Eating On The Wild Side
The Missing Link To Optimum HealthFebruary 2015
By Astrid Derfler Kessler
Over 10,000 years ago, humans turned from a hunting-and-gathering existence to one of domesticated farming. While no longer having to forage for food initially led to many advantages in the short term—including food surpluses, fewer accidental deaths, and an increased population—in the long term, it caused the foods we eat to eventually become less and less nutritious and more likely to lead to chronic disease.
In her latest book, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, health writer, food activist, and investigative journalist Jo Robinson traces the origins of many of the fruits and vegetables we depend on today. Her cutting-edge research, which includes examining more than 6,000 scientific studies , describes in detail how, over the course of four hundred generations, we eliminated nutrients and replaced our once-wild fruits and vegetables with better-tasting, easy-to-harvest varieties that are full of starch and sugar, but lack the vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols of the original wild versions.
In an exclusive interview with Life Extension®, Robinson offers novel advice on the most nutritious plant choices available today, plus the best ways to enhance and retain the nutritional value that remains.
LE: Will you discuss some of the changes going on with today’s plants versus what our ancestors foraged for and ate?
JR: Generation after generation, we’ve reshaped native plants and made them our own. Unwittingly, as we went about breeding more palatable fruits and vegetables, we were stripping away some of the very nutrients we now know are essential for optimum health. Compared with wild fruits and vegetables, most of our man made varieties are markedly lower in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.
LE: Can you give us an example of a food that has undergone a dramatic change?
JR: The ancestor of our modern corn is a grass called teosinte. Its kernels are about 30% protein and 2% sugar. Old-fashioned sweet corn is 4% protein and 10% sugar. Some of the newest varieties are as high as 40% sugar. Eating corn this sweet can have the same impact on blood sugar as eating a Snickers® candy bar or doughnut.
Storing, Preparing, And Cooking Produce
LE: In your book, you discuss various storage and cooking methods. What are some ways we can make the foods we eat even better for us?
JR: Once you’ve brought your fruits and vegetables home from the store or harvested them from your garden, their nutritional fate is in your hands. Depending on how you store, prepare, and cook them, you can either destroy their beneficial bionutrients or retain and even enhance them.
This is a relatively new discovery. Until this century, little was known about the health benefits of phytonutrients or how to preserve them during storing and cooking. In the past two decades, food researchers have discovered hundreds of ways to retain the bionutrients in our fresh produce and make them more bioavailable. It doesn’t matter how many nutrients there are if you can’t absorb them.
LE: I was surprised to read that fresh is not always best in terms of nutrients.
JR: Some findings are so different from conventional wisdom you might feel like you’re tumbling down a rabbit hole! Most berries, for example, increase their antioxidant activity when you cook them. Believe it or not, canned blueberries have more phytonutrients than fresh ones, provided you consume the canning liquid. And simmering a tomato sauce for hours triples its lycopene content.
Supermarket Produce Versus Wild Varieties
LE: This is a good time to get into the specifics of some of the fruits and vegetables you cover. Let’s begin with broccoli.
JR: Most broccoli sold in farmers markets is impeccably fresh and highly nutritious. Look for a vendor who has the broccoli on ice or in a cooler. In order to preserve nutrients, broccoli must be chilled as soon as harvested, kept cool, and then eaten within two to three days. [In a study], broccoli was exposed to the warmer, drier conditions of a supermarket. At the end of 10 days, it lost 80% of glucosinolates, 75% of flavonoids, and 50% of vitamin C.
LE: There are many kinds of broccoli. Which are the most nutritious?
JR: Extra-nutritious varieties to look for include Packman, Brigadier, and Cavolo. Purple Sprouting is another excellent choice. Instead of forming a head, the crucifer produces small purple florets on its side branches that can be harvested for weeks. The purple color comes from anthocyanins.
LE: What are the best methods for preparing and cooking broccoli?
JR: Eating broccoli raw gives you 20 times more of a beneficial compound called sulforaphane than cooked. Sulforaphane provides much of the vegetable’s anticancer properties. If you cook broccoli in boiling water, half the glucosinolates will leach out. If you deep fry, you lose even more. Nuking can destroy half its nutrients in two minutes. One of the best ways is to steam it for no more than four minutes…to retain the most nutrients. Another recommended way to cook is to sauté in extra virgin olive oil and garlic. The vegetables will absorb the phytonutrients in the oil and garlic, which can make it even more nutritious.
LE: After reading your book, it seems the old saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” no longer holds true with today’s cultivated varieties.
JR: Wild apples—the way nature made them—may indeed help us live longer and healthier lives. In a 2003 survey, lab tests showed wild apples were vastly more nutritious. One species had 15 times more phytonutrients than the Golden Delicious. Another had 65 times more.
