Our story begins in East Africa in 1935, with two Bantu tribes called the Kikuyu and the Wakamba. Their traditional diets were mostly vegetarian and consisted of sweet potatoes, corn, beans, plantains, millet, sorghum, wild mushrooms and small amounts of dairy, small animals and insects. Their food was agricultural, high in carbohydrate and low in fat.
Dr. Weston Price found them in good health, with well-formed faces and dental arches, and a dental cavity rate of roughly 6% of teeth. Although not as robust or as resistant to tooth decay as their more carnivorous neighbors, the "diseases of civilization" such as cardiovascular disease and obesity were nevertheless rare among them. South African Bantu eating a similar diet have a low prevalence of atherosclerosis, and a measurable but low incidence of death from coronary heart disease, even in old age.
How do we reconcile this with the archaeological data showing a general decline in human health upon the adoption of agriculture? Humans did not evolve to tolerate the toxins, anti-nutrients and large amounts of fiber in grains and legumes. Our digestive system is designed to handle a high-quality omnivorous diet. By high-quality, I mean one that has a high ratio of calories to indigestible material (fiber). Our species is very good at skimming off the highest quality food in nearly any ecological niche. Animals that are accustomed to high-fiber diets, such as cows and gorillas, have much larger, more robust and more fermentative digestive systems.
One factor that reconciles the Bantu data with the archaeological data is that much of the Kikuyu and Wakamba diet came from non-grain sources. Sweet potatoes and plantains are similar to the starchy wild plants our ancestors have been eating for nearly two million years, since the invention of fire (the time frame is debated but I think everyone agrees it's been a long time). Root vegetables and starchy fruit have a higher nutrient bioavailibility than grains and legumes due to their lower content of anti-nutrients and fiber.
The second factor that's often overlooked is food preparation techniques. These tribes did not eat their grains and legumes haphazardly! This is a factor that was overlooked by Dr. Price himself, but has been emphasized by Sally Fallon. Healthy grain-based African cultures typically soaked, ground and fermented their grains before cooking, creating a sour porridge that's nutritionally superior to unfermented grains. The bran was removed from corn and millet during processing, if possible. Legumes were always soaked prior to cooking.
These traditional food processing techniques have a very important effect on grains and legumes that brings them closer in line with the "paleolithic" foods our bodies are designed to digest. They reduce or eliminate toxins such as lectins and tannins, greatly reduce anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and protease inhibitors, and improve vitamin content and amino acid profile. Fermentation is particularly effective in this regard. One has to wonder how long it took the first agriculturalists to discover fermentation, and whether poor food preparation techniques or the exclusion of animal foods could account for their poor health.
I recently discovered a paper that illustrates these principles: "Influence of Germination and Fermentation on Bioaccessibility of Zinc and Iron from Food Grains". It's published by Indian researchers who wanted to study the nutritional qualities of traditional fermented foods. One of the foods they studied was idli, a South Indian steamed "muffin" made from rice and beans. Idlis happen to be one of my favorite foods.
The amount of minerals your digestive system can extract from a food depends in part on the food's phytic acid content. Phytic acid is a molecule that traps certain minerals (iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium), preventing their absorption. Raw grains and legumes contain a lot of it, meaning you can only absorb a fraction of the minerals present in them.
In this study, soaking had a modest effect on the phytic acid content of the grains and legumes examined (although it's generally more effective). Fermentation, on the other hand, completely broke down the phytic acid in the idli batter, resulting in 71% more bioavailable zinc and 277% more bioavailable iron. It's safe to assume that fermentation also increased the bioavailability of magnesium, calcium and other phytic acid-bound minerals.
Fermenting the idli batter also completely eliminated its tannin content. Tannins are a class of molecules found in many plants that are toxins and anti-nutrients. They reduce feed efficiency and growth rate in a variety of species.
Lectins are another toxin that's frequently mentioned in the paleolithic diet community. They are blamed for everything from digestive problems to autoimmune disease, probably with good reason. One of the things people like to overlook in this community is that traditional processing techniques such as soaking, sprouting, fermentation and cooking, greatly reduce or eliminate lectins from grains and legumes. One notable exception is gluten, which survives all but the longest fermentation and is not broken down by cooking.
Soaking, sprouting, fermenting, grinding and cooking are the techniques by which traditional cultures have been making the most of grain and legume-based diets for thousands of years. We ignore these time-honored traditions at our own peril.