The taste for sweetness has results we are all aware of, most dramatically, the alarming rise of diabetes in modern populations. But there is a subtler effect and that is partly the subject of Jo Robinson’s 2013 book, Eating on the Wild Side. There, she points out that since many beneficial bionutrients have a “sour, astringent, or bitter taste,” the modern practice of favoring and cultivating “the sweetest and mildest-tasting wild plants” has resulted in “a dramatic loss in phytonutrients” (Intro, 10). From there, she goes on to point out in chapter and verse how the modern preference, especially in America, for bland vegetables like beans and peas, leaves most people deficient in the very nutrients that can help ward off diseases like cancer. And she gives us the latest information about what those beneficial phytonutrients are, in which vegetables they can be found, and how best to prepare those vegetables and spices to reap the most health-giving nutrition from them.
Her first rule is a simple one: “we should shop by color, selecting varieties that are red orange, purple, dark green, and yellow” (14). In other words, instead of buying iceberg lettuce (the favorite lettuce variety for Americans), the wise consumer should buy darker varieties and variants like dandelion greens (to the horror of our white neighbors, my great aunt used to pick dandelion greens from lawns and lots in our neighborhood, and use them either in salads or cooked with beans). Why? Because dark green dandelion greens have eight times (8X) more antioxidants, twice as much calcium, three times more vitamin A, and five times more vitamin K than even that allegedly super-vegetable, spinach. The dark green color, as well as red, purple and red-brown are tipoffs to the presence of anthocyanins—powerful antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals. And what’s wrong with free radicals? These rogue elements—brought to us by stress, excessive sunlight, and aging—are heavily implicated in damaging cells, DNA, and the collagen that literally holds our bodies together, not to mention their role in cancer. So even at a cursory glance, any plant with anthocyanins would appear to be a benefactor of humankind. And yet, the average American diet is mostly deficient in such vegetables and seems to prefer the bland and beautiful: iceberg lettuce, peas and string beans, and white potatoes (re: potatoes, Robinson points out that Peruvian purple potatoes have twenty-eight (28X) more bionutrients than Russet potatoes, and one-hundred sixty-six (166X) more than white potatoes. They are also high in anthocyanins, and sport a far lower glycemic (sugar) index, meaning they are far less likely to lead to diabetes than our modern varieties).
As to that other staple of modern agriculture, corn, Robinson’s story of how modern corn was developed is hair-raising. It turns out that in 1946 corn seeds were experimentally exposed to the early atomic bombs at Bikini atoll. There was even a paper written in 1951, on the “Effects of Atomic Bomb Explosion on Corn Seeds.” The paper points out that most seeds thus radiated became “shriveled mutants.” But some were turned into our modern food supply: “Our modern supersweet corn came out of this collection of misbegotten seeds” (81). That is, a geneticist, John Laughnan, working with these shrunken seeds (he labeled them “shrunken-2 or sh2”), found that a couple of the samples he tried had become very SWEET—in fact, ten times (10X) sweeter than the average corn of that time. Not only that, the mutant sweet corn stayed fresh for ten days and more, unlike regular corn that turns to starch in that time, and hence needs to be eaten fresh. Perfect! With a little breeding to increase the starch content so it could breed, Laughnan had his brave new corn, marketed as Illini Xtra-Sweet. The result, after more tweaking, led to today’s corn, our supermarket corn, the direct result of that sweet atomic bomb mutation. Of course, it lacks the bionutrients of the original deep yellow corn, which boasts fifty-eight (58X) times more beta carotene and lutein and zeaxanthin—but who cares? It’s sweet taste matches Americans’ preferences, and lasts on the shelf for oh so long.
Besides all its information on which plants are the most healthful, Robinson’s book has one more virtue that is invaluable: it tells us how to prepare these beneficial plants to get the maximum benefit from them. This took even me by surprise. I’ve been using garlic liberally for years. But I never knew about how to maximize the active ingredient in garlic, allicin. Folklore calls garlic the peasant’s penicillin, but allicin really does have powerful antibiotic effects. According to Robinson, a milligram of allicin is equal to 15 international units of penicillin, which means that three cloves (each clove has seven to thirteen mg of allicin) have “the same antibacterial activity as a standard dose of penicillin” (49). Garlic has even been found to block the formation of some cancers. It’s an antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anticlotting wonder.
BUT…you have to prepare it correctly. It turns out that allicin is not actually contained in raw garlic; its ingredients—aliin and alliinase—are, but they’re isolated in the clove. In order to get them together, you have to slice or press or chew garlic to blend them to form allicin. But there’s another but—and this is what I never knew. If you are going to heat garlic, as in sauteeing it in oil, you don’t do it right after chopping or pressing the garlic. Heat destroys the enzyme (alliinase) needed to cause the blending reaction. So you need to keep the chopped garlic aside for at least 10 minutes, and then the heating doesn’t matter; chopped and/or mashed, it’s already blended to form the allicin, so that blessed nutrient remains intact and usable.
This one bit of biochemical information seems to me worth the price of the book as a whole. And that deserves saying again. Traditional cooking in cultures like the one I grew up in have ‘known’ and passed on such information in their cuisines. But they didn’t know exactly why they did what they did and ate what they ate. It was traditional, the result of long trial and error that becomes a cultural demand. With the advances in biochemisty of recent years, however, we now know the why: why darker vegetables are better, why traditional growing practices are better, why garlic, despite its odor on the breath, is a boon to humanity. And that’s what Jo Robinson gives us in this book: the biochemical basis for traditional farming and cooking practices, and the biochemical reasons for the deficiencies and diseases of modern eating/farming practices with their results in the human body.
So eat all those veggies your mother told you were good for you: crucifers (cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, radishes, turnips), now knowing that along with their slightly bitter taste come glucosinolates, rich in antioxidants, and, in broccoli, sulforaphanes, an anti-cancer agent. And red cabbage because it has six times (6X) more antioxidants than the green variety. And blueberries—though the smaller ones the farmers never pick have the most anthocyanins—are very nearly as good frozen as fresh, and more than that, pick up antioxidant power when they are cooked.
Speaking of which, there’s one more gem here. Our modern tomatoes (see my blog “Tomatoland”) have been bred with a mutant gene designed to make them ripen uniformly (which is done by exposing picked green tomatoes to ethylene gas). The only problem is that this mutant gene has lowered the lycopene content in tomatoes, and lycopene is the beneficial antioxidant (good for prostate cancer) in tomatoes. One way around this is to grow your own. And cherry tomatoes are the most nutritious variety. What’s unexpected, though, is the following: it turns out that cooking tomatoes makes them more nutritious (did the residents of Naples know this when tomatoes first came to them from the New World?) This means that a good tomato sauce is richer in lycopenes than raw tomatoes in a salad. It also means that processed tomatoes—canned or prepared as tomato paste—are also richer in lycopene, because they’re cooked in processing, and heat increases the bioavailable lycopene, by as much as ten times (10X). Amazing. I’ve been eating tomato sauce my whole life, and never knew this.
That’s what Jo Robinson’s book can do for you. It can give you information about what you currently eat, and steer you in directions you never would have suspected. And these days, with so much fake food being pushed on us, that is a gift no one can afford to overlook.