LE: You compared six wild varieties of apples with six modern varieties. The results were shocking.
JR: The wild varieties had 475 times more phytonutrients! The Ginger Gold, a relatively new apple, has so few phytonutrients that it fails to even register on the scale. Throughout our history of cultivating apples, we’ve squandered a wealth of nutrients.
One consequence is we may be more vulnerable to cancer. In a 1994 study, researchers compared Fuji apples, one of our most popular, with apples from two other species. The apples from the other species had five times more [phytonutrient] activity, including four times the vitamin E. They were [also] much more effective at fighting leukemia cells. One species had 80 times more cancer-fighting compounds than the Fuji. The researchers concluded the Fuji had almost no anticancer activity.
Our supermarkets have large, luscious, and sweet apples, but some of the varieties may offer relatively little protection against cancer and other diseases.
LE: Is anyone cultivating or developing an heirloom-type apple that is more nutritious?
JR: An encouraging sign is that heritage orchards are making a comeback. More good news comes from New Zealand. Mark Christensen discovered one of the most nutritious apple varieties in the world. [In lab tests], compared to 250 other varieties, his apples had exceptionally high levels of phytonutrients and the skin had more flavonoids than any other variety. Tests show extracts of these apples reduced the growth of different types of cancer cells, and were more effective at destroying colon cancer cells than any other apple tested.
Christensen named the new variety Monty’s Surprise. New Zealanders call it the Full Monty because it has it all—flavor, beauty, size, a bounty of phytonutrients, and the promise of being a potent weapon against cancer. Instead of patenting his find, Christensen formed a nonprofit to spread news about the new variety and give away young trees.
LE: Until the Full Monty is readily available, how can we choose the most nutritious apple at the store?
JR: Choose the most colorful fruit of any given variety. [Know the] varieties that are the least nutritious include Empire, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, and Pink Lady. And eat the skin; an unpeeled apple can give you 50% more phytonutrients than a peeled one.
LE: Let’s talk about tomatoes.
JR: The old idea that a tomato is a tomato is a tomato no longer holds. Tomatoes were given a major makeover during the 19th and 20th centuries…to make them more productive, uniform, and attractive.
LE: What happened, nutrition-wise, during this transformation?
JR: The nutritional consequence wasn’t known until a century later. The reason the new varieties were a solid color is that they had a mutant gene that made them ripen uniformly. It had an unforeseen negative effect: It lowered the lycopene content, making them less nutritious. Today, virtually all our modern tomatoes carry this mutant gene and are lower in lycopene.
LE: What should we look for in order to pick the most nutrient-dense tomatoes?
JR: If you know how to identify the most nutritious tomatoes in the market, you can triple or quadruple your intake of lycopene. Choose tomatoes by color. The darkest red have the most lycopene. Shopping by size is just as important. Small, dark red tomatoes have the most lycopene per ounce and they’re also sweeter and more flavorful. Small tomatoes also have more vitamin C. The smaller-is-better rule applies to varieties within a category.
LE: What’s the most nutritious way to serve them?
JR: Tomatoes are better cooked than raw. The longer you cook them, the more health benefits you get. Heat breaks down the cell walls, making nutrients more bioavailable. Second, it twists the lycopene molecule into a new configuration that’s easier to absorb.
The most nutritious tomatoes are in the canned goods aisle. Processed tomatoes are the richest source of lycopene. The heat of canning makes lycopene more bioavailable and tomatoes grown for the food industry are picked when red-ripe and processed immediately. No flavor is lost along the way. Tomato paste has up to 10 times the lycopene as raw tomatoes.
LE: I’ve heard you shouldn’t eat canned foods that are acidic, like tomatoes.
JR: Most tomatoes are packed in cans that have a plastic lining that contains a noxious chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Look for tomato products sold in glass jars or BPA-free cans. Another option—aseptic containers, coated paper containers, which allow food to be store for months without refrigeration.
LE: From chips to fries to mashed, potatoes are an all-American favorite. How much of our diet is made up of the potato, and how has the potato changed since its wild beginning?
JR: White potatoes account for 32% of all vegetables consumed by adults. Our intake of dark green and cruciferous vegetables, by contrast, is less than 1%. We eat 7.5 billion pounds of french fries a year (30 pounds per person) and 18 million pounds of potato chips—on Super Bowl Sunday alone.
There are as many as five thousand varieties of wild potatoes, from marble to football size. In addition to white, there are black, tan, red, purple, blue, orange, yellow, and green varieties.
