol. These pretty pills are manufactures synthetically and the process can be patented. The only bugaboo is that, although brilliant at corralling cholesterol numbers into the right pen (like pharmacologic Border Collies), these drugs achieve no aim, save to deplete your CoQ10—something that is actually useful for your heart)! Populations with high cholesterol do not have a higher death rate from cardiac disease than populations with the swank, picture-perfect numbers touted by the drug companies. Australian aboriginals have the highest rate of heart disease, and also have the lowest cholesterol reading of any group. Concomitantly, Switzerland has very high cholesterol levels and yet very little heart disease. Accordingly, having studied diverse populations, the WHO concluded that there is no correlation between heart disease and cholesterol levels. And since we are on the topic of nuts, I will point out that few studies have been done on the benefits of soaking nuts in water to (ostensibly) lessen the phytates. Maybe this works. Maybe it doesn’t. The point is that the scant information we do have available isn’t disseminated widely. And to complicate matters, there is also some evidence that phytates can help to suppress certain cancers. To soak, or not to soak—a ghostly question.

So, should nuts be an important part of your diet? Nuts are often touted as health food. Let’s broach the subject another way. Mother Nature, that irrepressible diva, decided, a long time ago, well before the advent of electronic advertisements lasered onto the side of buildings by invisible hands, that her precious seeds should not be eaten. Not by monkeys, not but Sirs and Dames of the British Empire, not by anyone. I’ll illustrate the point. Apple seeds contain cyanide. If in a rebellious mood you crunch down and swallow a few pips–trust me, you won’t die. If you plan on eating a pound of freshly crushed apple seed, you’d be well advised to speak with your life insurance representative first.

The songstress has her reasons for trying to poison you. She wants the seed to end up in a fresh patch of muck where it can germinate and make a new, happy-go-lucky plant. Her pristine plan takes a dark turn when one realizes that undigested seed has an especially devious (and malodorous) way of ending up in the muck that conveniently doubles as a fertilizer—but this is the brain child of a great and pragmatic lady). Now take the cashew fruit as an example. The monkey eats the sweet stuff on top and throws out the seed. Bravo little monkey, you have studied well. We, a contumelious genus, ignore the fruit and eat the seed! Even Calvin the capuchin knows that the ‘nut’ is a seed and dutifully discards it (the cashew nut is technically a legume, but that’s another story).

There’s another problem: most nuts have an attic full of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and once the cobwebs are lifted on the daft notion that omega 3s from plant sources are desirable—not so, the body very inefficiently converts ALA (the plant version of omega 3) to usable DHA and ELA forms found in fish—a different picture emerges. If we turn on the naked light bulb hanging from the rafters, oh where’s that switch, we can focus our attention on problem of polyunsaturated fatty acids in general. They are unstable and thus prone to rancidity (honey, darling, undimmed light of my life, where did you put that hydrogen atom?) and the last thing the our pass-the-mayonaise generation needs is more oxidated fat. Lower your intake of polyunsaturated fats and you lower inflammation, the poster child of chronic disease.

And food manufacturers have become quite expert at disguising rancidity with pleasant, oh-this-is-so-fresh odors: men in white laboratory coats—Oh wait! Isn’t there’s a young woman in the back row with her eye glued to a microscope–playing fast and loose with your notoriously naive nostrils). And in another chamber something is being planned to enhance the appeal of your frosted cereal: titanium dioxide nanoparticles—and they’re in your toothpaste too, keeping it sparkling white. Yes, nano-technology is the newest foot soldier in the war that the food companies are waging against you, dear consumer. And there’s no need to label these either. Shouldn’t you know what you and your children are consuming? And what’s it all for? So that your toothpaste will sheepishly sparkle for the confiscational (new words for fascist times) pleasure of the airport gestapo?

I digress. Back to squirrel talk… Walnuts and pine nuts, for instance, are very high in omega 6 and have significant amounts of phytates. Macadamia nuts and chestnuts are both low in Omega 3 and 6, and are low in phytates. You should primarily eat these. As for my Sacha Inchi nuts, I shall patiently wait for them to produce their precious seed, and I shall enjoy eating a few handfuls, now and then, secure in the knowledge that they are a whole food, have not had a sojourn in a laboratory, have not been genetically modified, and that no nanoparticles have been contracted to perform an obscene quantum dance.

[For the record regarding polyunsatured fat, Sacha Inchi has 45% omega 3 and 37% omega 6. Beware of the health claims for Sacha Inchi oil saying it has an ideal omega fatty acid ratio, or that omega 3 from plant sources is smashingly good for you. ]

P.S. This article is intended for those of you that often wrestle with the relative merits of brown versus white rice—she love me, she loves me not, white rice, white rice not.

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5 Comments

  1. This is a subject I have wrestled with often. Normally, I just try to buy food labeled organic, and follow your advice to avoid polyunsaturated fatty acids in general. After that, it is all about variety, not overdoing it on any one food, but spreading the love to the widest variety of non-tampered with stuff. That way I figure, I won’t be getting too much of any one bad thing and plenty of good stuff overall. But yes, I will now cook my spinach! And what about peanut butter? Now, really, I’m off to my neighborhood organic food store cause I’m seriously hungry. That was really well written and a totally worthwhile read. Hope you get your handful of home grown nuts soon!

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    • Disclosure: ever since I was a child, some three centuries ago, and this is an approximation since birth records from Andromeda are scattered among the stars and often difficult to piece together, I have loved peanut butter.

      And while it is true that cooking your spinach will reduce the oxalates, it isn’t by that much. Spinach is just one of those high oxalate foods. Should you avoid spinach altogether? No. I think the only sensible thing to do is to have a varied diet.

      People with chronic, seemingly unsolvable health issues may want to investigate oxalates.

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    • more interesting facts about spinach and the best way to cook it 😉

      http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=43

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      • These days a PhD in foodology is required in order to make a salad or to exercise your steamer!

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  2. Wow, my head is spinning. Would that be from phytates?

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