Beyond Plant-Based: The Racial History and Future

June 7, 2024

The plant-based roots of West Africa are inextricably linked to the vision of the plant-based America we are funding by the billions today. 

When I started my journey in food, I was given the opportunity to work with my mentor, Rick Kittles, in a genetics lab at the University of Chicago. We focused on nutrigenomics - or the history and study of food. 

What I always found interesting was the history of plant based diets in African communities; namely, the historical communities of West Africa that now, genetically make up about 30 percent of the americas.

Our plant-based history and future needs to think beyond...

This is a call for us plant-based technologists, fans, and leaders to think beyond plant-based. 

We are disconnected from our ancestral and genetic foodways. Not only does this cause a mental and spiritual disconnect, but it wreaks havoc on our bodies.

Nutritional genomics - also known as nutrigenomics - is a science studying the relationship between human genome, nutrition and health. People in the field work toward developing an understanding of how the whole body responds to a food via systems biology, as well as single gene/single food compound relationships.

Nutritional genomics or Nutrigenomics is the relation between food and inherited genes, it was first expressed in 2001.

“Genomics in general and nutrigenomics, in particular, look at your genetic map and try to explain your tendencies to react to your environment in your own unique way.”

“Today's American food culture is a contested landscape in search of values, new direction, and its own indigenous sense of rightness and self-worth. It's a culture looking toward ecology, the regional flow of seasons, and opportunities for new ways to invigorate and color the American palate. Our new foodies are concerned with health, sustainability, environmental integrity, social justice, and the push-pull between global and local economies. Our food world is a charged scene of culinary inquiry continually in search of ancestors, historic precedent, and novel ways to explore tradition while surging forward. The chefs and culinarians of twenty-first-century America have become hungry for an origin story all our own.”

- Michael W. Twitty

We can look at the storied Gullah-Geechee culture of South Carolina in the throws of the cotton belt or also known as the Atlantic fruit and vegetable belt. 

“The National Parks Service revealed the truth behind many of the remedies and nostrums that were mentioned in Gullah lore or were often cited by Gullah Non-practitioners as being questionable. “A surprising number of plants, especially fruits, yielded products used to treat disease,” it reported “Fig, peach, pomegranate, persimmon, along with basil, and pumpkin, found their way into the pharmacological lore of the Sea islands. No line can be drawn between folk medicine and scientific medicine of the time.” Comparative studies revealed that many species of plants common to Gullah application were independently in the US Pharmacopeia or National Formulary, or both, from as far back as 1820 to the present century.” 

- A snippet from the 2008 Wilbur Cross book Gullah Culture in America

“It is so crazy how disconnected we are. Your heritage foods are your health and wealth.”

- Michael W. Twitty

"Style has a profound meaning to Black Americans. If we can’t drive, we will invent walks and the world will envy the dexterity of our feet. If we can’t have ham, we will boil chitterlings; if we are given rotten peaches, we will make cobblers; if given scraps, we will make quilts; take away our drums, and we will clap our hands. We prove the human spirit will prevail. We will take what we have to make what we need. We need confidence in our knowledge of who we are."

- Nikki Giovanni

“Food, racism, power, and justice are linked. What I’m trying to do is dismantle culinary nutritional imperialism and gastronomic white supremacy with one cup of zobo made from hibiscus, one bowl of millet salad with groundnuts and dark green vegetables, and one piece of injera at a time. The next wave of human rights abuse is in the form of nutrition injustice.”

- Michael W. Twitty

Blacks in the United States (U.S.) experience among the highest reported rate of hypertension (44%) worldwide. 

In comparison, Nigeria has an age-adjusted hypertension prevalence of 13.5%, and Jamaica of 28.6%. Compared to their White counterparts, Blacks in the U.S. are 40% more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension and 30% more likely to die from heart disease.

A major limitation of this evidence is the lack of consideration of the heterogeneity within the U.S. Black population, for example based on immigration trends over the past 50 years. While some Blacks have been in the U.S. for many generations, others are long-standing or recent immigrants of African descent from places such as Africa and the Caribbean. 

This is the same with Indians and hunter gatherers and other populations that experience explosions of chronic disease compared to their parents. 

Nutrition is key. Let’s look at it:

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 65 percent of all humans are cow milk intolerant. This urgent public health crisis impacts an estimated 30-50 million Americans and has been linked to serious health hazards including cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases. 

Additionally, the International Food Information Council Foundation reported that more than half of Americans feel figuring out their income taxes is easier than knowing what they should and shouldn't eat to be healthier.

Giabuchi said it best:

Written by Riana Lynn

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