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Shakeology in O Magazine

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Shakeology – The following is an article written by Susan Casey, O’s Editor in Chief, and describes the ingredients in shakeology.  Oprah’s team of credibility shedding light on this fabulous superfood.  Of course, I love Shakeology an drink it for lunch daily, but don’t take my word.  Read it for yourself.  If this doesn’t say it all…
By Susan Casey
Apr 05, 2011

O’s editor in chief travels to Peru to  experience a trove of life-giving superfoods that just might  revolutionize your view of nutrition.

Around 4 o’clock on  any given morning, Darin Olien will walk into his Malibu, California,  kitchen and make himself a smoothie. This will not be an ordinary drink.  The other day, for example, he tossed the following into his blender:  coconut water, fermented sprouted brown rice, maca, aloe vera juice,  barley grass powder, kamut juice powder, almond butter, camu camu,  avocado, goji, lucuma powder, noni juice, cacao nibs, MSM, maqui, bee  pollen, sacha inchi oil, omega-3-DHA/EPA oil, Hawaiian deepwater salt,  chia seeds, nopal, goat yogurt, luo han guo, and a powder called  Shakeology.

If you’ve never heard of many of these ingredients,  you’re not alone. But stay with me here, because they’re among the most  powerful nutrients on Earth. Olien’s specialty is what’s known as  “formulating,” taking wildly beneficial substances and combining them  into something even more potent: a supplement, a snack, a tea, a  medicine, a smoothie. Every food in nature contains a mix of proteins,  fats, and carbohydrates, along with noncaloric vitamins, minerals,  fibers-all of which fuel our cells-and each one has unique abilities  that we really don’t understand, but it is now clear that some foods  pack an extra biochemical punch. Camu camu fruit, for instance, provides  the richest source of vitamin C known to exist. Maca, a hearty root  that grows only in the high Andes, comes in yellow, red, and black  varieties, boosts fertility, is said to balance hormones, and dispenses a  day’s worth of kick-ass energy. Sacha inchi is another South American  treasure, a protein-rich, metabolism-revving nut that delivers an  omega-3 bonanza. Olien’s final ingredient, Shakeology, contains more  than 70 components itself, a crazy cornucopia of good.

No one  understands Shakeology better than Olien, who created it in 2008, after  Carl Daikeler, CEO of the fitness company Beachbody, challenged him to  come up with a supplement to match the tagline The Healthiest Meal of  the Day. His customer was someone who wanted optimum wellness, wanted to  lose weight, wanted cholesterol levels to drop-but had no intention of  eating a platter of broccoli each day. Daikeler gave Olien no limits on  quality, no cost/revenue restrictions; the goal was to shoot the moon,  to seek out and combine the most extraordinary plants, fruits, nuts,  herbs-nature’s secret weapons. And Olien found them: ashwagandha from  China, cordyceps from Bhutan, yacon from Peru. An alphabet of vitamins  and minerals from the purest sources. Prebiotics. Probiotics. Green tea  and grapeseed extracts, chlorella and spirulina and hydrilla, a spectrum  of enzymes. Since hitting the market in March 2009, more than 400,000  bags of Shakeology, at $119.95 each, have been sold.

Olien himself  is a strapping guy, north of six feet and solid. He looks, in fact,  like the steak-fed Midwestern varsity football player that he was, until  a back injury derailed his athletic career. From that low point Olien  had tried to rehabilitate himself using traditional methods-lots of  animal protein, relentless physiotherapy-but it was only when he adopted  a radically new diet of superfoods that he was able to regain his  strength. This not only improved his health, it revealed his calling.  “It was one of the greatest turns in my life,” Olien says, “because it  got me into the question, ‘What can I do to fix this?’ I became very  curious about the body, switched my major to exercise physiology and  nutrition. Then I healed myself.” Over the years he also managed to help  many others with their diet and fitness regimens, and Olien’s  “concoctions,” his powders and bars and health innovations, began to  attract attention.

On the first morning I met Olien I watched him  doing squat jumps holding 40-pound weights, while holding his breath  underwater. Another workout he likes to do involves harnessing himself  to a 150-pound railroad tie and dragging it through thick sand. Whatever  he eats needs to fuel these exploits, so people are often surprised to  hear that his diet consists mostly of plants. Olien consumes no  processed foods, no polysyllabic ingredients invented in labs, no  high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats, no artificial flavorings, no  antibiotic-laced dairy products, nothing that comes out of a drive-thru.  In short, he doesn’t eat what’s generally on offer in the modern food  world. “When people find out that I don’t eat this or I don’t eat that, I  feel a sense of pity coming from them,” he says, “and I think, ‘Wow!  You have no idea. I’m not deprived at all. Come to my kitchen! I’ll blow  your mind.’”

