The Bush Tucker Diet - A Nutritional Analysis
This page is taken from an article written in 2005 on the Australian bush tucker diet, containing an overview of the bush tucker diet and a nutritional analysis of Australian bush tucker plant foods.
See also: Bush Tucker Plant Foods (a web based field guide with pictures).
NEW: Australian Bush Food Plant Quiz (Bush Tucker and Edible Weeds).
The Australian Continent provides plentiful animal foods — land mammals, birds, reptiles, seafood and
insects — plus a great variety of plant foods. Conditions were lush in the subtropical areas along the coasts, and extremely
harsh in the desert interior. However, bushmen of the arid regions exhibited the same robust good health as their brothers
living in the coastal forests. In fact, the traditional bush tucker diet provided all the energy and nutrients needed
for excellent physical development, superb strength and stamina and overall good health.
The quantity and quality of food intake could vary greatly on a day-to-day basis. The usual pattern was of
subsistence intake supplemented by ‘feasts’ when large game were successfully hunted.
Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers, therefore the daily "bush tucker" diet varied according to the type of plants
and animals available in the particular location and season. By necessity, they had an extensive knowledge of plants,
animals, the land and the effects of the weather and time of year. Popular energy-dense foods, or foods that contained
plenty of kilojoules per gram, included animal meat and offal, honey, and insects such as witchetty grubs. Women tended
to gather the foods for everyday eating such as plants, reptiles and honey, while men hunted for land and marine animals.
Most bush tucker foods were eaten raw, but some were roasted or baked. Special foods were given to pregnant women, elders and the
young. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle also meant plenty of physical activity.
The bush tucker diet was generally low in energy density but high in nutrient density, being high in
protein, low in sugars, high in fibre and high in micronutrients. The carbohydrate
in most traditional plant foods is of low glycaemic index, producing lower
glucose and insulin levels than similar Western foods. Their consumption may be protective against diabetes. Plant foods
made up to 80% of the diet in desert areas and up to 40% in coastal areas.
Although the traditional Aboriginal bush tucker diet contained a high proportion of animal foods, it would have been
low in total fat, extremely low in saturated fat and relatively high in polyunsaturated fatty acids including the long-chain
highly polyunsaturated fatty acids of both the omega-3 and omega-6 families, and hence protective against cardiovascular
disease and related conditions.
Some animal foods, such as witchetty grubs and green ants, have a relatively high fat content, but most
native land animals are very lean. Traditional meat foods have a much lower carcass fat content and intramuscular lipid
content than meat from domesticated animals, such as cattle and sheep. Most carcass fat is stored in discrete depots
within the abdomen. These fat depots tend to be small and were traditionally shared by many people.
I found texts claiming that collection and preparation of traditional bush tucker food
were labour and energy intensive processes that could involve sustained physical activity for many hours daily.
Activities included walking long distances, digging for tubers, digging for reptiles, eggs, honey ants, and
witchetty grubs, chopping with a
stone axe, winnowing and grinding of seeds, digging pits
for cooking large animals, and gathering wood for fires.
BUT — there are other accounts that finding food in the bush was generally enjoyable
and not such a time-consuming or laborious task.
Tom Petrie, who travelled widely with the “blacks”
as a boy, so learning their languages and ways, recalled in 1904:
“To them it was a real pleasure getting their food; they were so light hearted and
gay, nothing troubled them; they had no bills to meet or wages to pay. And there were no missionaries in those
days to make them think how bad they were.”
From "Wild Food Plants of Australia" by Tim Low
Most people today probably don't realise how so much more
native "bush tucker" food was available before white settlement.
“The [Southern Australian] Plain for the thirty miles we followed it, was one bed of ripe fruit,
some juicy and some dried like raisins. The plant is now nearly, if not quite, extinct in that locality.” - From the
journal of E.M. Curr in the 1840s.
“[Murnong] were so abundant and so easily procured, that one might have collected in an hour, with a
pointed stick, as many as would have served a family for the day”.
