Is Reintroducing Acorns into the Human Diet a Nutty Idea?

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If harvested sustainably and treated to remove bitter tannins, acorns may once again have a more prominent place in the kitchen.

As the world’s breadbaskets strain to meet the demands of the Earth’s growing population, already more than seven billion strong, we could use another nutritional, ecologically friendly food source. Could acorns, the fruits of the oak tree, be the answer? Certainly, they are beginning to draw renewed interest in the hunt for sustainable alternative food sources.

Over the past decade various Web sites, magazines and newspapers have recommended that the occasional acorn-based items be reintroduced into our diets. With a growing interest in foraging for local, edible wild plants, eating new and ever-more exotic food items and the need (both real and imagined) for gluten-free ingredients sweeping through parts of the Western world, is it possible that acorns—small nuts that fit all of these criteria—could be on the verge of a dietary comeback.

Clearly, acorns have always been a major component in the diets of various species of wildlife; insects, birds and mammals obtain much nutritional value from ingesting them. In fact, Janet Fryer, a plant ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, says that “oak species with their large, nutrient-rich acorns, may be the single most important genus used by wildlife for food and cover in California forests and rangelands.” Acorns are also an important food source for some domestic livestock. Farm animals—particularly hogs in Europe—have been fed a diet of acorns for centuries.

Although acorns rarely feature in today’s diet, their appeal was not lost on our human ancestors. Recent studies on Palaeolithic hunter–gathers in Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco suggest that acorns were a major food item in their diet. Balanophagy—the practice of eating acorns from the oak and tan oak genuses, Quercus andNotholithocarpus, has played an important part in the diets of many cultures around the world. In fact, the  Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, regarded the sacred oak as the “tree which first produced food for mortal man.”

Throughout time and across continents, acorns were eaten raw, roasted and boiled, and have been used to make oil, soup, mush, flour, coffee and quick snacks. The dietary and energetic components of acorns and their easy availability probably made them an important food item in the past, says Danny Rosenberg of the The Zinman Institute of Archaeology Laboratory for Groundstone Tools Research at the University of Haifa

Eating acorns was particularly important for many Native Americans living in California where oak trees were an abundant, reliable, naturally occurring resource. In fact, acorns were the staff of life for many of the indigenous people in California for millennia, says author and ethnobotanist Kat Anderson. Evidence has shown that acorn nutshell is the most abundant charred plant food residue in archaeological sites in all regions of central California. Although the acorn is no longer the focus of daily life for Native Americans, they still gather, prepare and eat foods made from acorns at special gatherings and celebrations (pdf). It is important to remember, however, that in the process of gathering acorns, native Californians used (and continue to use) sustainable gathering practices. They had/have rules: “Leave some of what is gathered for the other animals” and “not waste what you have harvested.” Is it now time to put the acorn back on the menu?

Why acorns?
There are hundreds of different oak species scattered around the world, and their productivity and nutritional content varies with the species and local environment. In general, acorns appear to be higher in caloric content per unit weight than cereal grains, a reliable source of vitamin C and starch, and high in magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. It is even thought that the high quality of jamón ibérico de bellota, a ham made in Iberia from pigs fed on a diet of acorns (and considered by many to be one of the finest hams in the world), is due to the high level of antioxidants in the acorns, which help to prevent lipid oxidation.

Written By: Dawn Starin
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

16 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #1 by A3Kr0n:

      It doesn’t matter to me if acorns are good for you or not. We’ve been lied to so many times by so many people about food that I don’t believe anybody anymore. I just eat whatever I want.

      You believe (on what basis?) you’ve been misled by a few people, so you’ll ignore all evidence and rely on your gut instinct? Are you sure you’ve come to the right website?

      In reply to #2 by Pete H:

      Are you volunteering? Lead by example and all that.

      In reply to #6 by TrickyDicky:

      So the same problem as wind power? I think the squirrels solved that one long ago. Um, the one you said, obv.

      Seriously, though, it doesn’t seem likely to become an industry. It’d be too long term to work in the current finance-driven system with plantations, etc, and too haphazard to be worthwhile with decent rates of pay (externalised costs aside).

  1. I second that.

    The real problem is not the food source, it’s the food sink.

    A better option might be to fully embrace unsustainability and have the 1 billion eat the other 6 billion. Would solve multiple problems simultaneously, including excess dietary sugars, global warming, as well as surging health expenditures and unfunded pension obligations. Then decide if acorns are really a worthwhile option.

    • In reply to #2 by Pete H:

      I second that.

      The real problem is not the food source, it’s the food sink.

      A better option might be to fully embrace unsustainability and have the 1 billion eat the other 6 billion.

      mmm Long Pork.

  2. Hmm, I’m curious…I have easy access to lots of oak trees right outside my door. I may have to fight with the squirrels though. Is there any variety of oak that is poisonous? Is pin oak edible?

  3. But is it a dependable food source?

    Last year the oak in my front garden had a bumper crop with the ground underneath carpeted in a thick layer of acorns.

    In 2012 the tree produced no acorns and neither did most of the oaks in my part of Essex.

  4. I’m certainly no expert but it strikes me as being a difficult crop to cultivate on a large enough scale to make any significant difference to the human food supply. Also, what will the squirrels eat?

    • In reply to #8 by paulmcuk:

      I’m certainly no expert but it strikes me as being a difficult crop to cultivate on a large enough scale to make any significant difference to the human food supply. Also, what will the squirrels eat?

      mmm squirrel.

  5. Let’s hope it doesn’t catch on among the “god save me from gluten” industry. I can just see harvester teams going out and stripping every oak in sight of its progeny just to make a fad product for Europeans and Americans who already eat too much.

  6. People throw vast amounts of food away due to the ridiculous “sell by” and “use by” or “best by” dates.
    When I was young we didn’t have a refrigerator. If something looked and smelt ok, then it usually was.
    Gluten intolerance was unheard of, as was the myriad of other namby pamby food allergies we hear of.
    I am not saying if we removed the dates the world food problem would be solved, but surely it is a contributing factor.

  7. A few thoughts…
    “Balanophagy—the practice of eating acorns from the oak ” – Really? We needed a word for that? Can’t we just call it eating?

    I gave up gluten several months ago…Now, I am NOT one of those fad people. I’m generally a pain in butt sceptic (say my friends), but I’d been reading about paleo diets and it made me curious. Someone at my gym challenged me to try it for a month, so I figured what the heck. It seemed healthy enough. I have to admit that my body feels better with no refined sugar, grains, dairy or processed food. Enough so, that I’ve stayed with it. I’m not recommending that anyone make any changes, nor am I making any claims other than I’ve had a positive experience. But…I’m not willing roll my eyes and anyone else who removes gluten from their diet.

    Lastly, if you are thinking about munching on acorns, leach the heck out of them! They are beyond bitter will leave your mouth feeling all fuzzy – like eating a banana peel.

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