Why Members of Remote Tribes Make the Best Food Scientists

We’ve all read (or seen televised) stories from anthropologists who’ve lived extremely remote tribal communities, cut off from modern civilization. When it comes to describing what the tribe members ate, the anthropologist tells a story something like this.

Every morning, the women take the [insert name of root] and make it into their [name of breakfast dish]. When the hunt is successful, they will share a [insert name of meat] or [other meat]. In the evening, they eat [name of food] and [name of food].
What stands out to me isn’t what they ate. That varies widely from community to community. What struck me was this:

1) Their diet is made up of just a few dozen foods, or less.

2) All the members of the community eat the same diet.

How does modern Western society compare?
To compare you could select one random block, in one random North American* street, and record what everyone had for breakfast. You’ll no doubt find that some ate cereal or eggs, some had donuts, pop tarts, fruit, yogurt, bread with jam or a croissant. Some ate nothing and others finished off some cold leftover pizza and a coke. In short, you’re bound to find huge variety.

Let’s narrow it down to cereal eaters: still lots of variety. Think of how many different brands are used by all the people on one city block - even different brands in one home or one bowl. Let’s narrow it down to just the people eating one particular cereal, like Honey Nut Cheerios. It’s made up of 11 ingredients plus added 12 added vitamins and minerals. And then some pour whole milk over it, while other use skim milk, soy milk, raw milk etc... Endless variety.

Why is variety a problem?
The experimental method that science is based upon is the study of cause and effect. To determine which factor causes which effect, you must deliberately manipulate one variable while keeping all the other variables constant. This is basic. We learned this in high school.

In most food-related experiments, one group of subjects is given a food, or an isolated element of that food (think curcumin capsules instead of cooking with turmeric) and experimenters look for specific measurable effects (for instance blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, or joint pain) in the experimental group as compared to the control group, which receives a placebo. The experiment often lasts a few weeks or a few months.

This might indeed give us some insight. However, if you are measuring a specific outcome, such as blood pressure, you may miss a general outcome, such as whether the substance makes you keel over and die from a stroke after 10 years of eating it. The experiment won’t find that out. Most experiments don’t last for many years. What if the food affected something else? Maybe you’d only keel over when the substance in ingested along with some other substance?

How does it work in remote communities?
Compare this to an entire community eating virtually the same diet every day, year after year, except for the odd troublemaker. The constancy allows the tribe to learn the effects of a particular food over a lifetime – especially when some wiseguy tries something that’s not on the community’s menu. Let’s say, for example, tht parents have taught their kids not to eat the purple berries. Presumably, every once in a while, someone eats them anyway and gets sick. I bet everyone laughs at him too. After all, everyone knows not to touch the purple berries!

When the purple berry eater develops a disease otherwise unknown in the community after eating purple berries for ten years, it’s easy to understand what caused the disease, and to pass that information (don’t eat the purple berries!) down to future generations.

Don't eat the purple berries!
 Back to Western societyWhat if someone gets sick after ten years of exposure to the tripotassium phosphate* in Honey Nut Cheerios? Could the Cheerios eater ever know the cause? Could his tribe ever know? Could scientists devise an experiment to pinpoint the cause? No, because only the isolated tribe is truly controlling all the variables (though their experimental group is, admittedly, small). I promise you that no scientist anywhere has a ten-year study going in which the experimental group is eating a diet containing tripotassium phosphate, and a control group is eating an identical diet without tripotassium phosphate, while the scientists monitor the general effect. The variables are hopelessly uncontrollable. You can’t control every food item a subject in an experiment eats, and even if you tried to, how would you know if he or she complied?

In the final analysis, you have to eat something. While the scientists argue among themselves which additive is benign and which is harmful, while the food technologists develop ways to make low-fat ice cream out of wood, I’ll put my money on the foods that have been eaten by people safely for hundreds of years, and try to prepare them in the traditional ways.

* Or take a European street, a Middle Eastern street, an Asian street, etc. You’ll get lots a similar result.

* Tripotassium phosphate is simply used here as a random example.


Shaniqua said...

LOVE it!

Anonymous said...

YES. This is what I've been arguing for years. There is NO TRUE WESTERN CONTROL GROUP. So all this 'science' that is supposed to inform our eating habits is entirely unreliable. We need to learn how to gauge our own observations, especially as mothers. Thank you for putting this idea into more practical terms!

Jill@RealFoodForager.com said...

Hi Ruth,
This is a really interesting concept you are writing about. Thanks so much for sharing it at FAT TUESDAY! Hope to see you next week!

Lisa C said...

Nice. I have this book, just haven't had time to read it yet. But like you said, it makes so much sense to trust the info learned from these isolated groups.

Sandrine Hahn said...

Hi Ruth, I am so excited to find you via vie a post on Facebook! My name is Sandrine Hahn and I lead Nourishing Our Children, an educational initiative of the San Francisco Chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation. I recently launched a blog as a means by which to archive my hundreds of Facebook posts so our readers may search for content!


If you aren't already familiar with Nourishing Our Children: http://www.nourishingourchildren.org/Home.html

I lived in Israel for several years as an undergraduate college student ... and was delighted to see your Hebrew version of this blog! I will spread the word amongst Hebrew speakers. Are you the chapter leader in Tel Aviv?

What is the traditional food scene like in Israel?! I am so curious to know ...

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