“Bats such as the flying fox and grey glider were so
numerous in certain places that they blocked out the stars and moon when they flew. They were caught during the
day as they slept in trees by throwing clubs at them.”
Nutritional Analysis of Australian Bush Tucker Plant Foods
The 6 Main Nutrients
I'll now look at the 6 nutrients and some examples of how they were found in the Aboriginal
bush tucker diet.
Pure water was vital for survival. Inland Aborigines knew where water was
located in the desert and except in times of extreme drought drank copious quantities of it. In fact, research shows
that they use about twice as much water per unit of mass as Europeans in the same environment. An adult Aboriginal
male can drink almost three quarts of water in 35 seconds. During times of drought, water can be obtained from
water-holding frogs and certain plants. Kangaroo skin water bags were used in some areas to carry quite large
volumes of water (but not in the driest areas, possibly because kangaroos are relatively rare in the desert
and the vital nutrients — particularly fat-soluble nutrients — are lost if this animal is not cooked in its
skin). Up to a gallon of water could be carried in certain large leaves folded up in ingenious ways.
Water for cooking (or possibly contaminated water)
was boiled in bark troughs or in large sea shells.
The great challenge for the Aborigine was to obtain enough dietary fat.
They hunted animals when they were at their fattest (kangaroos, carpet snake, kangaroo rat, mussels, oysters,
turtles and eels). Except in times of drought, the Aborigine rejected kangaroos that were to lean — they were not
worth carrying back to camp. During periods of abundance only the best and fattest parts of the killed game were
eaten. Favourite foods were fat from the intestines of marsupials and
from emus. Highly saturated kidney fat from the possum was often eaten raw. The dugong, a large seagoing mammal,
was another source of fat available to natives on the coasts. Other sources of fat included eggs — from both birds
and reptiles — and a great variety of insects. Chief among them was the witchetty grub, or moth larva, found in rotting trunks of trees. These succulent treats — often over 6 inches long — were
eaten both raw and cooked. Fat content of the dried grub is as high as 67%. The green tree ant was another source
of valuable fat, with a fat-to-protein ration of about 12 to one. Another important
seasonal food in some areas was the begong moth. They were
knocked off rock walls or smoked out of caves or crevices. Moth abdomens are the size of a small peanut
and are rich in fat.
Weston Price consistently found that healthy primitive peoples consumed a diet containing at
least ten times the fat-soluble activators — vitamins found only in animal fat — compared to the typical American
diet of his day. These would be supplied in the Aboriginal bush tucker diet by animal fat, organ meats of game animals (the
entire animal was consumed, even the entrails) as well as insects, fish and especially shellfish, including
lobster, crab, crayfish, prawns, snails, oysters, mussels, mud whelk, abalone, scallops, sea urchins and periwinkles.
Shellfish are typically ten times richer in Vitamin D than organ meats. Shellfish feeding
on green plants also would have supplied the Price Factor or Activator X, a potent catalyst for mineral absorption.
The most highly prized components of the Aboriginal hunter-gatherer (bush tucker) diet were the relatively few energy-dense foods — depot fat, organ meats, fatty insects and honey. Generally,
high fat content was considered a principal indicator of meat quality. Other favoured
foods such as witchetty grubs and marine mammals, also have a high fat content.
Large game, birds, fish. Echidna, Kangaroo, wallaby, paddy-melon,
bandicoot, kangaroo rat. Reptiles such as goannas, lizards, frogs and snakes, birds such as emus, turkeys, swans,
ducks, parrots and cockatoos. Eggs, insects, shellfish, Animal foods
were generally cooked, either over and open fire or steamed in pits. Meat was
sometimes tenderised by pounding before being cooked. The bush banana and the
water lily root contain very high proportions of protein.
Provided by fruits, tubers, nuts, seeds, leaves. Traditional bush tucker diets
were generally low in sugars but for sweetness, the Aborigines loved honey. They found honey in trees and in the
desert their sweetness came from the swollen abdomens of sugar ants. Tree gums were dissolved in water and mixed with
honey to male sweets for children and lerp (sweet exudate found on certain trees) was made into a jelly.
