The Spirit of Pine Valley

A Unique Community Living with Nature

To Preserve Their Health and Heritage, Arizona Indians Reclaim Ancient Foods

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May 21, 1991, New York Times

Going back to one’s roots could soon take on a more literal meaning for the Indians of the American Southwest, as well as for peoples elsewhere in the world who are poorly adapted to rich, refined foods.

For the sake of their health, as well as their cultural heritage, the Pima and Tohono O’odham tribes of Arizona are being urged to rediscover the desert foods their people traditionally consumed until as recently as the 1940’s. Studies strongly indicate that people who evolved in these arid lands are metabolically best suited to the feast-and-famine cycles of their forebears who survived on the desert’s unpredictable bounty, both wild and cultivated.

By contrast, the modern North American diet is making them sick. With rich food perpetually available, weights in the high 200’s and 300’s are not uncommon among these once-lean people. As many as half the Pima and Tohono O’odham (formerly Papago) Indians now develop diabetes by the age of 35, an incidence 15 times higher than for Americans as a whole. Yet before World War II, diabetes was rare in this population.

Similar problems have been found among Australian aborigines, Pacific Islanders and other peoples whose survival historically depended on their ability to stash away calories in times of plenty to sustain them during droughts and crop failures. The Pima and Tohono O’odham Indians seem unusually efficient at turning calories to body fat; nutritionists say they gain weight readily on the kinds and amounts of foods people of European descent can eat with no problem.

Preliminary studies have indicated that a change in the Indian diet back to the beans, corn, grains, greens and other low-fat, high-fiber plant foods that their ancestors depended upon can normalize blood sugar, suppress between-meal hunger and probably also foster weight loss.

These findings may also prove valuable to non-Indians who are susceptible to overweight and diabetes, and perhaps also those prone to high blood pressure and heart disease. The benefits, which are also found in a few more familiar foods like oat bran and okra, stem primarily from two characteristics of the native foods: their high content of soluble fibers that form edible gels, gums and mucilages, and a type of starch called amylose that is digested very slowly. The combined effect is to prevent wide swings in blood sugar, slow down the digestive process and delay the return of hunger.

Peaks in blood sugar increase the body’s need for insulin and dips in blood sugar can trigger feelings of hunger. In the form of diabetes that strikes these Indians the overweight body becomes insensitive to insulin. Weight loss increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin and slow digestion diminishes the need for insulin.

Native Indigenous Plants

On the Arizona desert, the desirable food ingredients are found in edible parts of such indigenous plants as the mesquite (mes-KEET) tree, cholla (CHOY-a) and prickly pear cactus, as well as in tepary (TEP-a-ree) beans, chia (CHEE-a) seeds and acorns from live oaks. Tribal elders speak fondly of these one-time favorites, which in recent decades have been all but forgotten as hamburgers, fries, soft drinks and other fatty, sugary, overly refined fast and packaged foods gained favor.

Even those Indians who still rely heavily on beans and corn are today consuming varieties that have little or none of the nutritive advantages found in the staples of their historic diet. For example, the sweet corn familiar to Americans contains rapidly digested starches and sugars, which raise sugar levels in the blood, while the hominy-type corn of the traditional Indian diet has little sugar and mostly starch that is slowly digested.

Similarly, the pinto beans that the Federal Government now gives to the Indians (along with lard, refined wheat flour, sugar, coffee and processed cereals) are far more rapidly digested than the tepary beans the Tohon O’odham once depended upon. Indeed, their former tribal name is a distorted version of the Indian word meaning “the Bean People.”

When Earl Ray, a Pima Indian who lives near Phoenix, switched to a more traditional native diet of mesquite meal, tepary beans, cholla buds and chaparral tea, he dropped from 239 pounds to less than 150 and brought his severe diabetes under control without medication. In a federally financed study of 11 Indian volunteers predisposed to diabetes, a diet of native foods rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates kept blood sugar levels on an even keel and increased the effectiveness of insulin. When switched back to a low-fiber “convenience-market diet” containing the same number of calories, the volunteers’ blood sugar skyrocketed and their sensitivity to insulin declined.

Much Foliage, Few Beans

In addition to the potential health benefits of traditional desert foods, agricultural and economic factors strongly favor their production. Marty Eberhardt, the director of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, pointed out that the plants that produce these foods are naturally adapted to growing under conditions of high heat and little water.

Martha Burgess, education director of Native Seeds/Search, a seed bank and research and education organization here that studies and promotes the use of native desert plant foods, said, for example, that “if tepary bean plants are given lots of water, they produce tons of foliage and few beans,” adding, “But if the plants are starved of water, they put their effort into flowers and seeds and produce beans that can have as much protein as soybeans.”

Under the direction of Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, Native Seeds/Search, the (the acronym stands for Southwestern Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House) is studying the value of native desert foods for controlling diabetes among Indians and Hispanic Americans of the border region. Dr. Nabhan, an ethnobotanist, was recently named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant to pursue his studies of the agronomic characteristics and health value of desert food plants.

