This was originally written in 2015 and is based on an interview originally published in Nature
Investigative food journalist, Jo Robinson, is a “Nutrient Hunter” and her demonstration garden in Washington as well as her new book, ‘Eating on the Wild Side’, is showcasing what she’s found. Her thesis is simple, “All plants make phytochemicals, which protect against predation, disease, and other threats. When we consume certain plants, we may also receive some protection”, and she argues that the invention of farming has, overtime, led to breeding of less and less nutritious varieties. Many phytochemicals mean bitter taste and people have been selectively breeding bitter away for forever, and in turn, breeding away nutrition. Robinson’s mission is to find foods rich in phytochemicals that people will actually enjoy and to teach people how they can do, and grow, the same.
Robinson argues that “purple, blue, red or black plants” are the best choice because they contain anthocyanins which have been shown to lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and slow the growth of cancer. Now, this is something that is largely marketed and scientifically supported as being true. When you go to the store, it’s almost impossible not to find bags of frozen berries or Bolthouse smoothies which proclaim this same fact. TV shows and health magazines are always lamenting these for their nutritional benefits and saying things like, “Go for more color!” or “Seek out the deep blues, reds, and purples!” and while those are very healthy, Jo warns that color isn’t the only indicator of health and phytochemical levels. In fact, Robinson says “most phytochemicals are not highly pigmented” and many foods with high quantities can appear drab, such as the globe artichoke, “white onions, leeks, and shallots”. I can see why a warning may be needed here. I see many people, including family, avoid these kinds of foods, believing them to be less nutritious, in order to go for the bright and deep purples and blues. While those things are still healthy, they are missing out on vital, incredibly beneficial nutrients. In fact, Robinson says “some varieties of white-fleshed peaches have more antioxidant activity than yellow-fleshed peaches” which have far more pigment.
Farming isn’t the only thing responsible for sapping nutrition out of plants. Another reason for this tragedy is that people are simply uneducated about a food source which we were once closely associated and knowledgeable about. People nowadays don’t know how to cook and store vegetables. I met people in college who genuinely did not know how to cook potatoes. Sometimes, I even have trouble sometimes figuring out the best way to cook and store my produce. Our culture has moved so much away from natural and whole that attempting to return back can cause confusion and anxiety. Robinson hopes to change that. She explains that a plant doesn’t die immediately after harvest and the best way to preserve it is by “reducing its exposure to oxygen, storing it in the fridge in a sealed plastic bag” with pinpricks. It seems to be all about limiting exposure. She also explains steaming, rather than sautéing or boiling, is the best way to cook a vegetable because it limits the exposure to water which can draw out important nutrients.
Robinson also brings up a good point about biotechnology and never being able to “achieve the nutrient content of phytochemical rich foods through genetic engineering”. As humans, we tend to be narrow minded in our focus and biotechnology is no different. While we may enhance one particular nutrient, we probably won’t achieve the same with others in the same engineered plant. Robinson argues that the real benefit lies in “cross-breeding wild species with modern ones” through conventional methods.
I love what Robinson is doing here. Education is truly the best catalyst for change. Robinson’s demonstration garden is great in its ability to show that people can grow their own food in any variety they choose without sacrificing nutrition, which is something we are surely in desperate need of.
Hoffman, J. Q&A: The nutrient hunter. Nature 510, 217 (2014).