By Tom Philpott | Mother Jones, 7- 20-13
Normally I ignore the latest diet craze. But I can’t resist the message of Jo Robinson’s new book Eating on the Wild Side. In it, Robinson argues that humanity’s 10,000-year-old fixation on agriculture has stripped our most commonly eaten foods of most of their phytonutrients, which are plant-based chemical compounds that keep us healthy. Her recent New York Times op-ed on the topic inspired me to pen a paean to edible weeds. But you don’t need to go feral to boost your phytonutrient intake, Robinson shows. She gives tips on how to navigate the supermarket produce shelf and the farmers market to find phytonutrient-dense foods not very far off from what our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on. After a phone conversation recently, I hung up with the urge to crack open a hoppy beer—and not out of stress.
Mother Jones: What exactly is a phytonutrient?
Jo Robinson: The technical term for phytonutrients is polyphenols. They are substances produced by plants, a lot of them for self-defense. Twenty-five thousand different ones have been identified. Vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene [are examples]. Many of them are potent antioxidants, while some don’t have antioxidant activity but boost our own antioxidant defense system. Others are involved in communication between cells, many affect gene expression, and others have detoxifying functions.
MJ: Of course, for the processed-food industry, the emergence of phytonutrients must be a huge temptation to roll out stuff like, frozen waffles…now with the compound that makes tomatoes red, lycopene! Or just straight lycopene pills. Anything wrong with that?
JR: In a given fruit or vegetable, there might be 100 different phytonutrients, many of them unnamed, and they act synergistically. We really don’t understand the full extent of how they interact, and how those interactions impact our health. So to fall upon just one thing—like vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C—isn’t likely to help much.
MJ: You write that modern varieties of common fruits and veggies are bred to have low phytonutrient levels, while wild varieties teem with them. Should we all start scavenging the woods for edible weeds?
JR: My goal is not to have people go out to the forest and gather plants. There are excellent books on that, and I enjoy them. My book is for people who shop in the grocery store and the farmers market, and for people who grow their own food. So every chapter ends with specific varieties that you can find in the supermarket that are equivalent or at least close to wild plants in carrying phytonutrients.
MJ: What are some examples of good stuff you can find at the supermarket?
JR: Well, scallions, also called green onions—they’re just as good for you as wild onions. I’m encouraging people to use them liberally, because they have proven anti-cancer properties and are very high in antioxidants. Also, small, red cherry tomatoes—some of them come very close to the wild tomatoes in the Andes, which have much more lycopene, a phytonutrient that many people have heard about. Then there’s salad greens—choose leafy ones rather than ones that are closed up [like iceberg lettuce]. When you go look for wild greens in the forest, you don’t see ones that look like cabbages, where all the leaves are wrapped up tight. When a lettuce variety forms a head, the leaves inside don’t have to produce phytonutrients to protect themselves from UV light. So they’re very low in antioxidants. Iceberg lettuce, believe it or not, is still our most commonly eaten lettuce. But if you go to these leafy ones—especially ones that contain some red color—some of them are equivalent to what you’d find foraging.
MJ: What about organic agriculture? My understanding is that organically managed plants often develop more phytonutrients because they have to fend for themselves more against insects and diseases and whatnot.