Thing is, science is now catching up to something  that nature has known all along: the rich greens, the vibrant yellows,  the deep indigos of plants are key to our well-being. That meat we love  so much? Proven to clog our arteries. Convenience foods-heavily  sweetened and salted, laden with fat and chemicals-wreak havoc on  everything from our immune systems to our moods to our weight. Here are  the facts and they’re not very pretty: Americans are the fattest people  ever in history. Obesity, a body composition topping 30 percent fat, is  the most pressing health crisis we face, with 34 percent of the adult  population falling into that category (plus 29 percent of all children).  If you add in the merely overweight it’s closer to 68 percent. In the  past 50 years the weight of the typical American citizen has increased,  on average, by 25 pounds. If we continue at this rate, by 2050 every  last person will have eaten himself into the danger zone.

“Every  time you eat processed foods, you exclude from your diet not only the  essential nutrients that we are aware of, but hundreds of other  undiscovered phytonutrients that are crucial for normal human function,”  Joel Fuhrman, MD, writes in his new book, Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, which stresses the importance of a diet full of high-quality produce.  Mehmet Oz, MD, who wrote the foreword to Fuhrman’s book, believes that  even a slight shift away from meat can improve your health. “What we  really want to do is have people nudge themselves in the right  direction,” he told me. “If you want to have a few bacon bits on your  salad, God bless you, fine. That’s not where we’re losing the battle.  We’re losing the battle when you have sausage for breakfast, a big  pastrami sandwich for lunch, and pork chops for dinner.”

Yet we  live in a mass-produced, big-box culture, where economic interests hold  sway. Meat, corn, sugar-they come cheap, and we buy them. Plus, we tend  to like the taste. But there are steep hidden costs in a food system  that makes calories rather than nutrients-from the factory farms that  treat animals like parts on an assembly line to the fact that  obesity-related ailments like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are  skyrocketing and account for approximately $150 billion in healthcare  expenses each year.

As both Fuhrman and Oz would attest, anyone  consuming a steady diet of man-made edibles would benefit even from  something as prosaic as lettuce, but far more intriguing foods exist. As  Olien began to talk about the vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, and  other plants he was hunting, I realized there was an entire universe out  there I didn’t know about. I had never heard of lucuma or sapote or  aguaje. What the heck was gac? The list was long.

Learning  more requires a passport, because in acquiring these superfoods Olien  doesn’t simply call up a supplier with his FedEx number, he goes  directly to the source.

In doing so he often ends up in extreme  places, searching out plants that-although they may have been revered by  past civilizations-are now largely forgotten. South America, with its  jungles and rainforests and mountains, is especially rich. So when I  heard that Olien was headed back to Peru, I invited myself along. I  wanted to see firsthand what he was up to because it sounded so  incredible to me, so mysterious and even magical. I wanted to taste  these lost, powerful foods that had fueled warriors and emperors, plants  with miraculous properties that had somehow almost vanished,  disappearing beneath a sea of fast-food wrappers.

Lima

From  the outside, Nicolaza Mendoza’s warehouse looks like any other drab  building on the industrial fringe of a sprawling Latin American city.  When I walked through the door, however, that impression was washed away  by a wave of earthy scent. Colorful sacks were piled high on wooden  palettes, each one stuffed with precious plants. Their names-una de gato, achiote, huasca-were  written on the sacks in thick black marker. Mendoza, a small-statured  woman with a serious face, is one of Peru’s most respected herbalists.  She spoke no English; her daughter Luz Maria, a striking 32-year-old in a  short black skirt and lavender eyeshadow, was there to translate.

