Recently by Mark Sisson: Not Your Typical Before and Afters
Perhaps the most common question I get from readers is some variation on the classic “Is X Primal?” Probably a half dozen times a day, “Is this Primal?” or “Is that Primal?” pop up in my inbox, often attached to some ridiculous food or product. My personal favorite was “Is whole wheat bread Primal?” (it’s not), closely followed by “What’s more Primal, red or black licorice?” But that’s not to suggest that all I get is nonsense. Some — most, even — are actually quite reasonable queries about foods that either seem to reside in Primal limbo, get talked up by people who you’d think would “know better,” or just taste really good and have people hoping that somehow, someway they’re compatible with Primal living.
Today, I’ll be scrutinizing ten commonly asked-about foods. Let’s go:
It often feels like the coconut enjoys deific status in the Primal community, and for good reason. It’s rich in medium chain triglycerides, a relatively rare type of fat with some intriguing health effects, particularly for weight loss and brain health. Its flesh can be pulverized and combined with water to form a creamy, milky beverage that works well in curries, coffee, and with berries, or dried and ground to form a useful flour. But what about the water? The water is where all the sugar lies (16 grams in 12 ounces), so it’s natural for some people to be suspicious. Sugary drinks, whether they be soda or juice, are generally frowned upon.
But coconut water has some cool stuff going on. It contains five electrolytes the human body needs to function — potassium, magnesium, sodium, phosphate, and calcium. In a pinch, it can double as a short-term IV hydration fluid. It’s good for a hangover (or so I hear). It can rehydrate athletes after exercise, and though it isn’t particularly more effective than something like Gatorade, it’s certainly tastier and healthier.
Verdict: Primal, but kinda sugary, so go easy on it unless you’re in Thailand sipping on fresh young coconuts (because there’s nothing quite like cold coconut water straight from the coconut), nursing a hangover, or training hard and need the hydration.
Chocolate milk? You’re probably wondering why this one didn’t get tossed out as nonsense, and I don’t blame you. For one, it’s dairy, usually low-fat and ultra-pasteurized. Two, it’s full of sugar. Three, it’s chocolate milk. What’s the deal here?
Chocolate milk is actually enjoying a renaissance in the fitness community. Over the past several years, a number of studies have teased out the recovery benefits provided by post-workout chocolate milk:
- Muscle protein turnover and performance enhancement after endurance training — Following a 45-minute run, trained subjects who consumed fat-free chocolate milk (as opposed to a carbohydrate only beverage, like Gatorade) experienced improved muscle protein turnover and a higher treadmill time to exhaustion.
- Improved recovery after prolonged endurance exercise — Following several cycling sessions, subjects who consumed chocolate milk were able to recover more quickly for a subsequent session to failure. They lasted 51% and 43% longer than the cyclists who had a carb-only beverage or just water. An earlier study found similar results.
It seems like it’s the protein content of chocolate milk, paired with the sugar content, that provides the benefits over just water or Gatorade. I’ll agree that if there’s a “good time” to consume sugary beverages, it’s immediately after a long workout, because the sugar will be primarily (if not completely) used to fuel your energy-sapped muscles. Throw in some high quality dairy protein and you have yourself a decent recovery drink. Better than Gatorade, at least.
But really? If I were you, I’d just eat some meat, a piece of fruit, and have some water. Or if you do milk, have plain whole milk, preferably raw, skip the “chocolate,” and eat a banana. That way you get the dairy protein and some fast-acting sugar.
Verdict: Not Primal.
We tout dark chocolate over milk for several reasons:
- Dark chocolate generally contains more cacao, which is the source of all the polyphenols and other antioxidants that provide most of the health benefits associated with chocolate.
- Dark chocolate generally contains less sugar than milk chocolate, making it healthier and giving it more of a complex flavor profile (rather than just cloyingly sweet).
- Dark chocolate contains healthy fats, like stearic acid (which has a neutral effect on LDL), while the milk in most milk chocolates comes from powdered dairy. It can also be adulterated with vegetable oils (because using cocoa butter in milk chocolate when soybean oil is available is just crazy talk, right?).
- Dark chocolate is more filling than milk chocolate. For the most part, you don’t see people going on three-bar 85% cacao dark chocolate binges. Polishing off a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, though? Who hasn’t done that at least once?
That said, in recent years a new wave of “dark” milk chocolates has surfaced, sporting higher cacao contents, complex flavor profiles, and lower sugar counts. Slitti’s Lattenero 70%, for instance, is 70% cacao. If you go with one of these bars, and you’re okay with dairy, I don’t see a problem with it, especially since the presence of milk proteins do not seem to affect absorption of polyphenols. Besides, it’s not like chocolate — dark or milk or dark milk — should be anything but a treat.
Verdict: Potentially Primal.
Everything that’s good in good dark chocolate can be found in cocoa mass, which is simply the fermented, roasted, ground, crushed cocoa beans. Cocoa mass has both the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter, but that’s it. No sugar, no flavorings, no binders, no emulsifiers. It’s the last step before undergoing either Dutch processing or Broma processing, the former of which removes most of the phenolic content and the latter of which preserves it (along with some bitterness). Cocoa mass, then, contains all the antioxidants, all the phenolic content, and all the bitterness. It’s great stuff if you can handle it. If you can’t, you might try melting a nugget in a small saucepan with some coconut milk. Add a bit of cinnamon, some cayenne, and a teaspoon of sweetener (honey, maple syrup, stevia), and you have yourself a delicious way to eat real cocoa mass.
Just make sure you’re really getting 100% cocoa mass and nothing else. Here’s an example of a good 100% product. Or you could dig up some unsweetened baker’s chocolate, which is high in antioxidants and is basically just cocoa mass formed into bars.
If dark chocolate and cocoa mass are Primal, then cocoa butter definitely qualifies, too. It’s mostly saturated (stearic acid) fat, with about 30% monounsaturated, and a paltry amount of polyunsaturated fat.
From what I’ve seen, cocoa butter as a cooking fat hasn’t really gone mainstream, so you’ll probably have to pay a premium for it. I don’t see any huge advantage to it (besides maybe the LDL-neutral stearic acid content), but if you can get a good price, go for it.