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What I talk about when I talk about the show Alone, how what we eat when we're older translates can lead to improved brain size and the unlikely fantasy of unicorn meat.
I didn’t realize how vital animal protein was to our survival until I watched Alone, a reality show on the History channel. Some backstory: the show drops about a dozen skilled survivalists in remote locations, near each other but not close enough to collaborate. They can bring up to ten personal items––an ax, a tarp and bow and arrow ranked high. No cameras follow them, and the contestants must capture their own actions with personal devices.
Most seem to appreciate the challenge of building a shelter, living off the land and being completely alone for a few months, but there’s also a half-a-million dollar prize at the end. Many “tap out” (a way to call it quits) because they miss their loved ones; many more are pulled from the land because they’re losing too much weight and the producers are concerned for their safety. Some players resist being pulled (que tears) and others realize the threat of starvation.
Hunger and the quest for animal protein became the major points that I ping-ponged between. Hunger is a real problem that many deal with, rarely for television. On Alone, the contestants dropped pounds in a blink because they were in constant motion and living on unfamiliar land. Some were just plain terrible at hunting. Some of it could have been in the editing.
In the ten items players could bring, they could opt for two food items such as flour, beef jerky, hard tack military biscuits or chocolate. I’ve yet to see someone on camera with any of these items but I’d for sure have chosen to bring the maximum. Also maybe a really long book like Infinite Jest or Moby Dick. (However, no books were on the approved list.)
The most popular tactic appeared to be gaining extra weight prior to the show under the guidance that it would help them last longer. It didn’t work. Many spent far too much time building a shelter, expending calories without catching or consuming anything. I thought that maybe they were going about it all wrong.
But really what do I know? I’m not a survivalist.
As I sat on the couch watching what felt like the American version of Slow TV, I kept wondering if a better approach might be to follow an extreme version of intermittent fasting and caloric restriction. People who fast have learned to control their mind when they don’t have food, their appetites are suppressed yet they can go for huge swaths of the day without eating while remaining active.
I also wondered why few had boned up on foraging edible plants. Although lower in calories than fat or protein, plants are a vital part of remaining healthy (on the show and off), and it was rarely what we saw being played out. Most contestants focused on setting traps and trying to kill big game like moose, bear, and deer. Fish, the most optimal of foods, seemed to be forgotten at times.
Fish need little processing––they can be dried or cured quickly. You can eat almost all of the fish. The omegas alone are worth their weight in gold. Only one contestant (that I’ve seen) chose salt. Smart guy. Maybe he knew that humans need salt to help balance internal fluids and minerals. Maybe he just knew it would make things tastier. (Unfortunately, he also ate contaminated beaver and had to leave the show early.)
Everyone picked and ate berries but could you go more than a week on berries alone? One contestant made fruit leather out of it. Another, Theresa, brought a scale to weigh her berries so she could maintain her weight. She posted on social media about her diet. (In Season 8 she appears to be wasting away and rarely on the hunt.)
“Contrary to the edit which seems to indicate that I lived on air until finding a dead fish on the beach…. I was gathering intensively every day I was out. Living on plant foods is far from the idyllic fairy tale that seems to be a prevalent misconception in the outdoor communities. The majority of plant food is a low caloric return for the caloric investment necessary to gather then prepare it. I often spent entire days processing food to make it digestible, but that was what I had.”
Unlike killing animals to survive on a show, which seemed necessary, killing animals for our own dinners, when we have supermarkets filled with an array of options, seems like something we can do without. On watching the show, I tried to consider how I felt about pristine land being damaged—trees felled, animals killed–– all to host a show that I would then watch from my couch.
Do we need meat? No. But the show presents a very compelling narrative that animal protein is crucial to our survival. At least to win half a mil. And it’s the reason we have over a hundred cultivated meat startups attempting to deliver us a new way to attain our animal protein fix. Do we need it? Can we live on plants? The answer of course is yes we can live on plants. But will we?
In a new study, researchers reported that older adults with higher blood levels of B vitamins, vitamins C, D and E and omega-3s scored better on tests of mental performance and showed healthier brains––and more brain area––in MRI scans. Older adults who eat a diet high in trans fats scored worse and had less brain area. The study out of University of Oregon looked at 104 non-demented adults at an average age of 87. All the participants underwent nutrient blood testing for 30 plasma biomarkers of diet and a battery of cognitive tests. “The most consistent favorable pattern for mental function included the combination of high blood levels of vitamins B1, B2, B6, folate, B12, C, D and E.” While many nutrition studies rely on self-reporting, this one is important for its use of nutrient blood levels. Here’s the study and a recap by Tufts.
Now that cultivated meat has gained limited regulatory approval, everyone is writing about it. The Atlantic suggests our future Monday night dinner might include unicorn meat or other offbeat fantasy animal. Minions perhaps? If you read my book, the last chapter has a crystal ball of a bunch of possible future ideas from well-known foodies. Still haven’t read Technically Food? Get your copy here.
San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing announced it’s closing after more than 127 years of operation. Why a craft brewery of this status is failing when beer is finally on the upswing after the pandemic? Maybe it’s because it was bought by Sapporo in 2017 or maybe it was the strange re-branding attempt, which made Anchor’s beer cans look more like sparkling water and kombucha instead of beer. On a positive note, there’s still a chance the brewery can find a buyer. They have 60 days.
The grocery biz ain’t easy. Perfect Day announced another round of layoffs at the Berkeley-startup focused primarily on its business units handling packaged foods. Let’s hope this helps them focus on scaling up its ingredients rather than worrying about what fickle consumers think.
Where you can find me:
I offered up my kitchen gadget of the future to Bon Appétit and you can see it in the August issue. It’s not in the print issue (alas) but you can find it online behind a paywall (alas).
Despite the news that cultivated meat can now be sold in restaurants, it will be limited in scope and take time to reach beyond a few restaurants. I wrote a piece for Fast Company about how hybrid meat will be the solution of the near future. This means plants and meat or plants and cultivated meat.
What I’m reading:
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver and I can’t put it down.
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