“How  do you say, ‘Hit the jackpot’ in Spanish?” Olien asked, smiling. He was  carrying a list of substances he wanted to investigate, and it was a  good bet that many were on the premises. Standing beside him, Bernd  Neugebauer, PhD, surveyed the warehouse and nodded. At 59, with a mane  of white hair and vivid blue eyes, Neugebauer has a distinguished air,  bolstered by the four languages he speaks fluently and his provenance  from one of Germany’s oldest forestry families. Neugebauer’s  accomplishments and interests include cultivating organic aloe vera,  beekeeping, shamanism training, and studying ancient farming methods.  Currently he is restoring an entire Mayan village in the Yucatan. But  his primary interest is soil. Only healthy, mineral-rich soil produces  healthy, mineral-rich food, and the world’s topsoil is under great  stress these days, overused, undernourished, and (due to increasing  deforestation) prone to erode into the sea. Though he is an organic  farming expert, Neugebauer has gone even beyond that, reaching into  history to discover how past agricultural empires-Maya, Aztec,  Inca-treated the land, and what we can learn from them. In 2006 Olien  read an academic paper by Neugebauer about creating holistic and  sustainable agricultural practices, and sought him out as a kindred  spirit. Now the two team up often, with Neugebauer helping the farmers  who grow Olien’s raw materials get the most out of their crops without  pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Olien’s relationship to his  suppliers is a deeply personal one. He believes in cultivating  relationships first, supporting indigenous practices, seeking the  highest-quality products and paying generously for them. The farmers he  works with have become his close friends. “It’s fair trade on steroids,”  he says of his approach. To that end, every last leaf that now sat in  Mendoza’s warehouse met this gold standard. The herbs here were locally  grown and carefully harvested. Her collection was all the more  impressive when you considered Peru’s outlandish biodiversity. Luz  explained how her mother traversed the country constantly, from one  extreme to another, from the Amazon to the Andes to the Pacific Coast  and everywhere in between, seeking out each region’s botanical  treasures. The stakes were high: Billion-dollar drugs had been obtained  in the rapidly dwindling rainforest-antimicrobial, antipain, anticancer  medications, among countless others-and yet scientists agreed that only a  small fraction of nature’s pharmacopoeia had ever been studied. “I’m  amazed by what she knows,” Luz said, shaking her head.

I walked down the aisles behind Mendoza and Olien, leaning over the herbs to examine them. Una de gato,  or cat’s claw, was a vine that had been chopped into little shingles;  it was adobe red and smelled like the primeval forest. I had seen it  referenced in a number of books as an antiaging “superherb.” Recently  scientists have discovered that the most prized plants and herbs in  native cultures contain high levels of nutrients that contribute  ferociously to cellular health in ways we are only beginning to  understand; cat’s claw has been shown to fight infection, decrease  inflammation, and repair DNA. “This is the real pharmacy,” Olien said,  gesturing at the sacks. “Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be your  medicine’-and there’s a lot of medicine out there.”

There was a row dedicated entirely to teas, lush manzanilla (chamomile), lemony cedron, eucalyptus, and menta blanca-white  mint so strong it was as though an entire field had been squeezed into a  teacup. Every smell was amplified. “Stand here for three minutes and  just breathe deeply,” Neugebauer advised, “and you will be in wonderful  condition.” The intensity of these substances was striking, given that  we live in a diluted world, willing to eat a tomato that only vaguely  tastes like a tomato, or an orange that looks orange only because it’s  been shot full of dye.

One sack had frayed at the ends and its  contents spilled out, revealing a root that looked like a thick, spiral  cinnamon stick. I was examining it when Miguel Berumen, another member  of Olien’s team, came over. Berumen was a walking superfoods  encyclopedia, and the learning had started early. As a boy growing up  outside Mexico City, he’d watched his grandmother heal family members  with plants from her garden. “I’d get sick,” he recalled, “and she’d  come over and brew up some herbs and say some prayers. That was just the  logical thing to do.” When Berumen was asked a question about, say,  sarsaparilla, the knowledge poured out, streams of words rushing and  tumbling over themselves in excitement. “In ancient times they used this  herb to make root beer. They also used sassafras. And manioc root to  generate the bubbles!”

“Can you ask Nicolaza about kaniwa?” Olien  asked Berumen. He’d mentioned kaniwa, a grain I’d never heard of,  several times today.

“Kaniwa is a beautiful plant,” Neugebauer said, with admiration in his voice.

“It bounced off the page to me this morning,” Olien said, pointing to his notes. New quinoa, high Andes, he’d written in the margin. “We could sprout it. Make it a little more bioactive.”

Olien  had explained to me how his formulas come together first by instinct, a  gut knowing that eventually leads him into the lab, where everything  will be rigorously tested. “I start with a question,” he said. “For  Shakeology it was, ‘What do people need to thrive?’” From that point the  different ingredients pop into his mind, inspirations bubble up, ideas  appear-”and then I back into the science.” Once a product has been  fine-tuned, Olien uses himself and his friends as guinea pigs. “That’s  the ultimate test,” he said. “In your own body.”

