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Going "wild" with food

Karen Vago

Wild strawberries on my forest walk

Wild strawberries on my forest walk

Wake up your wild side

Do you ask yourself why supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals in this day and age, has become a necessity?

The reasons are many: the soil is depleted of many minerals, pollution is omnipresent and laps up nutrients in our body, stress multiplies our vitamin and mineral needs, too often we just eat what happens to be available…

The other less known reason is that our fruits and vegetables have been manipulated to look good, taste sweeter, travel well, be easier to harvest etc. since Man has taken up agriculture.

Jo Robinson is the author of a number of books and she became known with her writings on the benefits of eating grass-fed beef, lamb and poultry.

Her latest book “Eating on the Wild Side, The Missing Link to Optimum Nutrition” gives a new perspective to the concept of eating more fruits and vegetables.

Yes by all means, but which ones?

Domestication = depletion

Most vegetables that we eat today are very far removed from their wild ancestors. Little by little, during the thousands of years of selection, the varieties have lost their minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, fiber, essential fatty acids, protein and …taste.

By getting less and less nutrients from our food, day after day, year after year, we become more prone to illness. This just might be the primary cause of the diseases of civilization.

“ The lab tests showed that the wild apples were vastly more nutritious than our cultivated varieties. (…) The show stealer was the Sikkim apple, native to Nepal. Ounce for ounce the fruit had one hundred times more phytonutrients than our favorite apples; people living in remote villages in Nepal still gather these fruits today. One day’s harvest gives them as much apple nutrition as most of us get in a lifetime.”

Domestication = excess

A substance that is way too present in our diets today, was also increased during fruit and vegetable hybridization: sugar.

An excess of sugar contributes to a wide variety of diseases of civilization such as, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, premature ageing.

Jo Robinson gives the example of corn. The wild variety contained 30% protein and 2 % sugar whereas certain varieties today have up to 40% sugar!  

The author explains, that 10 000 years ago, the first farmers chose to cultivate varieties of vegetables and fruit that were most agreeable to eat according to their degree of acidity, bitterness and sweetness.

In doing so they were eliminating a whole variety of the most nutritious and healing plants namely those that were acidic, bitter and astringent.

To give an example, bitter and acidic plants are beneficial for the liver and gall bladder. Plants that “heal” these organs are predominately sour and bitter.

Today, add to that all the various manipulations that increase the life span of fruit and vegetable and enable them to travel without being damaged, the long periods before being eaten and the fact that they are picked way before ripening: what we put on our plates is a pale version of what nature had planned.

Wild sea cabbage we picked along the coast of Brittany

Wild sea cabbage we picked along the coast of Brittany

Should we become foragers of the wild again?

Yes… in a way!

There is a movement of bloggers, authors and websites that encourage us to pick as much food as we can in our natural environment, to enrich our “civilized” diet with nutrient rich foods.

Years ago, I discovered that nettles were a super food (I don’t think that concept existed then) that could be cooked into a tasty and healthy soup.

Wild nettles and blackberry flowers on my forest walk

Wild nettles and blackberry flowers on my forest walk

At the time we regularly spent our week ends in a country home about an hour away from Paris and as soon as I spotted nettles, I was game to try the recipe. Sure enough it was delicious and became a regular part of our country feasts.

So much so that my daughter, Valérie, named her food blog, Nettle and Quince, after two childhood memories.

(After having a baby she will soon get back to blogging again. Check it out. It received a review in the Guardian).

More recently when I visited her family in their home in central London, we made soup from the nettles that had taken over her garden. We also picked the dandelion leaves and made a salad.

By all means pick wild growing plants whenever you can: dandelion leaves and flowers to add to your salad, nettles for a mineral rich green soup, berries growing in forest and fields, wild garlic in the spring, plantain for pesto.  

Inspired chefs are adding a touch of the wild to their menus, much to the delight of our palates.

There is a solution for those of you who may not be able to go foraging outside your front door.

Jo Robinson has another tip: choose varieties that have kept the nutritional value of their wild ancestors.

Here are some of those super fruits and vegetables: arugula, radicchio lettuce, sweet potatoes, red carrots, kale, onions, garlic, leeks, red apples, berries, freshly picked asparagus, avocados…

She also reveals surprising information on how to increase the nutrients in certain foods:

cooking carrots before cutting them increases their nutritional value!
A tomato sauce that has been cooking for hours can multiply by 3 it’s lycopene content.
A watermelon left waiting for several days is higher in nutrients.

Cooking berries can increase their antioxidant activity.

So you see cooking also has it’s good sides.

This piece of advice really surprised me: if after washing your lettuce and soaking it in very cold water for 10 minutes “you tear it into bite-size pieces, you will increase its antioxidant content. But if you do be sure to eat within one day or two.”

To keep it longer, don’t tear the leaves and store in a “plastic bag that you have pricked with between ten and twenty tiny holes. Squeeze out the air and store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.”

The dandelions from my daughter's London garden

The dandelions from my daughter's London garden

Jo Robinson gives the scientific explanation of these tips in her book Eating on the Wild Side that I highly recommend you read if you want to maximize the benefits that common foods will have on your precious health.

She explodes many food myths, one of which is the claim that cooking foods destroys nutrients.

Not always true.

Another generalized myth I long believed in, is that nutrients drop as soon as food is picked.  Well, listen to this: Leave strawberries on the counter for 2 days and their antioxidant count will increase!

Her book is a treasure trove of tips and tricks to increase the nutritional value of foods that you find at your markets, just by changing the way you prepare and store them.

She also gives a list of foods that, compared to their wild ancestors, contain the most vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

Nutritional intelligence is more subtle than following common beliefs like “raw is better than cooked”.

The art of eating is full of nuances and Jo Robinson has given us its many shades.