Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health

by Jo Robinson

Clock Icon 18 minute read

INTRODUCTION
WILD NUTRIENTS


LOST AND FOUND

Where do our fruits and vegetables come from? Not from the supermarket, of course. That's just where they are sold. Nor do they come from large commercial farms, local farms, or even our backyard gardens. That's where they are planted, tended, and harvested. The fruits and vegetables themselves came from wild plants that grow in widely scattered areas around the globe. Most of our blueberries are descended from wild "swamp blueberries" that are native to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The wild ancestor of our beefsteak tomato is a berry-size fruit that grows on the flanks of the Andes Mountains. Our hefty orange carrots are related to scrawny purple roots that grow in Afghanistan. When our distant ancestors invented farming ten thousand or so years ago, they began altering these and other wild plants to make them more productive, easier to grow and harvest, and more enjoyable to eat. To date, four hundred generations of farmers and tens of thousands of plant breeders have played a role in redesigning native plants. The combined changes are so monumental that our present-day fruits and vegetables seem like modern creations.

Consider the banana, our most popular fruit. The wild ancestor of the banana grows in Malaysia and parts of Southeast Asia. The bananas come in a multitude of shapes, colors, and sizes. Most of them are chock-full of large, hard seeds. Their skins are so firmly attached that you have to cut them off with a knife. Take a bite of the dry, astringent flesh and you'd wonder why you went to the trouble. Over several thousand years, we clever humans have transformed this barely edible fruit into the Cavendish banana, the yellow, long-fingered banana that is sold in all our supermarkets. We love the Cavendish for its zip-off peels, sweet and creamy flesh, and the fact that its seeds have been downsized to mere dots. The seeds are not viable, of course, but seeds are not needed when plants are grown from cuttings, which is how all our bananas are propagated. Generation after generation, we have reshaped native plants and made them our own.

THE LOSS OF VITAMINS, MINERALS, PROTEIN, FIBER, AND HEALTHFUL FATS

Unwittingly, as we went about breeding more palatable fruits and vegetables, we were stripping away some of the very nutrients we now know to be essential for optimum health. Compared with wild fruits and vegetables, most of our man-made varieties are markedly lower in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. A wild plant called purslane has six times more vitamin E than spinach and fourteen times more omega-3 fatty acids. It has seven times more beta-carotene than carrots.

Most native plants are also higher in protein and fiber and much lower in sugar than the ones we've devised. The ancestor of our modern corn is a grass plant called teosinte that is native to central Mexico. Its kernels are about 30 percent protein and 2 percent sugar. Old-fashioned sweet corn is 4 percent protein and 10 percent sugar. Some of the newest varieties of supersweet corn are as high as 40 percent sugar. Eating corn this sweet can have the same impact on your blood sugar as eating a Snickers candy bar or a cake doughnut.

Today, most health experts agree that the most healthful diet is one that is high in fiber and low in sugar and rapidly digested carbohydrates. This regimen is referred to as a low-glycemic diet because it helps keep our blood glucose at optimum levels. A low-glycemic diet has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic inflammation, obesity, and diabetes—our five modern scourges. Wild fruits and vegetables are the original low-glycemic foods.

A DRAMATIC LOSS OF PHYTONUTRIENTS

Within the past two decades, plant scientists around the world have discovered another major difference between wild plants and our modern varieties: the plants that nature made are much higher in polyphenols, or phytonutrients. (In this book, I will use the terms phytonutrients and bionutrients interchangeably. Phyton is the Greek word for "plant.") Plants can't fight their enemies or hide from them, so they protect themselves by producing an arsenal of chemical compounds that protect them from insects, disease, damaging ultraviolet light, inclement weather, and browsing animals.

More than eight thousand different phytonutrients have been identified to date, and each plant produces several hundred of them. Many of the compounds function as potent antioxidants. When we consume plants that contain high amounts of bioavailable antioxidants, we get added protection against noxious particles called free radicals that can inflame our artery linings, turn normal cells cancerous, damage our eyesight, increase our risk of becoming obese and diabetic, and intensify the visible signs of aging. Other phytonutrients are involved in the communication between our cells, and yet others alter our genes. A number of small-scale studies have shown that select bionutrients in plants can also enhance athletic performance, reduce the risk of infection, fight the flu, lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol, speed up weight loss, protect the aging brain, improve mood, and boost immunity.

