We like to think that if we eat our recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, we're doing right by our bodies. Think again, says health writer Jo Robinson.
In her new book, Eating on the Wild Side, Robinson argues that our prehistoric ancestors picked and gathered wild plants that were in many ways far more healthful than the stuff we buy today at farmers' markets.
But this change, she says, isn't the result of the much-bemoaned modern, industrial food system. It has been thousands of years in the making — ever since humans first took up farming (some 12,000 years ago, more or less) and decided to "cultivate the wild plants that were the most pleasurable to eat," she writes. More pleasurable generally meant less bitter and higher in sugar, starch or oil.
"Basically," Robinson tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "we looked around at all this wild food that we had been eating for millennia, forever, and we kind of said to each other, 'We're getting tired of eating this bitter, chewy, fibrous, low-sugar food, and we can do better than that!'"
And over the centuries, Robinson says, those choices in human agriculture led to a dramatic loss in the nutrient value of the plants we eat most commonly — something she says we had no way of knowing until recently, when modern technology made it possible to do so.
But Robinson isn't arguing that we should all go back to foraging for our dinner. Rather, she calls her book "a field guide to nutritious food." Drawing on hundreds of scientific studies, she uses her book to lay out which commonly available foods offer the best nutritional bang for the bite.
We learn, for example, that longer cooking can boost tomatoes' health benefits. And that broccoli begins to lose cancer-fighting compounds within 24 hours of harvest — that's why it's one of the foods that Robinson suggests people eat "as fresh as possible."
On prehistoric bananas
"To peel them you had to get a machete or something similar to that to take off the skins, so we looked around and one of our remote ancestors came upon a mutant banana. This was nature's mutant — nature is making mutations all the time — and that's how we get all of the varieties that we have in our fruits and vegetables. Well, this particular mutation did away with the seeds, so that the seeds had been diminished to tiny black dots, and if you look at the bananas in our supermarket, that's what you'll see: no viable seeds but just these little dots."
On her focus on 'phytonutrients'
"These are molecular nutrients; they're not macronutrients, and the reason that I'm focusing on them is that we're just beginning to realize that these plant compounds — the technical name for them is 'polyphenols' [but] I call them 'phytonutrients' — they play a role in every cell and system of our bodies, and every month, new information is published showing these phytonutrients are really essential for optimum health. ... [T]hese are the things we've reduced more than any of the other nutrients."
On why we should eat dandelions
"[G]o out and find a dandelion leaf, rinse it well, and take a bite, and pay attention to your senses. For the first 10 seconds you won't sense much at all, except you'll notice that the leaf is hairy, and quite dense, quite chewy. Then, this bloom of bitterness [will] come at the roof of your mouth and go down your throat, and it's going to stay there for about 10 minutes. And many of the wild plants that we used to eat had levels of bitterness similar to that dandelion. ... Compared to spinach, which we consider a superfood, [a dandelion] has twice as much calcium, and three times as much vitamin A, five times more vitamins K and E, and eight times more antioxidants."
On maximizing the nutrients in lettuce
"If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it and then, if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it, you're going to increase the antioxidant activity ... fourfold. The next time you eat it, it's going to have four times as many antioxidants."
On which produce you should eat as fresh as possible
"There [are] fruits and vegetables that also burn up their antioxidants and their sugar at a really rapid rate, and they happen to be those superstars of nutrition that we're all encouraged to eat. So I'm just going to give you a list of things you should get as fresh as possible, perhaps from a farmers' market, which ... is going to be probably fresher than from the supermarket, and eat as soon as possible. So it would be artichokes, arugula, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, lettuce, parsley, mushrooms and spinach. ...
I think you should have an 'Eat Me First' list on your refrigerator of those [foods] that you should eat the day you bring them home, or the next day. It could [make] a measurable difference in your health."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest, health writer Jo Robinson, has a new take on the old dictum that fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you. She says tens of thousands of years ago, our prehistoric ancestors picked and gathered wild foods that were, in many ways, far healthier than the stuff we buy today at farmers' markets. She says which vegetables you choose and how you prepare them can make a big difference in the nutritional benefits you get. And she says some canned and frozen vegetables can actually be healthier than fresh ones.
Crazy, right? It's all in her new book, along with some recipes to make wilder, healthier vegetables fun to eat. Jo Robinson is a health writer and food activist, best known for her research into the benefits of raising livestock on pasture rather than feedlots. She's written or co-written 14 books. Her latest is called "Eating on the Wild Side."
Well, Jo Robinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. You introduce us to the concept here in this book that our prehistoric ancestors in some ways ate a lot healthier stuff than we do. How do we know that?