The intricate  synergies that keep our livers humming and our eyes focused and our  brains remembering where we put the car keys are mirrored in the plant  world. Each organism contains a universe within itself, countless  components working together seamlessly to keep things in perfect  balance. When Olien combines his raw materials-all of them functional  foods-he’s seeking this same effect, in which the whole adds up to more  than the sum of its parts. When we supplement our diets with specific  vitamins-a vitamin D capsule, a CoQ10 pill-we’re doing the opposite:  breaking nature’s systems apart. “The best example of this is the work  that’s been done on vitamin A,” Oz had told me. “When you eat  vitamin-A-rich foods like carrots, you reduce the risk of lung cancer.  When you take vitamin A as a pill you increase the risk of lung  cancer. How is that possible? It’s possible because when you take a  carrot and put it into your mouth you don’t just get vitamin A, you get  all the retinols. The different subtypes of all these different  phytonutrients. And they’re in the perfect mix for us. Literally dozens  of them in the right combinations-they’re the key that unlocks the  cells’ abilities to defend themselves against cancer. If you take only a  massive pharmaceutical dose of vitamin A, then you actually block the  body’s ability to absorb the other components of the carrot.” The way  these things operate, Oz said, is like a band playing in perfect tune:  “The true benefit doesn’t come from just having the drum banging. You  need the guitar, a little trumpet, a singer. That’s what makes the  music.”

This vast, emerging alchemy was the most exciting part of  his work, Olien agreed, stepping out of Mendoza’s warehouse into the  hazy afternoon heat: “I’m not a fan of isolating. Who are we to separate  things out? All of these herbs and vitamins have their buddies, and  they want to come together.” He walked toward the bus that would take us  from Lima into the wild folds of Peru. “It never ceases to amaze me,”  he added, “watching the magic.”

Tarma

Fresh cacao is a  strange and wonderful fruit. Outside, it’s a tough vermilion pod the  size and shape of a toy football, but inside it contains another set of  textures: a mass of wonky-shaped cubes nestled in a 3-D jigsaw puzzle,  each with a furry white covering and a chewy bean in the center. When  you bite into cacao the sensation is sexy and silky and delicious, kind  of bitter and kind of sweet, with a darkly complex flavor that only  hints at the chocolate it will eventually become.

“They called it  the Food of the Gods,” Olien said, handing me another cube. “And it  truly is.” He was wearing a pair of black shoes that slipped on like  gloves, all five toes outlined, giving his feet the appearance of paws.  It was perfect jungle footwear. We stood on the slippery hillside with  three men from the small, organic cacao plantation where these fruit  trees had been planted. Olien was always on the lookout for good sources  of cacao, a key ingredient.

Botanists and herbalists-and  superfood hunters-tend to get very worked up when describing cacao; its  health attributes seem almost too good to be true. Cacao has more  protective antioxidants than red wine, pomegranates, and blueberries  combined. It’s a huge source of magnesium, a critical mineral for heart  health, bone strength, and brainpower that many of us could use more of.  These little beans contain a rainbow of minerals, a wallop of vitamin  C, many essential fats, and the calming amino acid tryptophan, which in  turn elevates levels of the happiness-inducing neurotransmitter  serotonin. “Cacao is an absolutely perfect mood stabilizer,” Olien said.  And more: The beans are rich in a wonderful substance called  phenylethyl-amine (PEA) that our bodies produce when we fall in love;  PEA also acts as a natural appetite suppressant. An aphrodisiac that  helps you lose weight is so precious, in fact, that the Maya and Aztecs  used cacao beans as currency, valuing them above gold.

“I want to  make a convenient medicinal chocolate,” Olien said, holding up one of  the pods. “As pure and raw as possible, all hand grown. It’d be like  handing out delicious antidepressants to people!” To be honest, it was  quite an idea: What if the foods we loved also happened to be incredibly  good for us? What if, instead of doughnuts and nachos, we craved  nature’s most exquisite gifts? What would the world look like if  everyone functioned at peak energy, tipped the scales at their ideal  weight, and ran around in a good mood? What if we didn’t need to take  drugs to be happy or keep our hearts running smoothly or get a decent  night’s sleep?

Neugebauer began to talk to the farmers, giving them some new ideas to fend off a fungus known as Monilia that was reducing their harvest. I watched him speaking to them in  Spanish, kneeling down next to the trees and examining the soil. A  walnut-skinned man in black rubber boots listened intently, a curved  machete hanging from his belt. Standing at the edge of the path, Olien  and Berumen were deep in conversation. “It can’t help but propel me into  neurotransmitters,” I heard Olien say. His face was still smeared with  red achiote dye from a stop we’d made earlier at a lowland jungle  village called Pampa Miche, where we’d visited a tribe called the  Ashaninka, renowned for their knowledge of local plants. Olien had stood  by good-naturedly as a group of village women painted his face with  scarlet stripes, looped boa constrictors around his neck, and dressed  him in a native outfit consisting of a loose caftan, an elaborate sash  of beads, and a jaunty straw hat.