Potatoes have been on a downward slide for hundreds of years…and a great many nutrients have disappeared. The loss of color is the major reason for the decline. The Purple Peruvian is a small, knobby potato cultivated for thousands of years. Its abundance of anthocyanins makes it one of the most nutritious. On an ounce-per-ounce basis, it has 28 times more bionutrients than our popular potato, the Russet Burbank, and 166 times more than the Kennebec white.
Wild potatoes are also lower in sugar and rapidly digested starch. Most of our modern varieties are high-glycemic [and] give us a sharp rise in blood glucose. People who consume a high-glycemic diet over a long time have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, which can lead to type II diabetes.
LE: Shouldn’t we cut back on consumption if they are such a high-glycemic food?
JR: There is a slick trick you can use to tame the sugar rush of high-glycemic potatoes. If you cook them and then chill them for about 24 hours, they are magically transformed into a low- or moderate-glycemic vegetable. The cool temperature converts the potatoes’ rapidly digested starch into a more resistant starch that is broken down more slowly. You can reheat them and they’ll maintain their lower glycemic value.*
LE: One of the few foods that hasn’t changed is garlic.
JR: No one has mounted a campaign to make garlic bulbs larger, sweeter, or milder. For this reason, they’ve maintained most of their wild nutrients. Whether or not you get all the health benefits of garlic depends on how you prepare and cook it. In 2001, Israeli food chemists discovered that conventional ways of preparing garlic destroy most health benefits.
LE: Garlic’s health-promoting property is a compound called allicin, which is only created when two substances isolated in a garlic bulb come in contact with each other. Heating immediately after crushing or mincing eliminates the formation of allicin. But you discuss a trick to keeping cooked garlic nutritious.
JR: You can cook garlic and reap all its benefits if you make a simple change to the way you prepare it. Chop, mince, slice, or mash it then keep it away from the heat for 10 minutes. During this time, the maximum amount of allicin is created.
LE: Berries have been in the news a lot lately as a superfood. What can you tell us about how these berries have changed?
JR: Hunter-gatherers valued wild berries above all other fruits because they were abundant, naturally sweet, and easy to dry for later use. Although few of our cultivated berries measure up to native berries, most are nutritional superstars nonetheless. As a rough estimate, berries have four times more antioxidant activity than most vegetables, and 40 times more than some cereals.
LE: Blueberries are touted as the superfood of the century. Has the blueberry changed a lot since centuries past?
JR: Until 150 years ago, people were eating wild blueberries, not domesticated varieties. The flaw of wild fruit was its size…about the size of a pea. Because it takes as long to pick a small berry as one five times its size, growing large berries reduces labor costs. [Developers] next rejected bushes with dark berries…light berries looked fresher and more appealing.
LE: I’m sure this wasn’t the most nutritious choice.
JR: It wasn’t known until the early 21st century that choosing the largest, palest blueberry [bushes] left the most nutritious ones behind. Most dark berries have more anthocyanins than light-colored berries and anthocyanins are the most beneficial phytonutrients in the fruit.
LE: In your book, you cite numerous studies regarding blueberries and how they show promise in fighting the diseases of aging, such cancer, high blood pressure, and inflammation.
JR: Blueberries show great promise in fighting our so-called diseases of civilization. In animal studies, the fruit has prevented tumor formation, slowed the growth of existing tumors, lowered blood pressure, reduced arterial plaque buildup, and soothed inflammation. It also prevented obesity and diabetes in rats fed a high-fat, high-calorie, and high-sugar lab chow—in other words, a replica of the typical American diet.
LE: What should we look for in order to get the most nutrition from blueberries?
JR: Choose the freshest. Examine and reject those that contain soft, moldy, leaking, or shriveled fruit. If you don’t eat them right away, store in the crisper drawer and don’t rinse off the bloom [the natural waxy coating] until you eat.
The Wild Side
Frozen berries are almost as nutritious as fresh. The highest-quality are those that are flash frozen. Cooked berries, believe it or not, have greater antioxidant levels than fresh. Even canned are better for you than fresh-picked fruit, provided you consume the canning liquid
along with the berries. Cooking and canning rearranges the structure of the the phytonutrients and makes them more bioavailable.
Dried berries are convenient, but 50 to 80% of antioxidant value is lost in the process…as polyphenol oxidases are breaking down their phytonutrients.
LE: I think we’ve provided the readers with great advice on how to get the most nutrition from the foods they eat—and which foods to choose and what to avoid. Thank you.
* Ek KL , Wang S, Copeland L,Brand-Miller JC. Br J Nutr. 2014 Feb;111(4):699-705.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.
To order a copy of Eating On The Wild Side , call 1-800-544-4440.