The region has always teamed with animal life. Early sixteenth-century Spanish settlers reported that the Amerindians of Costa Rica consumed significant amounts of poultry, fish, eggs, turtles and many types of forest game. The Spaniards brought cattle to the area in the late fifteen hundreds and cattle-raising has remained an important practice since that time. The Spaniards also introduced pig farming to ensure a source of ham and lard. It is clear from all reports that the Nicoyans have never been vegetarians.
Even recently, the Nicoya Peninsula has remained relatively isolated from western influence, with many people raising vegetables and fruit in their own gardens. Their water is noted for its high content of magnesium and calcium.
Costa Rica is one of the blue zones that Buettner visited in writing his book on long-lived people. He interviews several centenarians and notes that people seemed “sharper and more active than anywhere else.” They have a strong work ethic and sense of inter-generational family ties, even though the men are not noted for marital fidelity.
Corn and beans are definitely staples in the diet. The women still prepare the corn at home, soaking it in ash and lime water, the process of mixtimalization, which releases niacin in the corn. “This creates the foundation of perhaps the best longevity diet the world has ever known,” says Buettner. “This food combination [corn plus beans] is rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, calcium and niacin. Recent research shows that in diets high does maize can reduce bad cholesterol and augment good cholesterol.”
”Like the people in most other Blue Zones,” Buettner insists, “Nicoyans ate the emblematic low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based diet, rich in legumes.”
Just one little problem with this description: the corn and beans—and also eggs, meat and fish—are cooked in lard. Buettner follows one Don Faustino as he shops for a Sunday meal. Don Faustino visits a butcher stall in the market, “handing two-liter plastic bottles to the butcher to fill with liquefied lard. Then the butcher sliced off two slabs of pork from a dangling pig carcass and wrapped them in newspapers.”
A 2013 study of the Nicoya region confirmed the longevity of Costa Rican males: “Reliable data show that the Nicoyan region of Costa Rica is a hot spot of high longevity. . . For a 60-year-old Nicoyan male, the probability of becoming centenarian is seven times that of a Japanese male, and his life expectancy is 2.2 years greater. This Nicoya advantage does not occur in females, is independent of socio-economic conditions. . . Nicoyans have lower levels of biomarkers of CV risk; they are also leaner, taller and suffer fewer disabilities.”
Looking at the diet of the nonagenarians, the researchers in this study were more honest and more systematic than Buettner: “The data on frequency of food consumption . . . showed some significant but small differences in the diet of elderly Nicoyans compared to other Costa Ricans. Nicoya diets include significantly more plain, quotidian foods like rice, beans, beef, fish, chicken, light cheese and sodas; and significantly less of ‘fancy’ foods like aged cheese, olive oil or mayonnaise, less salad ingredients (lettuce, avocado, carrot, tomato) and less processed and fast foods such as white bread, cookies and hamburgers. They also drink significantly less milk (an average 0.5 glass per day compared to 0.7 glass by other Costa Ricans). There are no differences in consumption of fresh fruits, eggs, sugar, pastries and potato chips. . .
“[Compared to other Costa Ricans] Nicoyans eat or drink more calories, carbohydrates, proteins (mostly of animal origin) and fibre. Although they do not differ in the consumption of total fat, their significantly higher levels of saturated and trans fats probably come from the use of cheaper brands of oils.”
Those “cheaper brands of oils” were either unprocessed lard (it’s hard for modern researchers to use the L word) or partially hydrogenated lard. Of course the centenarians grew up on unprocessed lard—processed lard and vegetable oils were not around in the early 1900s, at least not in isolated places like the Nicoyan Peninsula.
These are fascinating details—the long-lived people of Nicoya ate more animal protein, more fish, more meat and more saturated fat than inhabitants of other parts of Costa Rica. Still, there are other details we would like to know. Did they eat more organ meats? Are the centenarians still using lard today rather than vegetable oil? Seems like they drank less milk, but was the milk they drank straight from the cow, or processed milk from the grocery store? Did they make broth with bones?
Fortunately, Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader and Costa Rica resident Gina Baker made a point of interviewing Nicoyan centenarians in 2011 and again in 2016, and provides some answers to our questions
“On my way to visit a one-hundred-and-nine-year-old woman in the village of Mansión,” writes Gina, “I stopped at a house to ask for directions. The lady of the house, upon learning about my research, enthusiastically described a common local dish aptly named sustancia (the Spanish word for “substance”) consisting of pork shanks cooked with liver, kidney, ears, cheek, brain and heart, spiced with cilantro, garlic, onions and bell pepper. She also described a soup eaten daily by pregnant and nursing women, containing black or red beans cooked with a bone, lard and a type of green plantain that is very rich in potassium and magnesium, eaten along with boiled eggs.”
The granddaughter and son of one centenarian “told me they lived on meat and that everybody in the past loved meat and, in particular, fresh liver. Don Pedro hunted game, and when he or other hunters killed an animal, everybody fought over who got to eat the liver. Don Pedro also fished (he loved dried salted fish) and ate plenty of eggs and chicken. Don Pedro noted that children often went to look for shrimp and other seafood to eat. It was common to drink whey and sometimes make soup with it. . .
“Don Pedro and other older Nicoyans reported that pork, lard and chicken skin were the principal foods and fats traditionally consumed, while other menu items were perceived as ‘extras.’ Nicoyans used abundant lard and other animal fats for cooking.”
According to Gina, “One hundred years ago, Costa Rica produced so much lard that the country exported it. Even in recent years, indigenous people come to the town of Turrialba. . . by bus to purchase every single part of the pigs, including all available fat the butchers render to make chicharrón (fried pieces of pork belly or rind), a big treat to Costa Ricans. When families slaughtered one of their pigs, the animal yielded five gallons of lard, providing one month’s worth of cooking fat for seven to eight people.”
Baker also interviewed an extremely alert ninety-nine-year-old Don Cristobal Nuñez, born in 1917. “Don Cristobal was a fisherman, just like the other male members of his family. He stated that he was raised on seafood, eggs, organ meats (including one of his favorites, the famous sustancia) and plenty of chicken soup. In Don Cristobal’s day, people also viewed sopa de jarrete (beef shank soup) as an excellent means of strengthening children’s bones. He added that he drank a glass of sour milk (fresh cow’s milk left to sour overnight) every morning to ‘refresh the liver’ . . . He also remembered the exact year . . . when industrialized cottonseed oil arrived in his part of the world.” It was 1932. So the centenarians of Costa Rica ate lard during their growing years and by all accounts continue to do so today.
Several oldsters reported that they had no white sugar as children, but occasionally used tapa dulce, a dark brown traditional sweetener made from evaporated sugar cane.
So for the centenarians of Costa Rica, yes to organ meats, continued use of lard, raw milk and bone broth. And all accounts of their diet indicate that they eat plenty of eggs—sometimes several eggs per day. None of the centenarians Gina talked to had ever suffered from joint pain or gastritis. But times are changing: these ailments affect virtually all modern-day Costa Ricans, including the centenarians’ children and grandchildren. Centenarians have noticed that their descendants are sickly and that food has changed. “Today’s food has the appearance of food but not the substance of it,” said one of Baker’s informants.
And the centenarians are disappearing. Writes Baker: “Sadly, in my recent travels I found far fewer centenarians than I did five years ago. Everywhere I went, I was told that some centenarians had recently died. Before leaving the retirement home in Nicoya, I asked employee Danny Espinosa about the shrinking population of local centenarians. He said, ‘When I arrived here six years ago, the home had forty-five centenarians. Today, we have just two.’”