Prof. Laurie Chan: Researching the Traditional Arctic Diet

By Morgan O’Neal

Professor Laurie Chan holds the Research Chair for Aboriginal Health at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. He has just received $11 million from Health Canada to study chemical contaminants in traditional foods among aboriginal populations over the next decade. He and a team of other research scientists will work with 20 First Nations communities across the province to gather information about diet, health, and lifestyle in addition to collecting water and food samples to measure levels of mercury and other chemicals in dietary staples. The ultimate goal is to investigate 100 communities across the country.

Fish is obviously of great significance for many communities, but some species show dangerously high levels of mercury contaminants. The environmental culprits in most cases are resource-based industries such as mining, forestry and oil and gas that are the backbone of the present northern economy. Fortunately, salmon (a common food in many communities) still has fairly low levels of mercury contamination and also continues to register higher than usual in beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. Rainbow Trout is also a good choice for the same reasons, low contamination and high Omega-3. On the other hand, Swordfish and Pike, which are also popular, tend to contain more contaminants and less Omega-3. Depending on which type of fish is readily available and most used, the overall health of a community can be affected.

Dr. Chan has also done research on fermented marine mammal blubber, which is a very popular element in the typical northern diet. In order to learn as much as possible about it, Chan had to test it for taste and other basic qualities. Up North it is an acquired taste. According to local connoisseurs, its manner of preparation is a bit unappetizing to the newcomer. Fresh seal blubber is left “out in a jar somewhere for maybe a few days, sometimes up to a week. During this time the fat liquefies and the locals use it as a dip for bread and things like that.” Chan points out “living in the Arctic you need lots of energy, so everybody, including humans, eats lots of fatty tissues.”

Unfortunately, organic pollutants accumulate in fatty tissue. Still, fermented blubber is a necessary dietary item; to delete it from a diet that has been in place for centuries would require finding an adequate substitute appropriate for Arctic conditions. Lifestyle changes brought about by technology may diminish future need for such high‑energy foods, but this implies a profound transformation of the very soul of the Arctic inhabitant.

Chan and his researchers have carved out a strong reputation internationally. For example, they are also helping both the United States and Russia with environmental studies on pollutants in the Arctic. “The aboriginal people there still eat a lot of wildlife,” Chan says. “As a result, the levels of exposure can get quite high.” This is especially true for northerners who eat a lot of whale, seal, blubber, and organ meat, which can all contain a lot of chemical concentrate. The difficulty is really when aboriginal people in the South switch rapidly from “country food” to marketplace food and health problems like diabetes increase. Processed foods with questionable nutritional value are over-consumed and activity levels go down. In the North, fresh fruit and produce are prohibitively expensive, if they can be found at all. “We tell [communities] they should hang onto their traditional food system as much as they can, and promote the younger generations to eat the same food,” says Chan. “But on the other hand, we want to ensure the food’s safety and make sure they are not eating too many contaminants.”

The Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) located at McGill University’s Macdonald Campus in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec was created to address concerns within aboriginal communities about the integrity of traditional food supplies and traditions. Environmental deterioration has affected the nutrition, health, and lifestyles of indigenous peoples across Canada. CINE has a governing board with representatives from different aboriginal organizations that approve research directions and methodologies. “They, as a group, help us to talk to the community, and help us understand what their needs are,” says Chan. For example, CINE doesn’t take tissue samples from northern people “because there’s a cultural sensitivity about drawing blood or any body tissues in aboriginal groups,” Chan says.

Chan and his colleagues collect data on what and how much people eat, and what time of year certain foods are available and use the latest technology to measure levels of both nutrients and contaminants in the food. Chan says, “We really advocate participatory research. We get people involved in our research from the very beginning of the project, in the design.” Local research assistants are trained to carry out dietary surveys and interviews and collect all food samples. Chan and his team hired women to cook and documented their methods because CINE wanted “to look at the effects of food preparation [and] cooking on the levels of contaminants.” Chan believes it is important to include “local traditional knowledge into the maximum scientific approach . . . after we finish the projects we always go back to the community and discuss with them what the results mean [and] how should they go about using these results to make certain decisions.”

The participatory research goes both ways. Chan eats what the community eats, enjoying the local fish, caribou, and moose. A culinary highlight for Chan took place during a caribou hunt. When a caribou is killed, the hunter butchers the animal on the spot, takes out the kidney and cooks it quickly, just a moment on each side. “It’s very delicious,” says Chan. “It’s crunchy, but doesn’t taste like urea at all.” Chan, with his heavy metals expertise, knows full well that cadmium is concentrated in the kidney. Had he never been up North, he might have advised them not to eat kidney. But he explains, “After hunting with them, then you know that’s really their favourite food. When you go for a hunt, this is the trophy part of the animal. It’s hard to tell them not to eat that. So the bottom line is that you need to look at comparative risk.”

In the Arctic, people must balance the nutritional benefits of their food with the contaminant risk. The vitamins we southerners find in leafy greens are also found in organ meats in the northern diet. The summertime provides northerners with lots of vitamin C-laden berries in addition to vitamin C found in Beluga whale skin. Climate change affects the sustainability of the traditional food system, Chan says. The North is warmer than before, which means the caribou’s migration path has shifted. Chan’s new position as Research Chair will enable CINE to support the continued examination of health benefits and risks associated with traditional northern food.