We don’t think goats are smart. You won’t call a smart person a goat as a compliment.
Yet series of experiments have shown that the animals are (in some respects) more intelligent than people.
Fred Provenza (then researcher at Utah State University) spent one winter watching goats eating blackbrush. Blackbrush is a plant that grows in the desert. It contains tannin which is mildly toxic to goats.
There were two herds on two different plots of land. The goats on a larger plot of land (with more forage) were losing weight faster than the goats on the smaller plot. It did not make sense.
Until Provenza noticed that the goats on the smaller plot were eating woodrats’ houses. Woodrats are small rodents. Here’s one:
Their houses were soaked in rodent urine, and that’s what the goats were after. Normally, goats do not eat urine-soaked vegetation, but these goats were using the urine as a kind of antacid. The urine made blackbrush less toxic, hence easier to digest. That’s why goats on the smaller plot were not losing weight. They figured out how to digest (otherwise toxic) plant better.
Furthermore, Provenza discovered that goats would eat a variety of plants and their diets would change. The change depended on nutritional deficiencies, toxicity of the plants, goat’s health. For example, researcher showed that goats deficient in phosphorous would add plants rich in phosphors to their diets. Sick goats would seek plants that made them feel better. Also, the goats would adjust their diets based on how the food made the animals feel.
In other words, with each plant they ate, goats were learning. Like experienced pharmacists, they were mixing and matching herbs to maintain a balanced diet and correct for any deficiencies.
Goats were doing what humans could only dream of doing. They were eating their way to health. They had nutritional wisdom.
When Provenza introduced the concept, academia quickly dismissed it. Goats were stupid after all. Researchers also had a problem with the wording. Nutritional wisdom is something my yoga instructor would say, not words you would see in an academic journal.
Yet, the evidence continued to pile up. Animals knew what to eat. They were specific about their diets and they would take drastic steps to correct any deficiencies. And some of the steps were truly bizarre…
Sheep would eat heads and legs of live seabird chicks to correct for calcium deficiency. Vegetarian sheep. Would eat birds. (Tell that story to your vegan friends.)
Similarly, caribou eat eggs of snow geese, but spit out chicks because they need the calcium in egg shells. The list went on.
Reluctantly, the academia accepted the notion on nutritional wisdom, but a series of relevant questions has emerged.
How do animals form nutritional wisdom?
When animals experience nutritional deficiency they would stop their normal diets. They eat other plants until they find the plant with the needed mineral. Then they would form an association with the flavor of that vegetable. Whenever they experienced similar deficiency again, they would look for the flavor. Provenza showed that in his experiments.
The goat’s brain would detect a low nutrient level in the body. It would adjust craving to force the animal to look for the plants containing the needed nutrients. Goats would crave the food they need because the food they need would taste great. Evolution has perfected a beautiful mechanism to ensure a goat can eat its way to health.
How do goats know what to eat?
The plant flavor is a function of secondary compounds. The secondary compounds are responsible for a fruit’s color, taste, and smell.
Secondary compounds are various chemicals that are responsible for non-survival functions in the plant. To kill bacteria, to repel insects or to attract them (honey bees or fruit eating animals). That’s why some secondary compounds are toxic (cocaine and caffeine). Others are extremely powerful antioxidants (flavonoids).
The more flavor the plant has the more it is packed with secondary compounds. Hence, flavor is the message about the plant’s nutritional content. Goats were using their mouths and noses to figure out that message.
Do humans have nutritional wisdom?
It looks like we don’t. We eat when we’re bored. Our diets go out of fashion like parachute pants. For a while it was low-fat. Then it was Atkinson. Now it’s Paleo/gluten-free/low-carb. Our noses and mouths do not guide our decisions. In fact, if we listened to them we would be gorging on McDonald’s and Crispy Cream.
Yet, there is evidence to contrary. We crave water when we are thirsty. Pregnant women low in calcium or iron often have cravings to eat dirt or chalk. Sailors who suffered from scurvy are documented to crave fruits and vegetables.
In 1926, Clara Davis decided to test nutritional wisdom in infants. She persuaded single parents (who could not take care of their infants) to put their children under her care for 6 years. In the orphanage, she offered children (all were less than 1 year old) food from the list of 34 food categories, all whole foods.
There was no sugar, cream, butter, cheese, or potato chips. Children could eat whatever they wanted and how much they wanted. They were not encouraged to eat anything specific.
The results were impressive. The children maintained balanced diets. Constipation was unknown. Colds lasted only 3 days. When children were growing, their protein intake went up. Some children had vitamin D deficiency. They quickly corrected the it thru diet (one ate cod liver, voluntarily). Children knew what their bodies needed and ate exactly that.
So we do have nutritional wisdom. Yet, as we grow we seem to lose it. We think that artificial flavors that we put in food are responsible for that.
How can we be more like goats? Mark Schatzker, in his book “The Dorito Effect” gives several recommendations:
1. Avoid processed foods.Processed foods contain artificial flavors. Ditto for the food at franchise restaurants. See Schatzker’s book for the list of specific chemicals that denote artificial flavors.
2. Eat a variety of vegetables. You need a diverse diet to maximize the intake of secondary compounds. Eat vegetables, even if you don’t like them at first. Research shows that we form attachment to food that is high in secondary compounds. Diet variety is another reason to avoid processed food. Artificial flavors make the same food taste differently, making you think that you are eating a variety.
3. Buy food that tastes great. I noticed heirloom tomatoes have more taste than the tomatoes on a vine. Cold pressed oils have more flavor than the hot pressed oils. Grass-fed meat tastes better than grain-fed meat. It will be more expensive. Think of it as an investment.
4. GMOs and Organic Food. GMOs get a lot of negative publicity. They are not harmful. There is no research that shows that. However, GMOs are often optimized for a specific quality, often yield. Thus, they are subject to the dilution effect. So, while GMOs will not cause cancer, they are less likely to fight it either. I suspect, in the future, there will be GMOs optimized for nutrition. They will have more secondary compounds and flavor. These GMOs will be more superior to non-GMOs. Organic fruits and vegetables (at least theoretically) should be higher in secondary compounds because farmers do not use pesticides. Thus, the plants are more exposed to insects and will generate more secondary compounds to ward them off. Yet, I did not see any research specifically examining dilution effect in organics.
5. Avoid food fortified with nutrients and vitamins. Since flavor is a message, we form associations between a food and a nutrient. If you are low in vitamin C and you eat an orange, your brain will learn the association between orange and vitamin C. However, if you are low in vitamin C and you eat a vitamin-C-fortified cereal, your brain will associate the cereal with vitamin C. Which one you rather have?
Use spices. Those are good for you because they maximize secondary compounds. Coriander is anti-inflammatory. So is fennel and basil. Ginger is shown to kill cancer cells. Turmeric helps to offset cognitive decline. Black pepper has-anti depressive qualities. Teas and coffee are also packed with secondary compounds.