Later, on an exploratory walk  through the rainforest, he had downed a murky brown drink with a bitter  flavor and the texture of phlegm. “What are the medicinals in this?” he  asked Nuria, a sturdy woman in a red headscarf. She responded in a gale  of Spanish, gesturing at the towering trees.

“Five different tree barks,” Neugebauer translated.

“Para potencia!” Nuria stressed. The women erupted in giggles.

Olien  went on to sample wild cashew nut, a reddish fruit shaped like a small  bell pepper. The shell of the nut contains a burning acid (something  Olien had learned the hard way in Mexico last year, and ended up having  the skin of his lips peel off). Stepping off the path, one of the  Ashaninka men, who happened to be carrying a small monkey, reached up  with a long knife and cut into the trunk of a nearby tree. A thick red  sap began to ooze out. “Sangre de grado,” Berumen said, leaning over to  examine it. “Dragon’s blood!”

This was a sighting: Sangre de  grado is a substance so valuable and rare that counterfeit versions  often show up in the markets. Used externally as a salve, it acts as a  second skin to close wounds and stop infection; taken internally it  heals ulcers and other stomach ailments. Dragon’s blood also exhibits  antitumor and antiviral activity, qualities that have captured the  pharmaceutical industry’s attention.

Nuria rubbed a few drops  onto Olien’s forearm. The sap first looked red, then quickly turned a  shimmery golden, before morphing again to a soapy white. “It’s sticky,”  he said, touching it. “That’s how you know it’s really good,” Berumen  said. “When it gets creamy like that.”

The visual effect was  startling. The dark red liquid stood out against the light bark, as  though the tree really were bleeding. It looked eerily like a human arm  or leg. Olien traced the wound, letting the liquid drip onto his  fingers. He was completely transfixed, and he stood there for several  minutes, oblivious to anything else around him, even the scampering  monkeys.

Junin

At 14,000 feet in the Andes, not much  grows in Junin. There is one noteworthy exception: maca. This  windblasted place is the maca capital of the world, and for that Olien  loves it. “Ah, yeahhh,” he said as the lunar vistas rolled by,  dust-colored barren hillsides dotted with the tiny figures of llamas and  vicunas. The more I’d heard about maca, the more fantastic this little  tuber seemed: A relative of the radish, it has been cultivated for 2,000  years in these parts. Maca is an adaptogen, Olien said, explaining how  the brutal terrain had bred into the plant a kind of survivors’ guile  that enabled it to respond to any conditions. In the body it helps  balance whatever’s out of whack, particularly hormones. It boosts  endurance, allowing people (and animals) to work long days at high  altitude. Incan warriors liked to take maca before going into battle. In  Junin, the local people ate it roasted, stewed, marinated, dried,  fermented, made into tea. But for all its benefits, maca had flirted  with extinction. In 1979 only 70 acres of it could be found in Peru.  Since then its stock as a superfood has been steadily rising, and small  farmers have started planting it again, realizing it’s worth far more in  the marketplace than potatoes.

We were headed to visit Dina Guere  Vega, a maca farmer whom Olien had been working with for six years. She  and her family lived in a jumbled compound of low buildings that  included a warehouse filled with maca bulbs. Guere Vega was a  pocket-size woman with large brown eyes and a brilliant smile, bundled  in a hand-knit alpaca sweater, and she greeted Olien, Berumen, and  Neugebauer like family. Her husband stood beside her, wearing a wool hat  with earflaps. Outside the wind howled, shaking the roof.

The  smell of maca is intense and unique, like earth meets nuts meets a wood  fire with undertones of licorice and wasabi, and it filled the  warehouse-sacks of maca lined the walls. On one side of the building two  women sorted through a sea of bulbs spread across a tarp. Olien reached  into an open bag and pulled out a handful. The root looked like a  petrified fig. “Powerful stuff,” he said. “This is dried. Takes about  three months.” After that it would be carefully powdered and shipped to  the United States. Maca’s strong odor (and that of other pungent herbs)  had challenged Olien when it came to perfecting Shakeology’s taste  without resorting to artificial ingredients. “I spent a year trying to  get it right,” he said, describing the two flavors that resulted,  chocolate and greenberry. “Because if I didn’t, no one in Middle America  would drink it. You have to meet them in the place where they can  receive it.”

