The Importance of Raw and Fermented Foods by Nicola on 2012-05-25
Inuit Diet: The Importance of Raw and Fermented Foods
By Dr Nicola J Davies
Inuit and their descendants living in Nunavut make up about 85% of the population of the newest of the Canadian Territories. The population of around 31,000 people is spread across a cold but cozy area of Arctic land that is roughly the size of Western Europe. The geography and climate of this remote land have meant that the residents have needed to develop their own traditional diet over thousands of years, using what is provided by nature and the rotation of the seasons.
The country meats of the Inuit diet include seals, many species of fish, walrus, whale, Arctic char, Polar bear, musk ox, caribou, ptarmigan, goose and other species of bird, clams, mussels, Arctic hare, and any other creatures that can be hunted. The meat-based diet is supplemented by the gathering of parts of edible seasonal plants and their seeds, such as leaves, grasses, seaweeds, roots, tubers, wildflowers, mosses, grasses, lichens and berries. Berries such as cranberries, blackberries, cloudberries, blueberries, and crowberries occur naturally in some areas, and Inuit become experienced in finding and collecting them, and become well-informed about where they can be found, and the best time to harvest them.
Meat fat and animal parts, however, were the basis of the traditional diet. Some country recipes, such as muktuk, usually made from skin and blubber of the Bowhead Whale, are still made and enjoyed. As fuel to use for cooking and heating has been traditionally hard to find, most foods are eaten raw, and the vitamins essential for good health are therefore not destroyed by the process of cooking. After a hunt, the blood of a seal and its body parts such as the liver, are often eaten by the hunters while still fresh and warm, so as to restore body warmth and energy.
The deeply spiritual Inuit believe that consumption of these foods is essential for the maintenance of good health and a strong, warm, energetic body. They also believe that the blood of seals, when consumed, combines with their own blood to replace nutrients and restore vigour to the circulatory system, keeping the soul healthy as well as the body. The high level of animal fats in the diet presents little threat to good health, as flesh from wild fish and game is high in omega-3 fatty acids, and monounsaturated fats. Any change in diet that increases the consumption of foods high in polyunsaturated fats may lead to increases in the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and the other illnesses that afflict Westernized people in the modern world.
Inuit traditionally eat only when they are hungry, and their food culture involves two main meals each day, with frequent snacks in between these meals. Meals are served communally and people only eating what they need, in contrast with the Western way, which for many people involves choosing multiple food items from an abundance of readily-available processed foods, and eating for the sake of eating.
The concept of sharing food, as opposed to individual ownership of it, is at the heart of Inuit culture. Fresh meat and animal products are distributed amongst the hunters and their families and members of the community in need. Any food not required for immediate consumption is preserved by freezing or fermentation, or both. The process of fermentation is the breakdown of complex molecules by fermenting agents such as yeast or certain types of ‘good’ bacteria, with the production of heat and effervescence. It requires treating and storing the food over an extended period, under the correct conditions. The process varies with the kind of food that is being fermented.
Wild fish, found in both fresh and salt water are plentiful, and traditionally caught using a line and lure lowered through a hole cut in the ice, and a spear on which the fish is impaled. Fish supplies were traditionally fermented by Inuit by burying them in a hole in the ground for varying periods of time, a process that has become more difficult for those living in urban settlements. Fermented fish is eaten raw and frozen and offers the health benefits that come with the maintenance of levels of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system.
In recent times, improved transportation and a change to an economy more reliant on money, mean that imported canned, processed, packaged and preserved foods have become available. Unseasonal, non-traditional, fruit and vegetables are now also available year-round in the stores that have become established in the towns, albeit at a price up to 3 times higher than markets in more densely populated cities. Just this month, dozens of people in Coral Harbour protested against the high food prices outside the community’s Northern Store, as reported in the CBC News. With food prices going up, it has been found that as many as 70% of Inuit families in Nunavut are feeling insecure about food and don’t have enough food because they can’t afford it.
Inevitably, this situation is a catalyst for the breaking down of established habits and customs over time. In particular, for Inuit communities, purchasing food with one’s own money is contrary to the belief that food does not belong to any one person. Furthermore, there must be concerns that the substitution of supermarket foods for the country diet may affect the health of Inuit. These risks are real, but fortunately, Inuit understand and value their culture and the environment in which they live. Many continue to believe that their own diet of country foods, prepared and stored in traditional ways, has the most health benefits. In addition, the Canadian government is taking steps to help Canadians make healthy food choices through their ‘Nutrition North Canada’ initiative. This initiative is a retail subsidy program designed to increase access to country foods in isolated communities.
The importance of maintaining this belief in Inuit country raw and fermented foods will be explored in upcoming articles, including some tantalizing recipe ideas.
The Inuit Paradox by Patricia Gadsby: http://discovermagazine.com/2004/oct/inuit-paradox.
CBC News - Blame Retailers for High Arctic Food Prices: Aglukkaq: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/story/2011/02/16/north-food-costs-aglukkaq.html.
Country Food Recipes: http://icor.ottawainuitchildrens.com/node/32.
Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being. Her publications can be viewed at www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.com. Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/