This post isn’t really about food fights in school cafeterias – some of us have matured (a bit) since those days. Actually, the photo of John Belushi was a classic bait-and-switch, a ploy to draw you into a post about foods that are good for us.
At the end of November, I caught an interview on NPR’s Science Friday with Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist who specializes in science and health. She discussed the way humans, since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, have bred the nutrition out of plants, and what the science of micro-nutrition has recently learned about optimizing our food choices.
The interview was a good introduction to Robinson’s bestseller, Eating on the Wild Side, and she led off with a discussion of corn.
Wild corn came with tough husks and only a few kernels per ear. It didn’t taste very good, but it was healthy, with 20% protein and only 2% sugar. In contrast, modern corn has 2%-4% protein and sugar as high as 40%. Still better than Ding Dongs, but headed in that direction.
At the core of this research are phytonutrients, molecular level nutrients that are natural wonder drugs. Lab work over the last 15-20 years reveals that some phytonutriets increase resistance to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, they tend to make foods bitter, a taste we would rather avoid.
Taste hasn’t been the only factor in denaturing our food. Carrots were red and purple until 400 years ago, when a group of Dutch growers, paying political homage to the House of Orange, used mutant yellow carrots to create the orange variety we know today. Unfortunately, orange carrots have 16 times fewer antioxidants than red and purple varieties.
There’s good news on the carrot front; Robinson says we can find the older varieties in seed catalogs, and they actually taste better. During the rest of the interview, she presented ways to maximize nutrition and the number of beneficial phytonutrients we eat. Her suggestions included:
- Eat the skins. The skin of carrots of any variety contains half the nutritional value, so wash them but don’t peel them and throw the skins away. Don’t skin potatoes before mashing them.
- When choosing fruits and vegetables, a rule of thumb is the healthiest colors are red, blue, black, and purple. There are exceptions, however, like artichokes, which Robinson says are among the best veggie choices.
Garlic really is a “wonder drug,” but it’s value depends on two substances combining after the cloves are cut or crushed, and one of these can be damaged if heated too soon. The solution is to crush garlic then set it aside for 1o minutes before sautéing.
In one study three to four servings a week from the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens, kale, and others) reduced the risk of prostate cancer in men by up to 60%.
Daily servings of Welches grape juice, made from Concord grapes, appears to improve the memory of seniors with early signs of Alzheimer’s.
The nutritional value of many fruits and veggies increases with cooking. This includes berries, which makes berry pies and cobblers among the healthiest deserts.
Once, when I was younger, I lived as a strict vegetarian for two years. At the time I was learning to meditate and tried out advice (which proved to be true) that a moderate diet and occasional fasting helps concentration. My diet is different now, but I’m equally attentive to what I eat; my motive is overall health.
Wherever one stands on the issue of health care, no one can argue that the best way to stay healthy is not to get sick. Next to quitting smoking and exercise, diet is a major behavioral variable we can tilt in our favor. The effort is enjoyable to, in a mildly subversive way, like buying nothing on Black Friday. In an era when the next big corporate move in fruit is patenting GMO apples that don’t turn brown, I find heirloom veggies like blue corn and purple carrots to be especially attractive.
Take a look at Jo Robinson’s website, eatwild.com; you’ll find it informative and inspiration.
PS: Based on several comments, I’m adding links to possible sources of interesting seeds.
burpee.com: For a long time, the seed catalog of choice. Now online with info tailored to your climate zone. I poked around enough to see that they have purple carrot seeds.
Heirloom Seed Companies: I found this link on Facebook. Haven’t checked it out yet, but it looks interesting.