Friday, August 20, 2010

Acorns Poisonous?

Good grief.

The columnist, a gentleman named Bill Hayes, appears to work at the Master Gardener Office of Aiken County South Carolina Extension Service. He was asked if acorns are poisonous. He decided to make the question the subject of his column in the Aiken Standard.

He spends most of the time confusing the concepts of bitterness and toxicity. He spends the rest of them time equating acorn diets with a short lifespan and reduced population numbers.

One gem: "I found all sorts of stories about Native Americans eating acorns as part of their daily diet. I also found one article that said that the average life span of the American Indian was 30 years but made no reference to acorns as being part of the problem." For Pete's sake. For starters we don't really have any clue what the average life span of Native Americans was pre-European settlement. Post colonization there were minor issues like disease epidemics that tended to limit life span.

If you leach acorns they are perfectly tasty, and incredibly nutritious. Native Americans knew how to leach, process and store acorns in a way that rendered them edible decades later when settlers uncovered abandoned caches. Acorns have extremely high food value. It defies reason to suggest they might somehow shorten lifespan. Lots of other things faced by indigenous people would conspire to shorten lifespan: The vagaries of weather, the dangers of hunting, warfare, and again and most importantly devastating diseases brought by Europeans. Acorns were not one of those things.

Another doozy: "I finally located an article about squirrels and acorns. It turns out that gray squirrels have an enzyme in their system that protects them from the effects of red acorns. It doesn't change the taste, which is very bitter, but it does prevent a toxic reaction in the stomach. Most squirrels in Aiken are gray but we do have a few red ones too. Red squirrels are not as lucky as the grey and have no protection against the toxins in red acorns. Maybe that's why we have so few red squirrels."

First of all gray squirrels (and blue jays) cache acorns in a way that allows rainwater to percolate and leach the tannins for them... which apparently makes them smarter than many people I can name (and their remarkable ability to find the acorns they cached the previous autumn always amazes me, a guy who can't find my own car at the mall). Secondly red squirrels don't have the enzyme that helps break down tannins primarily because they eat other plant seeds, mushrooms, etc. Or perhaps they eat those foods because they lack the enzyme. Chicken, egg. The point is that their evolutionary niche is different from gray squirrels, so I doubt red squirrels shed a lot of tears over their inability to digest acorns.

Speaking of evolution, yes there are some kinds of livestock for whom acorns can be toxic, such as cattle and horses. Meanwhile, hogs + acorns = tasty. Can we put on our Darwin caps and figure out why that might be? Perhaps the difference between domestic animals who are meant to graze on grasses and forbes (and not, incidentally, feedlot corn) and domestic animals descended from woodland dwellers?

I know that mostly Mr. Hayes was trying to write a fun, light-hearted column with some interesting factoids meant to entertain readers, and there is some valuable information. But look, we are talking here about a food crop that sustained humankind for millenia, and that has the potential to feed millions and heal a damaged planet. Let's not make jokes about acorns shortening life spans, OK?

Toxic? Have you seen what's in most of the food we eat??


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