Recently the New York Times ran a piece in the Opinion pages (May 26, 2013) about the declining nutritional value of the fruits and vegetables commonly available in our diets. The article, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” was written by nutrition expert Jo Robinson, author of the newly published Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.
Robinson’s premise is that over the past 10,000 years or so, farmers have been cultivating the good stuff right out of our produce to such an extent that the phytonutrient content of a piece of sweet corn pales in comparison to that of an ear of Indian corn–the kind you might hang on your door at harvest time.
Why has this happened? According to Robinson, our very own taste buds have been leading us down this treacherous garden path.
A spoonful of sugar
Jo Robinson suggests that the human preference for flavors that are sweet rather than bitter, sour or astringent has led farmers over the ages to cultivate plants that are higher in sugar and starch, with less fiber and other nutrients. These “more palatable” plants are much lower in disease-fighting phytonutrients, which afford natural protection for both plants and humans. What to do? Jo Robinson, among others, recommends that we seek out wilder plants, from unadulterated gene pools, and add these to our diets.
In this NY Times chart, you can see the difference between the healthy fruits and veggies we commonly consume and their “wilder counterparts” like dandelion greens, blue corn, herbs, scallions, wild aronia berries, and heirloom varieties of fruits and veggies. I’ll call these the “superdooper superfoods.”
Stalking the Wild Aronia
Here’s what I encountered when I went looking for the foods mentioned by Jo Robinson in her opinion piece for the Times.
Fresh Corn. A good deal of Robinson’s article is devoted to telling the story of how this staple food lost its nutritional mojo. Today’s super-sweet, super-pale varieties contain about 40% sugar and have only a fraction of the beta-carotene content of deep-yellow corn. I couldn’t find anything in Whole Foods or Hannaford except super-sweet corn and I know from experience that when local corn is available in the farmers’ market, I probably won’t fare any better. Ancient blue corn varieties, known as Hopi maize, have about 100 times more phytonutrient content than white corn, but the only way to add this to your diet is to grow your own. There are heirloom seed companies, like Victory Seeds, that supply blue and red corn seed online–pick it young for best eating.
Blue, red or purple cornmeal. One way to get the nutrient value of heirloom corn is to use deeply colored corn meal in cooking. (I don’t really think blue corn chips count.) I found I was able to purchase blue, red and purple cornmeal online. Blue is much easier to find; Bob’s Red Mill offers it, for example.
Crab Apples. I was surprised to learn about sweet corn…but even more surprised about apples. Our modern apples all came from the Central Asian crab apple, a wild species that has about 485 milligrams of phytonutrients per liter of juice, compared with just 108 in a Red Delicious apple. There were no crab apples in the market when I looked, but I know I can find these crab apples at farmers’ markets in the fall. You can also grow the beautiful Siberian crab apple tree and get the benefit of 4,606 milligrams of phytonutrients per liter of juice (if you make the juice)–or seek out heirloom apple growers and cultivate a taste for the crab. I belong to Out on a Limb Heritage Apple CSA – a great way to try out heirloom crab apples.
Purple Potatoes. Deeply colored foods often have more phytonutrient content than other varieties and this is true of purple and blue potatoes, especially purple Peruvians, which are rich in flavonoids (antioxidants like anthocyanin). I had no trouble finding purple potatoes in the supermarket, and during the harvest season, I’ll see them in the farmers’ markets. You can also buy purple seed potatoes and grow your own.
Dandelions. Spinach is a super food, right? Well dandelions are a superdooper food. We all know this, even as we curse them in the lawn. I purchased dandelion greens at the farmers’ market and I even saw them in my local Hannaford supermarket. Another green that outshines spinach is arugula, also easy to find in the market. Both of these greens are examples of stronger tastes that need some getting used to.
Purple/yellow carrots. I couldn’t find these right now, even at Whole Foods. The seeds are available, however. And later in the season, I know they will be abundant in the farmers’ markets. The beautiful colored bunches are so appealing. Heirloom varieties are what to look for.
Green Onions. Green onions or scallions are always available in the supermarket and they are easy to grow on your own. According to Joe Robinson, they are close to their wild onion ancestors and just as nutritious…just be sure to eat the green parts.
Fresh Herbs. I found displays of various fresh herbs at the supermarket and the farmers’ market. Jo Robinson calls them “wild plants incognito.” We haven’t messed with their flavor profile, so they still have their phytonutrient value. The idea is use them with abandon–pile on the intense flavors.
Aronia berries. This is the up-and-coming super berry, Aronia melanocarpa (AKA black chokeberries). The Europeans are ahead of us in appreciating the extraordinary antioxidant content of these berries; however, the aronia berry is native to the US and it grows well here. So it is catching on. Aronia berries have antioxidant levels (ORAC) that measure four times higher than blueberries. Not surprisingly, I found aronia supplements of all kinds, available on the Internet. Commercial growers sell aronia products online, too, in frozen, dried, and juice concentrate forms. And, you can buy the plants. Again…aronia berries aren’t sweet! But it is well worth finding ways to cook with this antioxidant superdooper berry.
Take the bitter with the sweet
Bottom line, sometimes you do have to grow your own. But many of the superdooper superfoods I was looking for are readily available, if I make the effort. Nutritionists agree that getting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into our diets is critical to maintaining our health. So if adding some wilder species to my plate increases diversity and ramps up the phytonutrient content at the same time, I’m all for it.
For me, one lesson of Jo Robinson’s article is that we should support the farmers and researchers who are trying to restore diversity and high nutritional value to the fruits and vegetables in our food supply.
The other lesson? We should all learn to like the taste of bitter herbs.