Wild Eating

animal house food fight

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.

eating on the wild side

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.
Blue Jade corn

Blue Jade corn

  • 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.

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14 Responses to Wild Eating

  1. I totally agree with you on the importance of careful eating, and choosing the purple carrots if you can get them! My only gripe with the new foodie movement is lumping all GMO organisms into one big trash heap. GMO is a technology, not a product. Just like using a tractor to farm can be good or ill, depending on whether the farmer is plowing a well-managed field or destroying a virgin rain forest, so it is with GMO technology. GMO foods should be judged–and safety tested–on a case by case basis. They are no more alike to one another than two meals prepared in the same kitchen.

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    • Thanks for the excellent clarification: “GMO is a technology, not a product.” I guess like in most categories, it’s only extreme cases that make the news. For instance, what sticks in my mind from a few years back was a report on an effort to develop square tomatoes, which would stack more efficiently on grocery shelves.

      One show I saw from a PBS series last summer (http://wp.me/pYql4-3nO) highlighted the need to preserve a variety of seeds, however. Following a cyclone in 2009 that inundated the Ganges River Delta, fields as far as three-four miles inland were too full of salt to grow the crops they had recently supported. What they could cultivate was rice from hundred year old seeds of that had been bred to be salt tolerant. Other heirloom seeds appear to be provide a way out for Indian farmers who bought into the now-failed corporate/government push toward chemical farming.

      As Robinson’s book makes clear, we humans are perfectly able to make plenty of bad low-tech agricultural moves all on our own. How much more important to proceed with caution with tools that work at genetic levels.

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    • Here’s an interesting footnote. The current issue of Time notes that General Mills just announced that Cheerios are GMO free. What makes the announcement unusual is that Cheerios have never been made with GMO elements. A General Mills VP explained that they did it to reassure consumers. A recent poll showed that 20% of Americans are “very” or “extremely” concerned about GMO’s, double the percentage of a 2002 poll.

      Regardless of the actual merits, it appears the GMO food producers got some ‘splaining to do if they want public support.

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      • sciencethriller says:

        True. Good luck to them with that. ‘Splaining is working real well for the vaccine manufacturers 🙂

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  2. When I had my little “farm” I tried to grow fruits and veggies of different colors: purple carrots, black corn, red lettuce, etc. It was fun, and my diet was the healthiest ever!

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    • Sounds great! I’m about to send away for some interesting seeds. Unfortunately, in our area, the local water district seems poised to request and later demand an end to outdoor watering – third year of drought and this one starting out the worst of the tree. Guess I’ll have to wear black clothes and sneak a bucket of water out to the carrots after dark!

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  3. Rosi says:

    What an interesting post. My daughter Maggie is a foodie and I will be passing your link along to her. My husband has had memory problems the last couple of years and I have my moments, so we will be adding Welches concord grape juice to our diets today. I will be looking for lots of new things and visiting more farmer’s markets. Thanks!

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    • I’m definitely going to pick up Jo Robinson’s book when it comes out in paperback. I just added a footnote to the post with the link to Burpee seeds online, and a listing of heirloom seed companies I spotted on Facebook.

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  4. ptero9 says:

    After I turned 50, and because my husband wanted to stop gaining weight, we both did a lot of experimenting and reading about nutrition, food and diet. Along with the foods you mention, I have also read that mushrooms are particularly good for women and may be linked to breast cancer prevention.

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  5. I’m a cheating vegan so I found this post interesting, particularly how we have grown nutrition out of our veggies over time. Also, I will never peel a carrot again. Thank you.

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    • It’s one of several accounts I’ve heard which counter our blanket assumption that in “earlier, simpler times,” we humans necessarily were in greater tune with the wisdom of nature. However, in this case there was a reason why we evolved to prefer sweet taste to bitter – Jo Robinson noted that the majority of poisonous plants are bitter, so back in the hunter-gatherer days, I guess those who preferred bitter took themselves out of the gene pool…

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