Because of these many potential health benefits, phytonutrients have become one of the hottest new areas of research. More than thirty thousand scientific papers have been published on the topic since the year 2000. Some of the research has been appearing in the popular press. Many health-conscious consumers can now talk knowledgeably about the resveratrol in red wine, the lycopene in tomatoes, and the anthocyanins in blueberries. The nutraceutical industry has been quick to capitalize on the research. Browse the Internet and you will find thousands of high-priced pills, energy bars, juice drinks, and powders that contain phytonutrient extracts. Have you had your lycopene capsule today?

If we were still eating wild plants, there would be no need for these supplements. One species of wild tomato, for example, has fifteen times more lycopene than the typical supermarket tomato. Some of the native potatoes that grow in the foothills of the Andes have twenty-eight times more phytonutrients than our russet potatoes. One species of wild apple that grows in Nepal has an amazing one hundred times more bionutrients than our most popular apples; just a few ounces of the fruit provide the same amount of phytonutrients as six large Fujis or Galas.

AN APPLE A DAY DID NOT KEEP THE DOCTOR AWAY

Remarkably, some varieties of produce in our supermarkets are so relatively low in phytonutrients and high in sugar that they can aggravate our health problems, not alleviate them. In an eye-opening study that took place in 2009, forty-six overweight men with high cholesterol and triglycerides agreed to participate in an eating experiment. Twenty-three of the men stayed on their regular diets and served as a control group; the other twenty-three men added one Golden Delicious apple to their daily fare. The goal of the project was to see if eating more fruit would reduce the men's high risk of cardiovascular disease. At the end of the two-month study, the researchers measured the blood fats of both groups of men and compared the results with tests that had been taken when the study began. To the researchers' surprise, the men who had eaten an apple a day had higher levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol than they had at the beginning of the study, giving them an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

As the investigators puzzled over this finding, they concluded that the results had to do with the variety of apple they had chosen for the study. The Golden Delicious, they discovered, was too low in phytonutrients to lower the men's cholesterol and so high in sugar that it raised their triglycerides. The results of this study have a direct bearing on the health of Americans, because the sweet and juicy Golden Delicious is one of our most popular apples. The universal health advice to "eat more fruits and vegetables" is woefully out of date. We need good advice on which fruits and vegetables to eat.

There is another notion that needs to be revised. Many people in this country believe that the varieties of fruits and vegetables that were raised by our grandparents and great-grandparents are better for our health than the ones we grow today. According to this view, we should consume more heirloom fruits and vegetables. But the latest research shows that many modern varieties are more nutritious than our coveted heirlooms. The Golden Delicious apple, for example, is a one-hundred-year heirloom. The Liberty apple, which was released seventy-five years later, has twice the antioxidant value. It is now clear that the date that a variety is created is not a good predictor of how it will influence our health.

No domesticated apple, however, whether modern or heirloom, has as many phytonutrients as wild apples. As you will see in the pages to come, we will not experience optimum health until we recover a wealth of nutrients that we have squandered over ten thousand years of agriculture, not just the last one hundred or two hundred years.

FROM HUNTER-GATHERERS TO FARMERS

Until the invention of farming, all the people on the planet lived on wild plants and animals. Anthropologists tell us that these long-ago ancestors lived in small clans of twenty to forty people and moved from camp to camp throughout the year in search of food. They timed their journeys to coincide with the annual migration of game and the ripening of wild nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. By necessity, all their food was local, organic, and seasonal. Because they hunted or foraged all their food, they are referred to as hunter-gatherers.

Our distant relatives continued to dine at nature's café until roughly five thousand to twelve thousand years ago. Then, for reasons not fully understood, groups of people in a handful of areas around the world broke ties with the past and began to raise their own food. In addition to hunting for wild game, they began to tame wild goats, pigs, and sheep so they could have a ready supply of meat. They milked the goats and sheep and turned their milk into cheese and fermented drinks.

They also began to create the very first gardens. In the beginning, gardening was a simple affair. The first farmers gathered seeds and cuttings from wild plants and grew them in one location to make them easier to tend and harvest. For many generations, the farmers raised too little food to meet all their needs, so they continued to gather wild plants. As the centuries passed, however, our ancestors became such skilled farmers that they were able to stop wandering in search of food and settle down in the first permanent settlements. Our species had made the epic transition from being hunters and gatherers to being herders and gardeners. The Agricultural Revolution—the great-grandmother of all food revolutions—had begun.