Fat soluble vitamins came from animal foods, organ meats. Vitamin C came
from fruit, wild tomatoes, and especially Green Plum which contains 3150mg/100g of Vitamin C — making it the richest
source of Vitamin C in the world. B vitamins are found in animal foods and greens.
Calcium was provided from insects, eaten whole and ground up moths, as well as
from proper preparation of many plant foods to neutralise the calcium-blocking
phytic acid. Small-leaved rock figs contain up to 4000 mgs of calcium per hundred grams, far more than any western
Salt was collected from leaves of the river mangrove and available from the salt flats in desert
regions. Leaves of sodium-rich pigface were roasted and added to the diet. Certain rushes and sedges contained
reasonable amounts of sodium, as well as seeds of the golden grevillea, some kinds of figs, the nonda plum and the
bush tomato. Wild parsnip root and water chestnuts contain more than 4500 mg of sodium per 100 grams. Animal
foods also supply sodium, especially blood and certain organ meats, goanna, shellfish, snails and worms.
More On the Bush Tucker Diet
Fern roots such as bracken fern were one example of a staple bush tucker food. The bungwall rhizome was the staple
plant food of Aborigines in Moreton Bay of which a day's supply could be gathered in about an hour. Murnong tubers
were staple foods of Victorian Aborigines.
Some foods, such as seeds, required careful preparation to make it
suitable for eating. Soaking, pounding, grinding, baking in careful rituals would remove toxins from foods. Nuts
from the spiky panaanus palm required six weeks treatment before they could be eaten. They were then baked into a
tasty and nutritious nut bread which was also very popular with the earliest European settlers. The taste of many
fruits were improved by burying them in sand for one day.
Grains were sometimes stored in caves, hollow trees or under bark slabs. One store of 17 wooden dishes
held an estimated 1000 kgs of grains. Forms of agriculture, such as building dams
were practiced in some parts of Australia but they were not farmers.
They grew only to supplement the diet.
Native plants were used to eg. Eucalyptus leaves were used to
make herbal medicines while the gums were used to fill dental cavities. The uses of plants as medicines is extensive
and a topic all of itself. Aboriginal people often view food as their medicine. Many foods are known to strengthen
the body against sickness or promote healing. Some prized bush tucker foods such as the witchetty grub are crushed and used for
treatment of burns and wounds. The grubs are nutritious as well, with protein (15.1%), fat (19.2%), 100mgs thiamine
and 5mg vitamin C per 100gms. See also here for examples of bush medicines.
Many herbs have significant and practical functional effects such as being emulsifiers, stabilisers
or anti-oxidant. Some contain compounds which are tonic, relaxing, restorative, phytoestrogenic, anti-microbial
or anti-arthritic and more. Several edible seeds and nuts appear to be protective against diabetes, obesity and
other diseases of civilisation. And we are only just discovering these valuable effects and how best to use
Their teeth were in excellent health. Weston Price researched in the
1930s and his photographs of aboriginies who followed a native bush tucker diet revealed dental structures so perfect as to
make the reader wonder whether these natives were wearing false teeth. But, when a modern diet is adopted tooth
decay, disease and dental irregularities and deformities follow a similar pattern to
Children were traditionally breast-fed until approximately
three years of age, the age of weaning depending on the arrival of another sibling. Solids were not
introduced until eruption of teeth. Responsibility for feeding tended to rest with the child, who was
expected to indicate desire for food, and was fed on demand, deciding ‘what and when to eat’. Feeding
of older children had priority over the feeding of small infants.
There are about 25,000 plants in Australia of which 5,000 are
edible. While many texts warn of sampling bushfoods, there are others stating that it is very difficult
to be poisoned if you know what you are looking for. Most of the poisonous species warn of their danger
by tasting bitter or acrid. The only really dangerous plants are a few mushrooms and fruits (that can be
learned), and large seeds like those of cycads, which are both palatable and
toxic. Cunjevoi and Polynesian Arrowroot are slow to produce stinging.
