MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Why Some Like It Hot - Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity
Gary Paul Nabhan
Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004
233 pp., hardcover, $24.00
ISBN 1-55963-466-9

Gary Paul Nabhan has been a leader in ethnobiology for many years. In Why Some Like It Hot, he introduces readers to the idea that ethnic cuisine developed as a result of the availability of edible plants and animals, in relation to diseases, droughts and plagues for a given area. But what happens when a culture must leave its homeland, or when its traditional foods are supplanted by that of another culture? Nabhan theorizes that supplanting traditional diets with that of other cultures creates problems, such as the development of diet related diseases. His original research on this subject has been publicized in a variety of publications such as Nature, Science News, Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and Ecology of Food and Nutrition, showing that there is a relationship between our genes and our food choices.

Nabhan is also a leader in the International Slow Food movement that, among other things, celebrates the cultural heritage of food. It is evident in his lifestyle - he grows native foods, and raises Navajo-Churro sheep. He has worked with different Native American tribes, researching food and disease. He elaborates on some of his work and his relationships in Why Some Like It Hot.

Some of the topics in his book focus on diseases such as lactose intolerance, which are more predominant in some cultures than in others. Cultures that are lactose tolerant tend to be cultures that are linked to ancient herding cultures, while much of the rest of the world tends to be intolerant. A link may be a mutation, due to food sources, that occurred as much as 10,000 years ago, which spread through intermarriage, resulting in a culture that could adopt a pastoral lifestyle that allowed for cultured-milk consumption - people in Europe, Asia Minor, and northern Africa. These are people who kept livestock, allowing children to maintain a milk diet for longer periods.

Some food-related cultural interactions are more vague, such as the link between fava beans and malaria prevention. In the spring in Sardinia (as well as Albania, Greece, and Egypt), youth develop something called "Baghdad Fever." This "fever" mimics some well-known forms of anemia, and only appears in the spring, during Lent. The trigger for this fever is both eating fava beans, and breathing in the fava bean pollen. But the astonishing thing is that, apart from the fever, most fava bean-eating Sardinians develop a resistance to malaria during this period.

Another interesting item Nabhan refers to is taste preferences — i.e. why some people like it hot. Apparently in cultures there are such beings as "supertasters" and "nontasters." Supertasters are people who have great sensitivity to sweet, bitter, etc. Nontasters can be thought of as "taste-blind." They can handle foods that are hot, like chiles, or bitter, such as mustard, kale, or grapefruits. Studies done on some cultures show that 25-30 percent of all Mediterranean residents are taste-blind, but only 3 percent of west Africans and 2 percent of Navajos were. Among supertasters, many taste sugar much more strongly than nontasters, react stronger to oral irritants like peppers, etc., and can "taste" fat in food. These reactions tend to predispose individuals toward different food types within their cultures.

The link between food, genetics and cultures are slowly being researched as a result of the human genome project. They have started analyzing disorders, it's location on the genetic map, demographic areas, and the foods involved. From alcoholism, with the disorder found along many chromosomes, primarily affecting those of Native American, Asian, and Australian descent. To celiac disease (the inability to digest gluten from wheat, rye and barley) mainly found in one chromosome, and affecting most Europeans and North Americans. Diabetes is another disease linked to food and genetics. It affects a broad spectrum of peoples, but more so among Native Americans, Australians, and people of Polynesian descent. It is the fast-release, fiber-poor foods such as white bread, sugar, and pasta, things these cultures were never exposed to early in their genetic development.

The major problem is our current culture of migration. We are now a blend of cultures, adopting each other's foods and making them our own. And with cultural mixing, we've become even more diverse when dealing with diet. So, what should we do? In chapter 7, Nabhan suggests we should be "Rooting Out the Causes of Disease," and in chapter 8 we begin "Reconnecting the Health of the People with the Health of the Land." The rooting out involves the link between "fast-digest" foods and slow digest foods, or processed foods versus all-natural. The reconnecting is even more important, as it shows how going back to nature, reconnecting with your ancestral diet, can help prevent, and in some cases cure, the diseases that ail you.

Overall, Why Some Like It Hot was extremely educational for me. I have known about the link between modern, processed diets and diabetes, and that research was being done on ancestral diets and healing. My knowledge comes from my Hawaiian/Filipino background, and the concerns I've had about both my mother and aunt's diabetes. Their diagnosis, and deaths from diabetes related complications, led me to try and improve my lifestyle, changing what I eat. My remaining aunts in Hawaii had greater access to local, natural foods, which may be why none of them developed diabetes (my mother and aunt both moved to the mainland in their 20s). Since their deaths, I have read numerous articles about taro root, and the reintroducing the traditional lo'i kalo (taro root paddies). The research being done in Hawaii is echoed in Nabham's book. While the diabetes in my family make it all the more urgent that I try to reconnect with my ancestral diets - I find it is a little hard to do in the desert Southwest. However, Why Some Like It Hot will likely be a book I refer back to as I continue my journey toward a healthier lifestyle.

— Annette Aguayo

Order from:
Island Press
P.O. Box 7
Covelo, CA 95428
(800) 828-2302

Community Partners
and Resources

Table of Contents

". . . [I]t should be noted that the SEP [Springstead Estates Project] is, at best, in a conceptual stage and that it is totally speculative as to which, if any, aquifer would supply the SEP with water should the housing development ever be built."

— NRC Judge Thomas Moore
October 22, 2004

"Apparently the Government in Washington doesn't care about the health, safety and well-being of the 4,000 people who will be living in the Springstead community within five to ten years. This ruling is another example of how the NRC consistently ignores our communities' concerns about new uranium mining and why the Navajo Nation must step into this fight to protect our people."

— Johnny Livingston, President
Church Rock Chapter

Donate Now Through Network for Good

All donations are tax-deductible.
Thank you.

SRIC is part of the Stop Forever WIPP Coalition.
The nuclear waste dump is permitted to operate until 2024, but the federal government want to expand the amount and types of waste allowed with NO end date.
We need your help to protect New Mexico!

Donate through Smith's Rewards Program

Southwest Research and Information Center
105 Stanford SE
PO Box 4524
Albuquerque, NM 87196
fax: 505/262-1864

Shop at
and Support
Southwest Research and
Information Center