WE ARE THE FOOD MAKERS

As we humans set off on our excellent adventure in agriculture, all the other creatures on the planet remained true to their original diets—and do so to this day. Zebras, lemurs, elephants, eagles, rodents, weasels, bats, wombats, and the great apes eat the same food today as they did eons ago, provided we've left them enough habitat. Although animal handlers report that captive chimpanzees prefer M&M's to bananas, the chimps have yet to make any candy. Out of an estimated seven million species of animals, we alone had the intelligence, dexterity, and ability to plan for the future that allowed us to walk away from our native diet and create a brand-new menu that was more to our liking.

Therein lies the problem. Starting with the very first gardens, our farming ancestors chose to cultivate the wild plants that were the most pleasurable to eat. As a rule, the chosen plants were tender, low in bitterness and astringency, and high in sugar, starch, or oil. Plants that were bitter, tough, thick-skinned, dry, devoid of sugar, or too seedy were left behind in the wilderness. Why go to the trouble of cultivating plants that are unpleasant to eat?

Archaeologists have gathered detailed evidence about those earliest food choices. Wild figs and dates were two of the first plants to be cultivated, and they are among the sweetest of all native fruits. Although hunter-gatherers had consumed only small amounts of grain, the first farmers made starchy cereal grains a central part of their diet. Farmers in the Middle East grew wheat, barley, and millet. African farmers raised pearl millet and sorghum. Corn was king throughout the Americas, and rice became the staple crop of Asia. The era of carbs had begun.

Oil-rich plants were also highly favored. Archaeologists have unearthed the charred remains of an olive orchard in Palestine that was in production seven thousand years ago. Sesame seeds were domesticated for their oil about five thousand years ago. Oil-rich avocados were one of three staple crops in some parts of Mexico three thousand years ago.

Then as now, people knew what they wanted to eat—sweet, starchy, and fatty food. Because of our ancestors' extraordinary efforts, they were able to produce an abundant supply of these "must-have" plants within a short walking distance of their dwellings. For the first time in our long history on the planet, we humans no longer had to eat bitter or fibrous food or spend hours every day processing our food to make it fit to eat. We were creating the food supply of our dreams.

We now know that one of the consequences of cultivating the sweetest and mildest-tasting wild plants was a dramatic loss in phytonutrients. Many of the most beneficial bionutrients have a sour, astringent, or bitter taste. Unwittingly, when our ancestors rejected strong-tasting fruits and vegetables, they were lowering their protection against a long list of diseases and troubling conditions. Throughout our history of agriculture, our ability to transform our diet has far exceeded our understanding of the way those changes impact our health and well-being.

By the time of the Roman Empire, 250 generations of farmers had already played a role in reshaping the human diet. The differences between wild plants and our man-made varieties had, even then, become marked. The roots of domesticated beets, carrots, and parsnips were twice as large as the roots of their wild ancestors, and they contained less protein, more sugar, and more starch. Most domesticated fruits were several times larger than wild fruits, and they had thinner skins, more sugar, less fiber, more pulp, and fewer antioxidants. Cultivated greens were less bitter and, as a direct consequence, had fewer health-enhancing phytonutrients.

By the end of the nineteenth century, people around the world had created hundreds of thousands of new varieties designed to satisfy their needs and wishes. In the twentieth century, science-based breeding techniques speeded up the process. A plant breeder could start out with an idea for a new variety of plum or corn and make it a reality in just ten years, not several generations. Now, plant geneticists can insert foreign genes into corn or beets or potatoes and create a new variety in a matter of hours.

To this day, the nutritional content of our man-made varieties has been an afterthought. A plant researcher for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can spend years perfecting a new variety of blackberry or apple without ever measuring its phytonutrient content or its effect on blood sugar. If the variety is attractive, pleasing to eat, productive, and disease resistant, it is considered a triumph. Meanwhile, our bodies hunger for the nutrients that we have left by the wayside.

THE LOSS OF FLAVOR—A MODERN CALAMITY

We have been breeding the medicine out of our food for thousands of years, but the loss of flavor has been a relatively new exploit. It came about because of another agricultural revolution—the industrialization of our food supply. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the introduction of mechanized plowing, planting, and harvesting equipment made it possible for farmers to manage much larger tracts of land. These large farms produced more food than was needed by the people in the surrounding community, so the fruits and vegetables began to be shipped to distant locations on the new railways and highways, bringing an abrupt end to ten thousand years of local production.

