Friday, September 30, 2011

John Durant: Zoos and the importance of natural habitats.

Most of the time, a talk about zoos is going to focus either on the plight of captive animals or how we human animals are trapped in societal zoos. Either way, they are generally pretty depressing. But John Durant is not most people; he's a self-proclaimed modern caveman and a somewhat reluctant champion of the caveman lifestyle, despite his appearance on The Colbert Report.

John's talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium began with the history of zoos and with the story of Jumbo, one of the most famous circus elephants ever. And yes, this part was a bit depressing. The first zoos treated animals like statues, separating them into stark, cement cages and removing them completely from the natural world. The animals did not thrive. Zoos became more sophisticated over time, but the priorities of the zoo designers were off. Habitats incorporated more elements of nature, but they were designed to be visually appealing to people rather than animals. As John put it, the purpose of zoos has changed from status symbols to entertainment to education to, finally, conservation. We have now learned that the key to keeping zoo animals healthy is to replicate as much of their natural environment as possible. The present state of zoos and attitudes toward zoo design follow this paradigm. For example, the depth of water features in penguin habitats are now determined based on the diving behavior of penguins observed in the wild. Studies of wild animals also inform the diets of animals in captivity.

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Any given species, from lions to turtles, evolved in a specific region under specific conditions. Each species found its own way to adapt to its environment and create a niche that would allow it to survive. Hence, animals have the best chance to live and reproduce in those natural environments to which they adapted throughout time. Even human animals.

We, too, perform best under the conditions to which our bodies and minds adapted over the whole of human history. To be clear, John is not advocating that we all go back to living in caves. There are quite a number of novel aspects of our habitat that are positive (flush toilets and antibiotics are two that come to mind). Rather, the idea is the same as with zoos – to the extent possible, replicate your natural environment to enable yourself to reach your full potential. John elaborated on this idea in our interview. Even in a modern world, we can get back in touch with our past by taking walks, eating a prehistoric diet, and sleeping in a dark quiet place, undisturbed by modern “advances” such as alarm clocks, nightlights, honking horns, or that red indicator light on the fire alarm. Visiting zoos, John pointed out, is a great way for us to reconnect with animals and nature in a way that is reminiscent of our paleolithic past. When it comes to exercise, be outside whenever possible. Preferably barefoot.

Barefoot? Yes, John is a big supporter of the barefoot and minimalist shoe movement. In fact, at the interview, he was wearing what looked like a flat piece of wood with a rope cord woven through it, wrapping around his toe and ankle. My flip flops would look like orthopedic support shoes next to these things. As John explained, our feet are designed for walking and running. Up until the very recent invention of shoes, our feet got us everywhere we needed to go, without arch support or motion control or custom orthotics. Our feet are incredibly sophisticated and instantly responsive. They are already the best running shoes we could ever have.

I think what makes people like John Durant is that he is genuine and humble. He lives like a caveman because it makes him healthy and happy, not so he can be famous or rich or sell you something. John practices what he preaches, and I think he's a lot more interested in living than preaching. Despite having been interviewed by Stephen Colbert, John actually seemed nervous to speak with me and worried about how he would do in the interview. John, if you are reading this, it was a pleasure.

But what does all this teach me about ethical eating? When I started this journey, I was most focused on the corn industry, especially the ways in which it contributes to environmental damage and the link between cheap corn feed and the development of confined animal feeding operations. CAFOs do a great deal of environmental damage in their own right. Plus, the animal waste has proven harmful to people in neighboring communities. And, for me, the absolutely appalling conditions these animals have to endure make any food produced in this way totally unpalatable.

As I have learned more about the important links between health and ancestral diets – both for humans and animals – our system looks more and more broken. Grain subsidies (corn, wheat, and soy) make novel, refined foods the cheapest and most abundant calories on the market. Combined with refined sugars, these foods appear to the be basis for Western diseases like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, and many autoimmune disorders. We are sick, and the animals we eat are sick.

I consider an ethical food system to be one that provides healthy food over many generations. To achieve this, we must reject diets based on refined grains, added sugars, and meat from unhealthy animals. One of the things I learned from John is that both animals and humans achieve healthfulness in the same way - by embracing our nature. We depend on animals as a food source; for us to be healthy, we need to keep them healthy too.

Below, you can watch John's interview and follow along with his slides. Eventually, the slides will be embedded, and I'll provide an updated link.

"Wild animals, zoos, and you: The influence of habitat on health" by John Durant

You can also listen to John's answers to my questions in this video (which may also be updated soon):

John Durant Interview at #AHS11 from Ancestry on Vimeo.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Savory summer stew.

Eating seasonally means getting fresh fruits and vegetables that are easily grown within your local food landscape. That means fewer resources are needed to grow the food and, because it's local, you can get it fresher and with far fewer food miles. In the SF Bay Area, we are in the midst of nightshade season. My CSA box was chock full of them: tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Nightshades have a “shady” reputation because they contain substances that can be inflammatory or even toxic. If you find that you are sensitive to nightshades, then it's best to avoid them as much as possible. I find that, especially if they are well-cooked, nightshades are delicious and totally edible foods!

