Today, many people consider fry bread a staple food in Native culture. It is often served during our gatherings and celebrations, and it is one of the main attractions at powwows. But how did fry bread become so popular amongst our people in the first place? Where did it from from? Is it really a traditional pre-colonial indigenous food? The answer is, “no,” it is not an original food for any group of indigenous people of Turtle Island, and in fact, its prevalence has exacerbated some of our most devastating public health concerns.
During the formative period of the reservation era (about 200 years ago), our ancestors were forced to abruptly change their lifestyles in every way. Most struggled to adapt to the entirely foreign economic and governmental systems that Imperialist forces imposed upon them. Like all other elements of culture and lifestyle, Native food systems were totally disrupted at this time. At the time, western governments either outlawed or threateningly discouraged traditional methods of hunting, fishing and harvesting. Often, these practices became impossible to continue due of the environmental devastation that came hand in hand with colonialism. For example: the United States military intentionally slaughtered millions of buffalo, creating a scarcity of food, clothing, and housing supply that would essentially cripple the traditional Northern Plains economy. Similar types of devastation struck every single tribe and their respective economies.
Commodity foods and processed foods became prevalent in Native communities at this time because in most cases, there were no other options. When people could no longer hunt or farm traditionally and when their income and natural resources were stolen from them, they had to take rations or starve. That’s where fry bread comes in.
Flour - the main ingredient in fry bread - was (and still is) one of the cheapest and most widely available foods on reservations. With a plentiful flour supply (and not much of any other food available), Native people invented fry bread as a cheap, easy solution to fill their bellies when they no longer had access to real, nourishing foods like roots, berries, vegetables and meats.
Unfortunately, this filling and cheap substitute to our formerly diverse, nutritional diets wreaked havoc on our bodies and minds. Fry bread is a testament to the resiliency and ingenuity of our people: indeed, at one time, it kept us alive. Without it, some may have starved. But it is also something that we now recognize as extremely harmful to our bodies. While we can respect the struggle that our ancestors went through to survive, we should also remember that our ancestors would probably not have chosen to eat fry bread if they had any other choice. Now that we have other choices, we should do as our ancestors would have done and chose healthier foods to properly nourish us.
To understand how fry bread can cause havoc in our bodies, we must understand what it really is. Fry bread is made out of flour, baking soda, salt and water, then cooked in oil. It might sound simple and harmless, but don’t be deceived. Let’s take a look - ingredient by ingredient - at what fry bread is really doing to our bodies.
The main ingredient is refined white flour, which comes from wheat flour that was stripped of its two main components: germ and bran. This is was done to soften its texture to give it that extra soft and squishy feeling that humans are addicted to.The problem with this process is that the flour loses what very little B vitamins, magnesium, iron and fiber that it had to begin with. The soft and squishy textures becomes reflective of its nutrient quality: flat, airy and dull. In other words it is is left with virtually NO nutrient value.
Keep in mind that wheat flour and refined white flour are high on the glycemic index, which is a method that measures the rapid release of glucose in the blood. Foods can be scored on the glycemic index in ranges from 0-100 (100 being pure glucose.) Foods that are high on the glycemic index are dangerous and unhealthy. Heavy consumption of these foods puts one at risk for diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cardio vascular diseases and even neurodegenerative diseases. The type of carb found in wheat responsible for rapid glucose is ‘Amylopectin A’ (The Super Carb) which causes the rapid release of blood glucose in the system. Constant elevated levels of blood glucose is the reason for being insulin resistant and is the cause for type 2 diabetes.
If you’re not convinced yet, let’s take a look at another ingredient. Hydrogenated oil is a disastrous element to fry bread. Hydrogenation is the process of transforming natural vegetable and seed oils such as rapeseed (canola oil) soybean, sunflower, safflower, palm, kernel or corn oil by heating it up to a thousand degrees. The oil is then injected with a catalyst (usually some kind of metal) such as nickel, platinum or even aluminum. During this process, the molecular structure of the oil changes and increases in density, going from liquid at room temperature to a semi-solid or solid oil. The molecular structure of this newly processed oil is only one molecule away from being plastic.
Did you hear that? Consuming hydrogenated oil is almost the same thing as consuming PLASTIC. Yuck!
Consuming foods that contain or have been cooked in hydrogenated oils causes blood to become think and viscous, in turn forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. It causes free radicals to run rampant throughout the body, leading to inflammation. This can in turn lead to high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease and strokes. Not to mention, vegetable oils are manufactured in a factory, usually from genetically modified crops that have been heavily treated with pesticides that have been known to cause cancer and even damage the environment we live in.
Keep in mind that all the ingredients in fry bread were NON-EXISTENT in the diets of native people from the western hemisphere. Wheat only became available in Turtle Island in the 1600’s when the first Europeans brought it with them to be cultivated. Hydrogenated oils only became available in the early 1900’s when new chemical processes allowed them to be extracted from vegetables that were mostly from other parts of the world. So how can fry bread be ‘traditional’ when it does not contain any indigenous foods?
Now that we understand the ingredients in fry bread, let’s talk about how this is really impacting us.
One of the leading causes of death in Native country is heart disease. We know that heart disease is caused by inactivity and unhealthy foods (particularly carbohydrate based foods, processed foods, foods high in refined sugar, trans fat and hydrogenated oil).
Food insecurity, depression, addiction and undiagnosed binge eating are a few of the symptoms and ailments associated with the decline in the overall health and wellbeing of Native people. With these challenging conditions, it is no wonder that diet-related health disparities are the leading causes of death for our people.
We often acknowledge drugs and alcohol as a danger to our people, our lifestyles, and our wellbeing, yet we continue to eat and serve fry bread as though it is a part of our culture despite its detrimental impacts on our health. If we are going to be committed to sobriety from alcohol and drugs, we should also be committed to sobriety from fry bread and other junk foods as these substances cause even more death and disease in our communities. (Further statistics are available on the IHS or National Center for Disease Control and Public Health websites).
The potentially fatal consequences of highly processed carbohydrate-based diets that are heavy in foods like fry bread have taken away far too many of our knowledge bearing elders way too soon, thus impacting the transference of vital indigenous knowledge from generation to generation.
These subjects are among the many important conversations to be had revolving around a life of eating to be well for a good life, a healthy family and healthy nation building.
At the core of it all, good health is inherent to our original indigenous culture. We may not see a complete and total reversal of unhealthy eating habits in our communities during our life time, but at least we can get the ball rolling so that way our future generations will benefit from a well life that will become the normal way again.