Growing food on megafarms greatly increased productivity, but it caused a marked loss of flavor. Fruits and vegetables now spent days or weeks in transport and storage, which used up their phytonutrients and natural sugars and made them more acidic and bitter. Ironically, after having spent ten thousand years making fruits and vegetables ever more palatable, we had reversed course and begun making them less enjoyable to eat.

By the mid-twentieth century, every aspect of farming had become mechanized. One of the unforeseen consequences was that our fresh produce was being subjected to much rougher handling than ever before. For millennia, farmers had harvested their produce by hand. Now, enormous machines lumbered over five-hundred-acre farms, tossing the fruits and vegetables into waiting trucks. The trucks dumped their cargo onto conveyor belts to be washed, sorted, and packed. The boxes of produce were jostled onto more trucks and then spent days in transit to warehouses, where they were stored anywhere from a few days to six months. The USDA and state agricultural schools began to throw their efforts into breeding industrial-strength varieties that were able to survive the ordeal. Our fruits and vegetables now had to be extra durable, as uniform as widgets, and be able to retain the illusion of freshness after spending weeks or even months in a warehouse.

Apples, potatoes, and a number of other fruits and vegetables store relatively well and were well adapted to these changing conditions. Soft fruits, however, could not be made durable enough for industrial agriculture, so the fruit industry had to find a work-around. The twentieth-century solution was to harvest the fruit while it was still green and firm enough to be handled without bruising or splitting. If the immature produce did not ripen during transport, it could be force-ripened in climate-controlled warehouses once it reached its destination.

By now it has become abundantly clear that fruit picked while still green and then artificially ripened is not as flavorful or juicy as fruit that ripens under the sun. Large supermarkets stage elaborate displays of fruits and vegetables, but the produce no longer tastes as good as it looks. The strawberries are twice as large as old-fashioned varieties, but they have half the flavor. All too often, the peaches, plums, and nectarines turn out to be mealy and bland. In some instances, our so-called "fresh" fruits and vegetables are not just less appealing to eat—they are downright distasteful. In 2008, a panel of professional food tasters sampled carrots that had been stored in a warehouse for several weeks, which is a typical amount of time. The panelists reported that the vegetables had "a strong, burning, turpentine-like flavor most clearly perceived at the back of the throat during and after chewing."

No wonder the USDA and private health agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars encouraging Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables and gotten such dismal results. Government statistics show that only 25 to 30 percent of US adults consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. When people are disappointed time and again by the flavor of the produce available in the supermarkets, they stop buying it. It takes more than a media campaign to change their ways.

What can we do to restore the long-lost nutrients and flavor of our fruits and vegetables? Clearly, we can't go back to foraging for wild plants—there are too many of us and not enough wilderness. Imagine, for a moment, the 1.6 million inhabitants of Manhattan trekking up to the Adirondacks to gather wild roots and berries; it's not going to happen. Just as important, few of us would choose to eat wild plants, even if they were growing in our own backyards. Some varieties of sour crabapples have five times the cancer-fighting capacity of a Honeycrisp, but most of us would choose the sweeter, juicier fruit all the same. We are no longer accustomed to eating our bitter medicine.

EATING ON THE WILD SIDE

This book presents a new and radical solution to the dramatic loss of nutrients and flavor in our modern fruits and vegetables. Although living on wild plants is no longer feasible, we can "eat on the wild side." To do this, we can choose those select varieties of fruits and vegetables that have retained much of the nutritional content of their wild ancestors. One of the most important discoveries of twenty-first-century food science is that there are vast nutritional differences among the many varieties of a given fruit or vegetable. For example, some of the varieties of tomatoes sold in a typical supermarket have ten times more phytonutrients than other varieties that are displayed on the same table. The old idea that a tomato is a tomato is a tomato no longer holds. You'd have to eat ten of the least nutritious variety to get the same amount of lycopene as you would from one tomato of the most nutritious variety. Surprisingly, some supermarket tomatoes come close to the nutritional payload of their wild Peruvian ancestors. These jewels of nutrition have been hiding in plain sight. Now, for the first time, food chemists are providing the information we need to know which ones they are.