With all the farm fresh nightshades around, I was inspired to pull together a dish that would use eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. Ratatouille came to mind immediately, but I am neither French nor a culinary genius. So I will say that this stew is merely inspired by ratatouille. It is also delicious and nutritious!

Prep time: 15 - 25 minutes depending on chopping efficiency
Cook time: 25 minutes

  • 4 medium tomatoes (I used 2 huge heirlooms)
  • 3-4 medium zucchini
  • 2-3 bell peppers (I used 1 green bell pepper and 2 gypsy peppers)
  • 1 large eggplant
  • 2T olive oil
  • Basil, oregano, and thyme (to taste)
  • Black pepper (to taste)
  • Garlic powder or fresh diced garlic (to taste)
1. Cut the eggplant into quarters (or a few more pieces). Remove the skin. Place pieces into a colander and rub with sea salt.

2. Chop the zucchini into bite-sized pieces. Slice the peppers into strips. Coarsely chop the tomatoes preserving the drippings.

3. Rinse the salt off of the eggplant and pat the pieces dry. Chop the eggplant into bite-sized pieces.

4. In a large (non-stick) skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high. If you are using fresh garlic, saute it for a few minutes. Add the eggplant, stirring enough that the oil coats the eggplant. The eggplant will soak up the oil pretty quickly, but as long as you use a non-stick pan, it should cook just fine. Cover the pan and allow the eggplant to cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5. Add the other vegetables and spices. I used about half a teaspoon each of garlic, basil, oregano, and thyme. Mix well. Cover and cook for an additional 15 minutes on medium-low or until the eggplant is mushy and the peppers have softened.

6. Enjoy!

Acknowledgements: This recipe was informed by a great blog post by Therese and a recipe from

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The chocolate dilemma.

As I've reduced my consumption of processed foods, one thing I've missed is a sweet treat after dinner. I found that dark chocolate (dairy and gluten free!) is a good option for satisfying my sweet tooth. Sometimes I eat it a chunk all on it's own. Other times I melt it over fresh fruit. Delish!

Recently, I was picking up some groceries from Trader Joe's and decided to check out their chocolate selection. I found a bar that was organic and fair trade, had few additives, and did not list any dairy ingredients or include dairy in the food allergy list. However, it was lacking the symbols that Trader Joe's uses to identify vegan foods. I'm not vegan, of course, but given how sensitive my body is to dairy, it is comforting to see the symbol. Many other chocolate bars at Trader Joe's do bear this symbol.

Naturally, this led me to ponder why this particular chocolate bar was not vegan. I actually brought the bar to the Trader Joe's service desk to inquire further. The man behind the counter (for the life of me, I can't remember his name, so I will refer to him as Joe) was nice enough to look up the chocolate on the master list of food allergies. Sure enough, my organic chocolate bar did not make the cut. Joe offered to look into the matter and call me with an answer.

Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, Joe called me and explained that the organic evaporated cane juice used to sweeten the chocolate was the culprit. Apparently, it is processed using bone char so it cannot be considered vegan or vegetarian. I thanked Joe for his information, and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what the heck bone char is!

I had a hard time finding well cited information, but it seems that bone char is a type of charcoal filter made of processed animal bones. It is often used for refining sugar cane in order to lighten its color and remove impurities. Evaporated cane juice is the product of this refinement followed by the evaporation of some of the liquid. Many websites stated that evaporated cane juice is never processed with bone char, nor can bone char be used in any organic products. This, of course, conflicts with my experience with Trader Joe's.

I called TJs back to double check. The chocolate bar is only 95% organic, so some conventional ingredients are used. However, the evaporated cane juice is listed in the ingredients as organic. Upon further inspection, I found that bone char is approved as a fertilizer in organic farming, but I could not confirm (or refute) the use of bone char in organic sugar or organic cane juice refinement.

This whole investigation shows quite clearly that anytime you eat processed food, you are taking a risk. It is pretty much impossible to know what exactly is in your food and where it came from. It also highlights how difficult it can be to separate oneself from the industrial food system. It's easy to avoid a big industrial steak or to buy veggie broth rather than chicken broth. But if you really want to eliminate mysterious additives or industrial animal products, you just have to buy food raw and prepare it yourself.

So, what to do about the chocolate... Well, first I will send an email to Trader Joe's and see if I can find out which company makes the organic evaporated cane juice used in their products. Hopefully, I can then figure out if bone char really is used in the processing, and how it can still be considered organic. In the meantime, though, I will probably buy the chocolate. The fact that it is 95% organic means that the 95% of the ingredients were grown in a less environmentally-damaging way. It's also fair trade and contains few additives. It may use bones from animals that were raised in a CAFO, but let's be honest – it isn't the refinement of evaporated cane juice that drives the industrial food system. The proliferation of cheap feed calories and our expectation of unlimited access to cheap meat drive the system. My chocolate consumption (or lack thereof) will not have an impact. It's much more important to avoid industrial meat and processed foods. And besides, every “diet” needs a touch of sweetness. And this dairy-free, gluten-free, organic, fair trade, dark chocolate bar sounds like the best option. Mmm, bone char.

Here are a couple of the links I found regarding bone char: