Tribes, Nutritionists Clash on Fry Bread

Fry bread may look good and taste good, but its health benefits are questionable. Credit: NPR.

hide captionFry bread may look good and taste good, but its health benefits are questionable.

Ted Robbins, NPR

Most tribes in the United States eat fry bread, a staple of Native American cooking. But its lack of nutritional value is causing concern that the delicacy is making health problems among American Indians worse.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A staple of Native American cooking is taking some heat. Fry bread is eaten by most tribes in the US, but its lack of nutritional value is causing concern that the delicacy is making Indian health problems worse. Here's NPR's Ted Robbins.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

The ball of dough Gloria Raymond(ph) pats between her hands is pretty simple stuff: white flour, baking soda, water and lard.

(Soundbite of dough being pat)

ROBBINS: And once it's stretched round and flat, the cooking's pretty simple, too...

(Soundbite of frying)

ROBBINS: ...about one minute in a pot full of hot oil until brown on both sides, and you've got fry bread.

Ms. GLORIA RAYMOND: It smells goods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KAREN BLAINE (Nutrition Outreach Coordinator, TOCA): You always know when it's popovers.

ROBBINS: That's Karen Blaine. She's watching Gloria Raymond make what the Tohono O'odham in southern Arizona call popovers; most other tribes call it fry bread.

Unidentified Woman #1: Can I help you?

Unidentified Woman #2: Can I have two taco barrels and a bean popover?

Unidentified Woman #1: Two taco barrels and a bean popover?

ROBBINS: Fry bread is found on dinner tables, at lunch stands like this one outside the O'odham tribal offices, and at powwows and festivals all across Indian country.

(Soundbite of "Fry Bread Line")

Mr. JIM BOYD: (Singing) Seems I'm working the most all the time, put in hours on my fry, fry, fry bread line. At that powwow, you are sure to find everybody's in that fry, fry, fry bread line.

ROBBINS: That's a song called "Fry Bread Line" by the Jim Boyd band. It's one of several contemporary Indian songs celebrating fry bread, sometimes tongue in cheek. There's a Web site called FryBreadLove, T-shirts that say `Fry Bread Power.'

(Soundbite of frying)

ROBBINS: Fry bread is eaten alone, with beans or chili or as a dessert with honey or powdered sugar. Good as it may sound, nobody is pretending that it's healthy.

Unidentified Woman #3: Look at all the oil you're use in there, and it's just a deep-fried white bread--is what it is. And so it's not good for you.

ROBBINS: Fry bread is contributing to epidemic diabetes and growing heart disease in Indian communities.

Mr. TERROL DEW JOHNSON (Co-director, TOCA): I'm sitting in front of you, and I'm 6', 300 pounds, you know, and that didn't happen overnight. You know, that was because of the foods that I grew up eating, and one of them was fry bread.

ROBBINS: Terrol Dew Johnson is one of the estimated 70--that's 7-0-percent--of O'odham adults who have diabetes. He is co-director of TOCA, Tohono O'odham Community Action, an organization that promotes traditional food. And fry bread is not what he'd call a real traditional food.

Mr. DEW JOHNSON: Is there traditional songs about fry bread? You know, is there a ceremony you should perform when you do fry bread? So you're looking back into your culture in your own tribes and see, `What kind of prayers do I pray to our creator about fry bread?' You know, you throw those out and see what happens, see what kind of reaction they get.

ROBBINS: For Northwest Indians, real traditional food means fish. For Plains Indians, it means bison. And for O'odham and other Southwest tribes, it means beans, squash and corn. Indians first began eating fry bread anytime from the 1860s to the 1960s, depending on the tribe. But the ingredients came from the US government, which gave away the white flour and lard because they were cheap surplus commodities. They still are, but back then nutrition was not a factor. Karen Blaine would like to do away with fry bread altogether, but she lives in the real world. Heck, she likes the stuff herself.

Ms. BLAINE: Because there's a part of me, I have to have--you know, sometimes, like, you know, you crave it.

ROBBINS: And her job? She's TOCA's nutrition outreach coordinator.

Ms. BLAINE: It's difficult to change eating habits, and so we say, `OK, everything in moderation. Don't have it as often as you used to.'

ROBBINS: Karen Blaine knows how tough it can be to avoid fried food, whether you're Native American or not. So she and others are asking tribal members to back away from the fry bread slowly, one meal at a time. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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