Dina and her husband reappeared holding trays of a  golden liquid. “Liquor de maca!” Neugebauer said, reaching for a glass  with a somewhat shaky hand. Since our arrival we’d been chewing coca  leaves, the native remedy for altitude sickness, but he was feeling the  elevation, and hoped that a little maca toddy would clear that up. We  had three rounds of the stuff and later we would drink more maca,  blended with dark beer and papaya. Its effect was smooth and kicky, like  stepping on the accelerator of a fine sports car. As Olien said, it was  an easy plant to love. The locals felt the same way and had even  installed a 70-foot-high, shocking purple maca monument in the nearby  town of Huayre.

But the picture wasn’t entirely rosy. Part of  Neugebauer’s task here was to solve a pressing problem: Over the past  year Dina’s fields had been producing far less maca, and the plants that  were growing had shrunk dramatically in size. Dina thought that climate  change was the culprit, erratic weather patterns bringing warmer  temperatures and rain out of season. Neugebauer, however, believed a  change in planting methods would not only restore her maca yield but  double it. The two of them hunkered on a couch in the drafty room with  wool caps pulled low over their heads. “He wants her to use a crane  rather than a tractor,” Berumen translated. “To reach out and loosen a  little area without turning the soil over. And he doesn’t think she’s  digging deep enough.” Neugebauer also explained how he had resurrected  the chaquitaclla, an Incan maca-planting tool shaped like a spear gun:  “I took it into a machine design shop in Germany and told them, ‘Please  mechanize this.’”

As old as maca’s tradition was, I could see that  much of what was happening here was new. “Five years ago, none of this  existed,” Olien said, surveying Dina’s compound, where a 2,000-year-old  crop was being reintroduced to the world. Though we tend to think of  progress as a straight charge ahead-more, new, bigger, faster-in maca’s  case, moving forward required going back in time. I recalled a  conversation I’d had with William Li, a Harvard-trained MD and the  cofounder of the Angiogenesis Foundation, a vanguard group that’s  proving how, at the molecular level, the foods we eat have a direct  impact on whether our bodies are vulnerable to cancer. “Today we’re at a  very awkward moment, I think, in human existence as it relates to food  and health,” Li had said, “where we know intrinsically that there’s more  to these things than we concretely recognize. And there’s a lot of  historical stuff that’s been lost. How do we rediscover that? How do we  take ourselves out of this cereal box?”

“I mean, why not think  about trying to replace wheat with maca, for example,” Neugebauer had  mused earlier. “Maca is the absolute superfood. Wheat has all sorts of  problems.” On the surface this sounds preposterous-but is it?  Considering that we’ve adopted a food system that’s created massive  increases in both obesity and hunger, where prices are spiraling out of  control, and monoculture and genetic modification work in opposition to  nature’s strategy of endless diversity, what these maca fields really  represented, I thought, were ancient yet urgent ideas about how to live.

Huanco

“What does this look like?” Berumen asked, holding up the aguaje fruit in the open-air market.

“A hand grenade?” I said. Because it did.

“An ovary!”

The  aguaje is a huge source of phyto-estrogens, Berumen said, and a perfect  example of biomimicry in action. In other words, even before there were  textbooks and search engines, nature had given us very clear  directions. It’s no accident that walnuts, with their squiggly oval  hemispheres, are the ultimate brain food. Or that a plant the rainforest  natives call chanca piedra (“stone breaker” in English), which produces  tiny green balls, is a natural remedy for kidney stones. Or that  dragon’s blood, the sap that acts as a coagulant, actually bleeds out of  the tree.

We stood in an aisle of the Huanuco market, squeezing  aside as people bustled past. A short woman in a flouncy skirt walked by  with a pig on a leash; another woman crouched on the ground next to a  net bag writhing with tiny chicks. Fruits and vegetables were heaped  everywhere. A light rain drizzled outside. Huanuco is a midsize city in  central Peru, usefully located between the sierra and the high jungle.  If you’re a farmer, there’s a lot of business to do here.

“The  phytoestrogenic property of aguaje is different than soy,” Berumen  continued, citing another plant with strong hormonal effects. “It  actually assists the body in making estrogen.” He cut into the aguaje  and handed me a piece. The fruit was bright orange, with the dry texture  of cheese. The vivid colors in fruits and vegetables-created by  chemicals called flavonoids-signal power. So far scientists have  identified about 6,000 of these compounds-names like peonidin,  kaempferol, apigenin, hesperitin, quercetin-but undoubtedly, thousands  more exist. Flavonoids have been shown to improve brain function, motor  skills, blood flow; they protect cells from inflammation and potential  damage that can lead to cancer.

