Northern nutrition

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McGill Reporter
May 9, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 16
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Northern nutrition

Fermented marine mammal blubber. It's not to toxicologist Laurie Chan's liking, but up north it's "an acquired taste," he says.

Photo Human nutrition toxicologist and lab coordinator Laurie Chan
PHOTO: Owen Egan

"They just leave it out in a jar somewhere for maybe a few days, up to a week. The fat liquefies and they use it as a dip for bread and things like that."

This is the kind of practice Chan needs to keep himself up to date about. An associate professor with McGill's Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment (CINE), Chan studies the traditional diet of aboriginal peoples and the effects of environmental change and contaminants on local food.

In the body, organic pollutants accumulate in fat. "Of course, living in the Arctic you need lots of energy, so everybody, including humans, eats lots of fatty tissues," says Chan.

Still a fairly young research centre, CINE has carved out a substantial reputation for itself internationally -- it is helping both the American and Russian governments with their own environmental studies on pollutants in the Arctic.

Chan was recently awarded a Northern Research Chair by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, one of only six handed out nationwide.

Chan's interest in marine biology and ecology began at Vancouver Island's Pearson College, right near sea lion haven Race Rocks. Research on heavy metals in mussels, then crabs, led to a post-doc in pathology.

There are three major groups of contaminants, Chan explains. The first, organochlorines, are the synthetic compounds used as herbicides or pesticides. In the '50s, everyone, even scientists, thought they were safe and useful because they stuck around in the environment for a long time.

In the mid-'80s, Chan says, scientists saw that releasing these chlorinated organic compounds caused a "grasshopper effect" in which the pollutants evaporate, are carried north on air currents, condense and fall to the ground with rain or snow. Once deposited in the North, the contaminants stay put because of the cold.

Heavy metals, another major group of contaminants, are natural. Canada's north, rich with minerals, has seen a lot of mining industry. "The problem is we dig them up, move them around, and dump them somewhere else," says Chan. This upheaval and disposal of mining waste spreads around arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

The third big source of worry is radionuclides. "Again, Canada's north has a very rich deposit of radionuclides, radioactive substance we pick up to make bombs and fuel for nuclear energy."

With all these pollutants around, how bad off is the North? Not as bad off as the Great Lakes region, even though we've stopped polluting them. "The problem is," Chan says, "we don't want the Arctic to be polluted at all.

"The aboriginal people there still eat a lot of wildlife," Chan says. "As a result, the levels of exposure can get quite high." This is especially true for northerners who consume a lot of whale, seal, fat and organ meat, which can all contain a lot of chemical concentrate.

But when aboriginal people in the South switch rapidly from "country food" to marketplace food, health problems like diabetes boom. Processed foods with questionable nutritional value are over-consumed and activity levels go down.

In the North, fresh fruit and produce are prohibitively expensive, if they can be found at all.

"We tell [natives in the North] they should hang onto their traditional food system as much as they can, and promote the younger generations to eat the same food," says Chan. "But on the other hand, we want to ensure the food's safety and make sure they are not eating too many contaminants."

CINE has a governing board with representatives from different aboriginal organizations that approve the centre's research directions and methodology.

"They, as a group, help us to talk to the community, and help us understand what their needs are," says Chan. For example, CINE doesn't take tissue samples from people "because there's a cultural sensitivity about drawing blood or any body tissues in aboriginal groups," Chan says.

Chan and his CINE mates Timothy Johns and Harriet Kuhnlein collect data on what and how much people eat, and what time of year certain foods are available. They use the latest technology to measure levels of both nutrients and contaminants in the food.

As well, "we really advocate participatory research, we get people involved in our research from the very beginning of the project, in the design." Local research assistants are trained to carry out dietary surveys and interviews, and collect all food samples.

Chan and his team hired women to cook and documented their methods because CINE wanted "to look at the effects of food preparation, cooking, on the levels of contaminants.

"We try to incorporate as much of the local traditional knowledge into the maximum scientific approach. We try to marry, to merge both of those. And then, most importantly, after we finish the projects we always go back to the community and discuss with them what the results mean, how should they go about to use these results to make certain decisions."

The participatory research goes both ways -- Chan eats what they eat, loving the local fish, caribou and moose. A culinary highlight for Chan took place during a caribou hunt. When a caribou is killed, the hunter butchers the animal on the spot, takes out the kidney and cooks it quickly, just a moment on each side. "It's very delicious," says Chan. "It's crunchy, but doesn't taste like urea at all."

Yet Chan, with his heavy metals expertise, knows full well that cadmium is concentrated in the kidney. If he'd never been up North, he might just advise them not to eat kidney. "But after hunting with them, then you know that's really their favourite food when you go for a hunt, this is the trophy part of the animal. It's hard to tell them not to eat that. So the bottom line is that you need to look at comparative risk."

Up north, people must balance the nutritional benefits of their food with the contaminant risk. The vitamins we southerners find in leafy greens are also found in organ meats. The summertime provides northerners with lots of vitamin C-laden berries. As well, "you see vitamin C in the skin of the beluga."

Climate change affects the sustainability of the traditional food system, Chan says. The North is warmer than before, which means the caribou's migration path has shifted 10 km. Not a great distance, "but a lot of people might not be able to afford to travel further. So the amount of meat available to that family will decrease, eventually."

The warming of lakes means fish develop more parasites -- not particularly appetizing. Beavers are migrating further and further north, building dams that change the course of rivers, again hampering the availability of fish.

Chan's new research chair will enable CINE to bolster its approach to examining the health benefits and risks associated with northern food. CINE will have extra funds to lure a faculty member to the centre to study climate factors on food resources.

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