Bringing Back Ancient Food Preparation Traditions to Nashville, Tennessee 4.88/5 (6)

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We live in a time when plant based diets are being touted as the only or perhaps the ideal way to maintain health for humans as well as the health of our planet. One of the challenges with this emerging paradigm is that plants don’t want to get eaten any more than we do. The difference between plants and animals is that they can run for their lives while plants can’t. As we will see later in this article plants are master alchemists and they utilize phytochemical or phytoalexins (phyto means plant in Greek) in ingenious ways to protect themselves not just from omnivores like us and other animals but also from pests and bugs. Plant phytoalexins (alexin means protect in Greek) are beneficial or protective to humans in the short term and at the same time become harmful to us in the long term because they are also intended to protect plants from extinction. Anyone that consumes plants, in particular plant seeds, will eventually have health effects if these are prepared without adequately addressing plant defenses over time because seeds are the most protected of all plant components. 

Georgia Ede MD, a Harvard Medical School graduate and practicing psychiatrist, has been an advocate of evidence-based nutrition information to reverse mental and physical health issues. On her website you can find related information on how consuming food made with plant seeds together with animal foods can lead over time to mental and physical health issues because protective phytochemicals block the absorption of nutrients from animal foods. For example the graph below shows how much zinc is blocked from being absorbed by phytochemicals such as phytic acid in black beans and corn when eaten with oysters. 

This study illustrates the significant impact of phytic acid on zinc absorption. The graph indicates the rate of zinc absorption from oysters alone, and oysters when eaten with black beans or corn tortillas. (Solomons et al. 1979 J Lab Clin Med 94(2):335-343)

If the phytic acid in corn and beans block the absorption of zinc in oysters as much as it is shown on this graph then what other minerals are also blocked by phytic acid? It turns out that phosphorus, calcium, copper, iron, and magnesium are also blocked by binding to them and preventing absorption2. For example the evidence in research literature suggests that subclinical magnesium deficiency is rampant and one of the leading causes of chronic diseases around the world3. One reason is that our industrialized food systems are corn, wheat and soy based. 

Since the effect of these phytochemicals are not well known many people tend to dismiss this information, however medical records at the beginning of the 20thcentury paint a clear picture of the devastating effects phytochemicals in seeds such as corn can have. In 1992 Alfred J. Bollet, MD published an article of the effects of maize phytochemicals on people in the United States titled Politics and Pellagra: The Epidemic of Pellagra in the U.S. in the Early Twentieth Centuryin the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine4.

“The epidemic of Pellagra, which caused over 3 million cases and 100,000 deaths in the U.S., has been largely forgotten, and the reason for the outbreak is not widely known, even though it is a phenomenon which caused a similar disease outbreak in the Far East (Beriberi) beginning a few years earlier, and it could happen again.

Maize had been a dietary staple of the American Indians, and no change had occurred in the genetics of the corn used, or in the method of planting and harvesting, to account for the appearance of an epidemic of Pellagra in the U.S. early in the twentieth century. The Indians ground their corn into meal using lime water, and alkali has been demonstrated to increase the extraction of the nicotinic acid which is present in corn, increasing its nutritional value.”

As stated by Dr. Bollet, native Americans who relied heavily on maize as a staple food didn’t have any issues with Pellagra. The way they prepared their maize has received the name of nixtamalization. This tradition wasn’t just practiced in North America but also by the Maya in Meso America where maize originated 8,700 years ago5. The pericarp contains most of the protective phytochemicals the maize grasses produce so its removal turns it into a more nutritious staple food. These phytochemicals are also concentrated in most other plant seeds. It should come to no surprise that the more nutritious a plant seed is the more it is protected as in the case of soybeans or wheat. Besides the synthetic toxins in genetically modified soybeans, the best known naturally occurring soybean phytochemicals are:

Not surprisingly soybean oil, which is the most widely used fat in the American industrialized food system6, has been shown to play a significant role in obesity and diabetes, actually upregulating genes involved in obesity7. Remarkably, soybean oil was found to be more obesogenic than fructose. It’s also been shown to cause neurological changes in the brain8,9

In Asian countries and even in our very own backyard the pericarp of soybeans is removed prior to the production of tofu or soy milk. Edenfoods, a Michigan producer of soybean products, dutifully removes the pericarp of soybeans because of its abundance of phytic acid and other anti-nutrients10, another term for phytoalexins. In addition to removing the pericarp for some seeds the removal of protective phytochemicals in plants also involves soaking, sprouting, cooking, long fermentation and many others. Phytochemicals are also present in other plant parts and we would benefit by addressing these as well when using them for food.

I have incorporated many of the practices mentioned in this article when preparing my food at home, the downside is that it is extremely time consuming and very few people given our very busy lives will have time or make time to implement them. Therefore with this article I am proposing we setup Nashville, TN as the first city in the country to have its own high volume traditional food preparation hub. Will you join me in helping to establish the first intentional community outside of Nashville that will feed our amazing city in ways that will nourish us fully and keep us from catching the maladies resulting from the current industrialized food system? In my humble opinion, given our collective health challenges, providing Nashville only with organically grown produce and seeds from local farms will not be enough for our local food movement to thrive.


  4. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 65 (1992), 211-221
  6. Eurekalert January 17, 2020 
  7. PLOS ONE July 22, 2015, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0132672
  8. Endocrinology January 8, 2020, bqz044
  9. Eurekalert January 17, 2020 

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