Eating a variety of plants is the  best way to assure your body a wide array of flavonoids; in Peru, I’d  discovered, this wasn’t a problem. Since my arrival I’d been presented  with a steady stream of unknown foods. Along with cacao, maca, and  aguaje I’d tried granadilla, a fruit that cracks open with a snap,  revealing a fist-size mass of seeds, each covered in a translucent  membrane. The seeds were crunchy and sour, the membrane was soft and  sweet, the combination was sublime. Olien had produced a bag full of  dried aguaymanto, raisinlike fruits with a sharp citrusy tang. Berumen  had talked about “monster fruit”-a corncob-shaped plant that tasted like  a cross between a guava and a pineapple-and declared it “the most  delicious thing ever.” But Monstera deliciosa (its Latin name)  had to be carefully ripened and prepared, he warned: “If you bite into  it fresh, it’s like eating razors. It cuts up your whole mouth.” There  was black sapote, a fruit that tasted like chocolate pudding, and the  succinctly named peanut butter fruit. In the market we had also come  across lucuma, a fruit Olien likes for its mild, butterscotchy taste (in  Peru, lucuma-flavored ice cream is as popular as chocolate or vanilla).  “It blends well,” he said, slicing the skin off like that of a mango.  “Balances out the astringents.” The fruit had a soft, cakey texture.  “It’s one of the most mineral-rich foods in the world,” Berumen added.

We  walked past rows of fish on ice, midsize animal carcasses dangling from  hooks, rafts of flowers and sheaves of herbs. A heavyset woman in  fuchsia lipstick presided over bushels of coca leaves. In a back corner,  a group of older ladies had gathered around two large pots. One of  them, an Indian woman with a long braid, ladled something that looked  like porridge into a metal bowl. “Medicina!” she said, pointing at Olien  and then handing the bowl to him. Then she pointed to her stomach:  “Medicina!” she stressed again, flashing a smile that revealed many  missing teeth.

“Ah, the gringo needs some medicine,” Olien said,  raising an eyebrow. “What is this?” he asked Berumen to inquire. The  stuff in the bowl smelled acrid, even rotten. Berumen spoke to the women  in Spanish and then after a moment he turned to us. “It’s called  tocosh,” he said. “A traditional Andean food made from fermented  potatoes.” The process, he translated, involved burying the potatoes in  river soil for up to two years. Amazingly, this produced a natural  penicillin.

Olien raised a gloopy spoonful to his mouth, hesitated  for a moment, and then bravely swallowed it. Even from three feet away  the aroma made my eyes water. “It’s a lot better than it smells,” he  said, delivering the verdict. “It’s actually good.” I tried it, and  agreed. The tocosh was warm and subtly sweet, with hints of vanilla.  There was something comforting about it, and I could feel my body  wanting more. Later I would learn that tocosh had been an Incan  delicacy, and that even in sophisticated cities like Lima, Peruvian  doctors still prescribed it for stomach disorders, and for its overall  healthful effects.

“Oh my God, would I like to see the nutrient  content on this,” Olien said, taking another spoonful. “Because that is  not a potato anymore. It’s a completely new structure.” Fermenting a  food, he explained, was like turbocharging it. This is the process, of  course, that turns grapes into wine, milk into cheese. Essentially  you’re letting food go bad in a good way, by creating an oxygen-free  environment around it. During fermentation, benevolent armies of  bacteria break down starches to sugars; those are converted to  health-enhancing alcohols and acids. Whole new vitamins, enzymes, and  amino acids can spring up. The result is a food with alchemical potency.  This technique is so ancient that we don’t have any records of its  origin, but historians believe it goes back at least 9,000 years, to  China.

“If you look at the history of food, there’s been this  tribalism,” William Li had pointed out. “Things are passed down-and  there’s so much we don’t know. Space is a frontier. Oceans are a  frontier. I think food is a whole other frontier,” he said. “And it’s  not something you have to train with NASA for, or put on scuba gear for.  It’s sitting in front of us every single day.”

Ambo

The  Yacon farm was perched at the top of a road that zigzagged up the  mountainside in a series of hairpin turns. The road was narrow and  crumbly with scree, its thin ribbon of shoulder edged by sheer cliffs.  There were no guardrails. I watched the bus driver hunch over the wheel  in tense concentration, muttering under his breath. The view at the top,  however, was worth the white-knuckle ride. The farm was tucked in a  pristine valley glowing with more shades of green than the spectrum  seemed able to hold, ringed by majestic peaks.