Before white settlement, Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers who foraged for uncultivated
plants and hunted wild animals. The traditional bush tucker diet was high in carbohydrates, protein and nutrients, and low
in fat and sugars. It seems that diet-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, were uncommon.
The citizenship rights that were granted to aboriginies in the late 1960s accelerated
their urbanization, dependence on welfare payments, Westernization of diet, loss of hunter-gatherer skills, and
increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Modern Aboriginal diets are heavily Westernised and tend to be high in fat
and sugar, but low in carbohydrate, fibre and nutritional value. The rate of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
is now exceptionally high in the indigenous population.
In 1981, the Northern Territory Department of Health launched the Bush Food Program, which sought to establish a durable record of traditional Aboriginal food practices and beliefs
and develop a more relevant and acceptable style of nutrition education. This program, initiated by departmental
dietitians and Aboriginal health workers, has come a long way, and an exciting nutrition education program has been
developed. The Bush Foods Program has led to the stimulation of reciprocal learning processes between two cultures
and the self examination of attitudes and values.
There are other such programs in place and in development to bring native bush tucker foods back to aboriginal people for improved nutrition.
There is also growing interest in the commercial production of Australian Bush Foods, e.g. (from Cherikoff webpage):
However, these ingredients are already finding their way into manufactured
products as functional flavourings and some, along with selected bush medicines,
are even being used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Yes, foods that were once only used by Australian Aborigines have come a long way.
They now grace the tables of 4 and 5-star restaurants around the world and have been
eaten by celebrities and dignitaries all over the planet. Clinton enjoyed wattle pancakes at the Atlanta
Olympics and our products were very visible throughout the Sydney Games, Prime Ministers, ministers and
trade delegates are often served food with native flavours at foreign functions, the Duke of Edinburgh ate,
saw manufactured and smelled them on his last visit to Australia and the household of the Sultan of Brunei
enjoys lemon aspen syrup over yoghurt on their breakfast muesli.
Rock’n’roll performers, from Madonna to The Rolling Stones ate and drank native
flavours and many used them medicinally to maintain their voices in 'good' form when performing in
Australia. Please note that these comments do not imply their endorsement of any
of our products. They simply indicate the scope of the penetration and acceptance of our
offerings to date.
Cherikoff, Vic (2000), The Bushfood Handbook: How to gather, grow, process and
cook Australian wild foods, Cherikoff Pty. Ltd., Boronia Park
Hiddins, Les (1999), Explore Wild Australia with the Bush Tucker Man,
Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Ringwood
Isaacs, Jennifer (2002), Bush Food: Aboriginal Food and Herbal Medicine, New Holland Publishers, Sydney
Low, Tim (1991), Bush Tucker: Australia's Wild Food harvest, Angus & Robertson, Pymble
Low, Tim (2003), Wild Food Plants of Australia, Harper Collins Publishers, Pymble
Lowe, Pat (2002), Hunters and Trackers of the Australian Desert, Rosenberg
Publishing Pty Ltd, Dural Delivery Centre
Winfield, Cathy (June 1987), Bush Tucker: A Guide to, and Resources on Traditional
Aboriginal Foods of the North West of S.A. And Central Australia, Printed at Wattle Park
The Weston A. Price Foundation, Australian Aborigines - Living off the
fat of the Land
Nutrition in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
Endorsed 31 July 2000
An Information Paper
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)
TRADITIONAL ABORIGINAL MEDICINE PRACTICE IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY, Dr Dayalan Devanesen AM MBBS, DPH (Syd) Grad. Dip MGT,MHP (NSW) FRACMA, FAFPHM, FCHSE. Paper presented at INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM ON TRADITIONAL MEDICINE BETTER SCIENCE, POLICY AND SERVICES FOR HEALTH DEVELOPMENT. 11-13 September 2000, AWAJI ISLAND, JAPAN. Organised by the World Health Organisation Centre for Health Development, Kobe, Japan.
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