On a recent road trip to Ashland, OR my husband Michael and I were having dinner with friends. We are a healthy (mind & body) bunch of folks, so many of our conversations were about food and diet. Our friend Kyle mentioned that he was reading a book about the nutritional content of today’s fruits and veggies, versus the fruits & veggies of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. He gave two examples that really piqued my interest. One: if you wait ten minutes after you have chopped or pressed garlic (before cooking it) its nutritional and cancer fighting properties increase. Two: canned artichokes are one of the most nutritious things you can buy at the supermarket.
Within hours of returning home from our trip, I was on Amazon ordering the book Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. With over ten years of research and over 6,000 studies, her material for the book came direct from the original sources. It contained some rather unsettling information that may soon be hitting the main stream. I was shocked to learn that the nutritional and antioxidant content, as well as the cancer fighting properties of today’s fruits and veggies is far less than the content of the wild, heirloom fruits and veggies of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Today’s crops and varieties have been bread and genetically altered to be everything from better looking to more resilient, including less nutritious.
Our produce has been altered with the following considerations:
Decreased bitter, earthy, acidic or any unpleasant to the masses taste
Increased sweetness (with added sugar)
Shape & size
Faster germination & growth cycle
Stronger crop yield
Texture and feel
Skins, seeds & pits
Resiliency to pests, weather, machine handling (and other such conditions)
In a nutshell, the native and uncultivated fruits and veggies of our forefathers were far more nutritious than our produce is for us today. Knowingly or not, we have sacrificed nutrients, natural anti-inflammatory properties, cancer fighting agents and strong antioxidants for better looking and “better tasting” food. Had we (the consumer) known, I’m not sure we would have chosen the larger, sweeter and ruby red apple, over a smaller, possibly more bitter and less brilliant version. I know I wouldn’t have! However, I don’t think anyone knew exactly what they were doing when they were cross-breeding, genetically altering, radiation blasting, herbicide and pesticide spraying, and making a plethora of other changes to fruits and vegetables. The fact is, the studies are now in and we are finally realizing what damage we have indeed done to many positive qualities of our fruits and veggies.
Have you ever heard of a purple carrot? Wild carrots came from Afghanistan and were in fact purple. You’ll have to read the book to find out how purple carrots became orange, but the purple version is far better for you than its orange cousin. Purple carrots are actually making a comeback and you can find them in organic rainbow bunches in farmers markets. Also, carrots are even better for you cooked, than raw. I know right, who knew?
I’m sure by now we all know garlic is good for us, but how good? Well, as it turns out, very good, medicine good. Garlic along with onions, chives, shallots, leeks and scallions are all part of the allium family. From the beginning of time alliums have been gathered for food as well as medicine. To name just a few, they were used to treat infected wounds, increase energy, repel scorpions, soothe bee stings, lower fevers, and treat colds and sore throats. Onions were made into poultices during the Civil War to help treat infected wounds. In WWII, garlic was nicknamed “Russian penicillin” due to it’s antibiotic qualities. As it turns out, it’s not too far off. Allicin, the active ingredient in garlic is equivalent to penicillin. Three cloves of garlic contain the same antibacterial activity as a standard dose of penicillin. Many alliums have remained close to their wild ancestors and have kept a great many of their “good for you” components. When cooking with garlic, remember the rule Press then Rest (mentioned above).
A few other particularly interesting tidbits from the book:
- Color is key (there are a few exceptions to the rule) Generally speaking the more colorful the better. For example, anything purple is very good for you. Purple carrots, purple cauliflower, purple potatoes, purple artichokes, and beets. Also dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach, arugula are very good.
- Tomatoes are actually better for you when cooked
- When dried beans are canned, they become more nutritious
- Eat the skins – tomatoes, potatoes
- Use the greens – beet greens are actually better for you than the beet (but beets are good for you too)
- Buy organic – some produce is more absorbent of herbicides and pesticides
- Some fruits are forced ripened with chemicals after they are harvested, so choose the freshest you can
The book also explains how we cook our veggies can affect its positive qualities. For example, boiling can decrease the nutritional value of many vegetables. Never boil corn, asparagus, spinach or artichokes unless you plan on drinking the cooking liquid – which is where most of the nutrients end up. Steaming is a better plan of attack, or I’m also huge fan of roasting.
I highly encourage everyone to read this book. Especially anyone in the business of helping people become more healthful . . . or working with food! I’m now seeking out the specific varieties mentioned in the book, not only to experience and eat purple carrots and cauliflower, but to focus my family’s diet on being as healthy as we can. In an age of “It’s not if you get cancer, it’s when” I want to be armed with the knowledge that some choices are better for you than others. I will, however continue to live life and enjoy my favorites such as pasta carbonara, sweets, pizza and a good mojito. It’s all about moderation and balance.