“Have I talked to  you about yacon?” Olien asked, describing the potato-shaped vegetable  that was, improbably, a cousin of the sunflower. “It’s an amazing food, a  tuber that has a bunch of different sugars in it.” The most important  of these sugars is a rare type known as fructooligosaccharide (FOS), and  yacon is the richest known source of it. Although FOS tastes  beautifully sweet, it’s not processed in the body like other sugars  because we lack the enzymes to digest it (making it perfect for  diabetics-and dieters, because few calories are absorbed). But rather  than being expelled like some alien substance, on its way through your  body yacon does a number of helpful things. It acts as a prebiotic,  encouraging healthy bacteria in your intestines and colon, and aids in  fat metabolism, cholesterol management, vitamin absorption, blood sugar  regulation, even bone density. “It could be a sweetener solution for the  entire planet,” Olien said.

The farm’s owner was a local man  named Luis Alva, known to his friends as Lucho. He was burly, in his 30s  with a wide face that looked both tough and kind. Alva had a quiet  gravitas, which made sense when you learned what he’d been through on  his family land. Twenty years ago, at a house only a mile away, his  father was killed by the Shining Path, the leftist guerrillas who  brutalized Peru during the ’80s and ’90s (and remain on the U.S. State  Department’s list of terrorist groups). It was not a tragedy that anyone  around here had forgotten. But today Lucho was buoyant, glad to see  Olien and Berumen again, and to meet the rest of us.

In 2006  Berumen had been trolling the Internet and came across an arcane  reference to yacon. He sent it to Olien, who was astonished by the  “perfect storm of health benefits” the plant seemed to provide. “I  thought, ‘This is an amazing product,’” Olien recalled. “You can’t get  it anywhere, not even online. And then I was like a pit bull. I just  kept saying, ‘We gotta bring it here.’ And maybe I got ahead of myself. ”  He laughed, then added: “But that inspired all of what’s growing here.”

The next morning we headed to the fields in Alva’s truck,  driving up a red dirt road that also served as a thoroughfare for Andean  shepherdesses and their flocks. The women wore bright shirts and shawls  in magenta, canary, emerald, tangerine, turquoise, along with the  traditional pleated wool skirts and black flat-brimmed hats, which they  decorated with bits of tinsel. We passed a group of alpacas, shaggy  white beasts with unicorn faces and cranky dispositions, and a cow with  long eyelashes that was mowing some bushes.

Yacon produces large  green leaves that gave Alva’s fields a lush appearance, like a vast  carpet of salad. “Historically, yacon was called the apple of the  Earth,” Berumen noted. After sitting in the sun, apparently, it  literally tastes like an apple, though the tuber itself resembles a yam.  “You can dehydrate it, extract juice, or make a syrup out of it,”  Berumen said. I watched as a field hand pulled up a plant, its roots  caked with soil. Alva peeled the brown skin with a knife. Inside, the  yacon was crystal white with tiny violet dots around its perimeter. It  had an icy, juicy look and a crisp texture and it tasted fresh and  light, like highly delicious air or a ghost carrot. I could have eaten  it all day. “No applicacion de herbicida,” Lucho said. “Nada, nada,  nada.” He used only organic fertilizer in his fields, no chemicals at  all.

The spectacular valley, the happy workers, the mountain air,  the bountiful crops-no one could argue against this as an ideal. Earlier  I’d asked Olien what I thought was a key question: Is it possible to  mass-produce this kind of quality? “I think we’re proving that you can,”  he answered without hesitation. He added, “If you get the highest  nutritional value from your food, you need less of it. The vacant  foods-we need more of them, because they’re posers. They’re empty.”

He  was right. It was really that simple: The body with its unknown  galaxies of cells, its unseen cogs and wheels, its ropes and coils of  DNA, needs to be nourished, and it doesn’t thrive on red dye #40 or  propylene glycol or butylated hydroxyanisole with a ciprofloxacin  chaser. “These plants you’re writing about have powers that are sacred,”  Oz had stressed. “That word belongs in your story.” And these sacred  foods do not have to remain in backcountry Peru. They could be available  to all if we were willing to think and farm and eat differently.

Alva  pulled his truck over to the side of the road and pointed to a field  where eight varieties of yacon were growing. He wanted to see which type  would do best in this environment, and produce the most FOS. The winner  would be a kind of superyacon, a super-superfood. Olien opened the  passenger door and got out, walking to the edge of the field. Below he  could see the blue rooftops of a tiny school, kids playing soccer in  front of it. The workers moved among more yacon, small figures bent in  the furrows, and the Arischaca River rushed in the background while the  Andean women tended their sheep in the peacefulness and fullness that  was now here. The valley stretched out before him, green and red, the  vertiginous perfection of it all, the terraced fields, the veins of  soil. In the gold afternoon light Olien sat down in the yacon field,  among the floppy leaves. And then he lay back and closed his eyes,  smiling.

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