A similar range in phytonutrient content has been found among all the fruits and vegetables we eat, including corn, asparagus, onions, lettuce, beans, blueberries, grapes, plums, oranges, peaches, kale, broccoli, watermelons, and apples. Pungent-tasting onions have eight times more phytonutrients than sweet ones. A Granny Smith apple gives you three times more bionutrients than a Golden Delicious and thirteen times more than a Ginger Gold. Some of the uncommon varieties of apples sold in farmers markets and "U-pick" orchards are two to three times higher in antioxidants than the Granny Smith.

In addition to phytonutrients, our modern produce has a wide range of other nutrients, including fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and sugar. Eating a baked russet potato can boost your blood sugar as much as eating two slices of white bread. By contrast, some heirloom and hybrid varieties of potato can help stabilize your blood sugar. Some will even lower the blood pressure of people with hypertension. When you choose these stellar varieties, you will increase your protection against a host of diseases and debilitating conditions without spending any more time or money. You will also come closer to enjoying optimum health.

You may be surprised by some of the varieties that have proven to be nutritionally superior to others. One of the new food rules states that we should shop by color, selecting varieties that are red, orange, purple, dark green, and yellow. Although richly colored fruits and vegetables are among the most nutritious, there are dozens of exceptions to the rule. White-fleshed peaches and nectarines, for example, have twice as many bionutrients as yellow-fleshed varieties. Two different varieties of apples can have equally bright red skin, but one will give you three times more antioxidant protection than the other. The globe artichoke, despite its drab color, is one of the most nutritious vegetables in the grocery store. Its ghostly pale heart—even when canned—is almost as good for you as the leaves themselves. These choices are not intuitive. In order to reclaim the most lost nutrients, you need to shop with a list.

TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY KITCHEN NUTRITION

Once you've brought your fruits and vegetables home from the store or harvested them from your garden, their nutritional fate is in your hands. Depending on how you store, prepare, and cook them, you can either destroy their beneficial bionutrients or retain or even enhance them. This, too, is a relatively new discovery. Until this century, little was known about the health benefits of phytonutrients or how to preserve them during storage and cooking. In the past two decades, food researchers have discovered hundreds of new ways to retain the bionutrients in our fresh produce and make them more bioavailable. It doesn't matter how many nutrients are in a fruit or vegetable if we can't absorb them.

Some of the findings to come out of the high-tech food labs are so different from conventional wisdom that you might feel as though you were tumbling down a rabbit hole. Most berries, for example, increase their antioxidant activity when you cook them. Believe it or not, canned blueberries have more phytonutrients than fresh ones—provided you consume the canning liquid. Simmering a tomato sauce for hours—the traditional Italian method—does more than blend its flavors; it can triple its lycopene content. Cooking carrots whole and then slicing or dicing them after they've been cooked makes them taste sweeter and increases their ability to fight cancer.

Our understanding of how to store fruits and vegetables is undergoing a sea change as well. Watermelons become more nutritious if you leave them out on the counter for several days before you eat them. Potatoes can be stored for weeks or even months without losing any of their nutritional value, but broccoli begins to lose its cancer-fighting compounds within twenty-four hours of harvest. In order to get all the vegetable's much-touted benefits, you have to grow it yourself or purchase it directly from a farmer and then eat it as soon as possible. Many foods do not lend themselves to centralized production and long-distance shipping, and broccoli is one of them. When we stopped eating locally grown produce and abandoned our home gardens, we lost at least half the protective properties of our fruits and vegetables as well as much of their flavor.

A ROAD MAP TO THIS BOOK

This book is divided into two sections. Part I is devoted to vegetables, and part II focuses on fruits. Each chapter features a different fruit or vegetable or an entire family of fruits or vegetables. At the beginning of each chapter, you will read about the wild ancestors of those particular foods and the role they played in the lives of hunter-gatherers. (Whipped fermented fish oil on stewed crabapples, anyone?) Then you will discover why, when, and how four hundred generations of farmers and modern plant breeders have whittled away at the nutritional content of their food—a whodunit with no clear villains.

The second half of each chapter focuses on solutions. You will learn the names of some of the most nutritious varieties of fruits and vegetables available today. I have gleaned this information from more than one thousand research journals published in the United States and abroad. These discoveries are so new and come from such a multitude of scientific disciplines that few of the varietal names have become public knowledge until now.

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