The group, which is housed on the grounds of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, teaches health professionals about native foods and promotes their use through school and community programs, seed distribution and cooking instruction.
“We should be eating the foods that grow here naturally instead of spending so much to bring in packaged foods,” Ms. Eberhardt said. “People find themselves shin-deep in mesquite beans they don’t know what to do with, and some of us feel guilty throwing them into the landfill.”

Although most Arizonans consider mesquite, which occupies 70 million acres in the American Southwest, a pesky weed, it is loaded with nutritious pods that have a natural caramel-like sweetness. Carolyn J. Niethammer, the author of “American Indian Food and Lore” and “The Tumbelweed Gourmet,” a cookbook published by the University of Arizona Press that features desert plants, said that mesquite pods were good sources of calcium, manganese, iron and zinc. The seeds within them are about 40 percent protein, almost double the protein content of common legumes. Even during a drought, mesquite is a prolific producer of seed-filled pods.

The Value of Mesquite

Carlos Nagel, who heads Friends of Pronatura, an American affiliate of a Mexican conservation agency, remarked that “a healthy stand of mesquite produces as much food value through its pods as does a wheat field under cultivation, and the mesquite does it without capitalization, pesticides, fertilizer or irrigation and with minimal cultivation.”

Dr. Nabhan, who has participated in medical studies of mesquite and other desert foods, said that despite its sweetness, mesquite flour (made by grinding whole pods) “is extremely effective in controlling blood sugar levels” in people with diabetes. The sweetness comes from fructose, which the body can process without insulin. In addition, soluble fibers, such as galactomannin gum, in the seeds and pods slow absorbtion of nutrients, resulting in a flattened blood sugar curve, unlike the peaks that follow consumption of wheat flour, corn meal and other common staples.

“The gel-forming fiber allows foods to be slowly digested and absorbed over a four- to six-hour period, rather than in one or two hours, which produces a rapid rise in blood sugar,” Dr. Nabhan explained. He likened this “slow-release” New World food to two Old World legumes, guar and carob, that are being used in Europe to help control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
Dr. Nabhan, who has scoured the Southwest for remnants of nutritious wild and once-cultivated plants, said: “Prior to World War II, mesquite was the single most important wild food staple for the native desert peoples and probably protected them from developing diabetes. However, such wild foods were discouraged by the forces of ‘civilization’ and they dropped out of native diets.”

Mesquite pods and acorns from the Emory Oak, a nondeciduous oak of the arid Southwest, are among the 10 best foods ever tested in terms of maintaining stable blood sugar levels, Dr. Nabhan said. After falling from the trees, these small, tasty, oval nuts are naturally toasted by the hot desert sun. They can be shelled and eaten whole as a snack or ground into meal to make burgers and muffins.

Also rich in health-promoting fiber are the drought-hardy tepary beans, the only cultivated beans with heat-resistant enzymes that can withstand the 100-plus degrees of the Sonoran Desert, Mr. Burgess said. Teparies, rich in protein, iron and calcium, once sustained many Indians of the Southwest, as well as the famed Tarahumara Indian runners of Mexico. But when post-war Government welfare programs began giving pintos to the Tohono O’odham and Pima Indians, they lost their incentive to grow teparies, which are better for them because they are digested more slowly. Today Mr. Nagel is trying to reverse the trend. In a cooperative program with Mexican farmers, he is fostering cultivation of a variety of tepary beans, which are already being grown commercially by Pima Indians in Sacaton, Arizona.

‘Jell-O of the Desert’

Amaranth, known to some gardeners as pigweed, is another nutritious, drought-tolerant plant that thrives in the desert, producing both greens and seeds that once nourished the Indians. The seeds are rich in high-quality protein, and both the seeds and greens are loaded with calcium. Mrs. Burgess said that amaranth is but one of many edible weeds commonly discarded by home gardeners, who fail to appreciate their nutritive and culinary value.

Mrs. Burgess is also enthusiastic about protein-rich chia seeds from a salvia plant that produces two seed crops a year. When mixed with water, the fiber in chia forms a gel that lowers cholesterol and keeps blood sugar stable. She tells Native American children that chia is “the Jell-O of the desert.”

Cactus, the signature plants of the desert landscape, round out the nutritious native-foods diet. Buds from the cholla are rich in calcium; one tablespoon has the calcium equivalent of eight ounces of milk. Cholla buds and the fruits and pads of the prickly pear are also rich in soluble fibers that help to normalize blood sugar.

Dr. Nabhan said that 20 other native desert foods were now being analyzed for their fiber and starch content, and he predicted the availability of an ever-widening menu of nutritious ingredients.

Among the main remaining hurdles is the need to develop commercial sources of foods like mesquite meal and to convince diabetes-prone Indians that it is worth the trouble to prepare and consume their traditional foods. Native American interns are assisting in the effort, which is being pursued in school lunchrooms and classrooms and at reservation clinics and health fairs.
Still, Mrs. Burgess said, habits are hard to change. “The most frequent question from potential consumers is, ‘If I eat these foods can I then eat all the hamburgers and ice cream I want?’ ” she said. “Everyone is looking for a quick fix.”