In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s bestselling 2006 investigation of the American diet, he writes that “much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing.” Indeed, we’ve become accustomed to the bounty of the supermarket, where we can buy beef for dinner already neatly packaged into frozen hamburger patties, without ever having to see an actual steer, let alone raise one and kill and butcher it. And for most of us, about 70 percent of what we consume is “processed” food—that is, treated with an estimated 5,000 different chemical additives, some intended to make it last longer on the shelf, and enhanced with sugar and salt to make it taste better.
But typical Americans’ disconnectedness to our source of food, and our diet’s largely unnatural nature, is a stark contrast to hardy residents of the Alaskan wild depicted in the National Geographic Channel series Life Below Zero. In a harsh, rugged place far from urban civilization, they’re compelled to live mostly off the land. The Alaskan subsistence lifestyle, which is built around hunting and fishing, requires them to take an active role in every part of the food cycle—from catching and killing animals, to butchering them, storing their meat, and eventually cooking it for consumption.
“Subsistence is basically do it yourself,” Alaska resident Chip Hailstone explained in an episode of the program. “When you’re subsistence fishing, you’re fishing for your own needs, your own food. You’re not buying it from a store. It wasn’t raised in a factory.”
In Alaska, between 48 and 70 percent of rural dwellers harvested wildlife for food, and between 75 and 98 percent caught fish to eat, according to a 2010 report by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game.
In contrast to urban and suburban dwellers, who shop for themselves and their immediate families in stores filled with a diverse array of products that cater to individual tastes, Alaskan rural dwellers tend to gather food cooperatively and share their resources. In one episode, for example, Alaskans Chip and Agnes Hailstone hunt along the Kobuk River for moose, which is a major part of their remote community’s diet. “We like being providers and sharing,” Chip explained in an episode of the program. “And people treat us good for that, because that’s an adult’s place. There’s at least, you know, 20 houses we can give it away to, and everybody will have 3 or 4 meals. And they’ll reciprocate, and when I got nothing, fresh meat will land at my house.”
In the episode, after the Hailstones patiently stalked a moose and finally downed it with a rifle shot, Chip Hailstone excitedly contemplated the many meals that he and his neighbors would get out of the animal. “Yeah, you can use every part of this,” he said. In addition to the muscle meat, the Hailstones savored parts of the animal—such as the heart and tongue—that their contemporaries in the lower 48 might be too squeamish to eat. The subsistence hunters’ efficiency at utilizing their food is a glaring contrast to the lackadaisical attitude of the typical American family, which wastes about 40 percent of the food that it brings home from the supermarket, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
While it’s more difficult for rural Alaskans to obtain food, they actually eat a diet that is surprisingly diverse. A study of one group of 224 rural Alaskans, for example, found that they consumed 27 different types of foods that they harvested from their environment, ranging from king salmon and caribou muscle meat to seal oil. They also ate locally-picked blueberries and salmonberries, and even drank “tundra tea” made from local plants.
But living off the land doesn’t necessarily mean eating fresh food all the time. To the contrary, the hunters often freeze their meat and dry their fish to make it last as long as possible.
In some ways, the Alaskan subsistence diet may be healthier than the conventional diet of supermarket-purchased food. A 2011 study of the Yup’ik, a native people whose diet is rich in Alaska salmon, found that they consumed about 20 times as much fish oil—rich in Omega-3 fatty acids—as people in the lower 48 states, and that it seemed to protect them against diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, even though they had a similar percentage of obese adults as the rest of the continental U.S. And moose meat is about 22 percent protein, the same proportion as USDA Choice beef, but only has one-thirteenth as much fat, and is slightly lower in calories.
But a 2009 study of native Alaskans who lived a partly subsistence lifestyle also found that they had low intakes of certain key nutrients, such as calcium and dietary fiber, and that they consumed relatively little fruit and vegetables. That nutritional deficit may be what is causing them to have a higher rate of digestive system cancers, according to the researchers.