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What's best to eat in the north?
| Aged seal flippers, fermented fish roe, narwhal blubber, caribou bone marrow aged in caribou stomach, Arctic char, ptarmigan — where else but the planet's icy regions would we find such dishes? These and other traditional foods were enjoyed by circumpolar populations for thousands of years. But, like so much in the Arctic over the past 50 years, this diet, and a whole way of life, has undergone considerable change.
PHOTO: OWEN EGAN
It's a topic of much interest to Macdonald Campus's Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment (CINE), an interdisciplinary centre within the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences which follows dietary trends in indigenous populations. Their emphasis, clearly enough, is on dietetics and nutritional analyses, but there is a strong link with the communities involved. CINE's governing board consists of six aboriginal organizations including two Inuit.
CINE is now in the last year of a three-year baseline study with the goal of determining standards against which all future dietary measurements may be compared. These standards of both contaminant levels and nutritional content of traditional foods were discussed in a conference held last month by CINE and co-funded by the institute and the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, one of the board's governing bodies. Attendees flew in from places like Baker Lake, the Yukon and Labrador in order to assist in the interpretation of the preliminary findings.
The initial year of the study was spent contacting the regions, "and having regional workshops where every community sent representatives," said Harriet Kuhnlein, director of CINE. "At that time, we also made as comprehensive lists as possible within each region of the spectrum of traditional food species which are hunted or gathered."
The second year involved data collection from a random sample of individuals from each community identified in the first year. "You take your food-use data and take your food composition data and do the arithmetic. You find out how many of a representative random sample are consuming [those foods, and how they] represent the whole community by age and gender," Kuhnlein continued. "Then you apply your usual intakes for contaminants or for nutrients to the currently accepted national or international standards."
These standards are not the food pyramids we have come to see on nutritional charts. Instead, Inuit use accepted nutrient guidelines such as recommended daily intakes of particular foods. Perhaps to no one's surprise, the largely meat-based diet has been found to contain adequate fats, protein, minerals, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) as well as the water-soluble ones such as the Bs and vitamin C. The relative lack of complex carbohydrates found in cereals does not seem to pose any difficulties. Contaminants, however, do.
"This collaboration with McGill is to look at the extent of the effects of contaminants going into the Arctic ecosystem that either fall on the ground or come through the river system," said Nellie Cournoyea, head of the Unuvialuit Regional Corporation and Inuit Health Board, and a former premier of the Northwest Territories. She pointed out that most contaminants found in mammals appear to have originated in the air. "It all comes from someplace else," never from the local community, she noted, commenting on the futility of designating an area "protected" from, say, hunting or development while the human and animal inhabitants of the north are systematically poisoned by incoming organochlorines and other pollutants.
Another imported product, processed food, has also taken its toll on Inuit health and their economy. Market foods are flown in from hundreds of kilometres away. This long-distance travel means a high cost, and the need for a long shelf life through freezing, drying, or adding chemical preservatives.
"Every step you get away from the live creature," said Kuhnlein, "you lose something nutritionally." Worse still, these newer foods are often consumed improperly. Malnutrition, obesity and diabetes are all too frequent in the north.
For Nellie Cournoyea, the benefits of traditional foods go far beyond the metabolic. For the Inuit, she says, nothing imported can compare with something locally caught. Traditional food "has done them good for ages, and it is a sustainable use of the species all around them."