JO ROBINSON: We know that because we can now measure the wild food that they were consuming, and it still exists. It's not extinct. And we can now compare it to the food we now have in the supermarkets, and we can see really marked differences in nutrition. In particular, the wild plants had more fiber and more calcium, other minerals, more vitamins, more protein and especially, they had more antioxidants - which are just now proving to be very advantageous to our health.
DAVIES: Right. And you say that a lot of these changes in the direction of, you know, food which is less beneficial to us aren't kind of the last 20 or 30 years of modern agriculture, and, you know, genetic tampering with food, but really early on in the, what, roughly 10,000 years of agriculture, right?
ROBINSON: That's right. In fact, the most dramatic changes in the human diet happened at the very beginning of agriculture, because, basically, we looked around at all of this wild food that we had been eating for millennia - forever - and we kind of said to each other, well, you know, we're getting tired of eating this bitter, chewy, fibrous, low-sugar food, and we can do better than that. So what we did was we selected those wild plants that were the best tasting to us and the easiest to prepare and the most productive, and that makes a lot of sense. We would do it all over again. But what we didn't know is that when we were rejecting plants that were a little more bitter or had more fiber, we were actually cutting down on the amount of phytonutrients and antioxidants in our diet from the get-go. And we have continued to do that over the entire history of agriculture.
DAVIES: Give us an example of a modern food. Let's take the banana. You write about the banana.
DAVIES: I mean, we all know what a banana looks like. It's so inviting. It's got that nice, you know, yellow peel that comes off easily and that nice, creamy interior. What did the, you know, the prehistoric banana ancestor look like and taste like?
ROBINSON: Well, wild bananas were basically seed cases, and they were chock-full of hard, dense seeds. And people still gather these bananas - not to eat them, but to take these seeds and string them and make necklaces. They were that large and that bulky. And we didn't eat them. They were - had very little sugar, extremely high carbohydrates. And to peel them you had to get a machete, or something similar to that, you know, to take off the skins.
So we looked around, and some of our, one of our remote ancestors came upon a mutant banana. This was nature's mutant. Nature is making mutations all of the time, and that's how we get all the varieties we have in our fruits and vegetables. Well, this particular mutation did away with the seeds, so that the seeds had been diminished to just little, tiny black dots. And if you look at our - the bananas in our supermarket, that's what you'll see - no viable seeds, but just these little dots. And this mutation also had zip-off peels, so that we immediately seized upon that, very cleverly, and began cloning these banana plants. You can't plant seeds of a banana that doesn't have seeds, so we had to clone them, which we did. And around the world, these bananas without seeds are about the only bananas that anyone eats.
DAVIES: Right. And compare the health of these nice bananas that we slice in with our vanilla wafers and our banana pudding...
DAVIES: Compare the health of those to the earlier products that our ancestors...
ROBINSON: Well, some people around the world are eating really very nutritious bananas, because they have red and dark yellow and orange flesh, and it's loaded with beta carotene. But we've seized upon a white mutant. It has very little beta carotene. There's some that are eaten by people that have 400 times more of this important nutrient than the ones that we eat. So we have one that's very sweet and rapidly digested carbohydrates and very low in beta carotene. And this is our most popular fruit.
DAVIES: So we've always liked stuff that isn't good for us.
ROBINSON: Yes. Well, there's a reason why. It's interesting. We're programmed to want things that are sweet and, you know, full of salts and fat, because those were the very things that were scarce in the wilderness. And we needed to have high-calorie foods, because we had very energetic lives. We might have had to have burned 4,000 calories a day, so we had to have this wiring that rewarded us for eating foods that were energy-dense. And it works perfectly well in the environment, in natural environment. If we were to go into a national forest and look for the sweetest and least fibrous and the fattiest food, we'd be doing very well. The problem is we still have that programming, and when you take it to the 7-Eleven, you get into big trouble.
DAVIES: Now, a lot of what you focus on is the presence or absence of bio-nutrients, or phytonutrients.
DAVIES: Now this is distinct from the nutrients that we typically think of, like proteins and vitamins and fiber?
ROBINSON: Right. These are molecular nutrients. They're not macronutrients. And the reason that I'm focusing on them is that we're just beginning to realize that these plant compounds - the technical name for them is polyphenols. I call them phytonutrients, a little more friendly term. They play a role in every cell and system of our bodies. And every month, new information is published showing that these phytonutrients are really essential for optimum health, and these are the things that we've reduced more than any of the other nutrients.
DAVIES: So you're telling us in this book that you've got to be careful about, when you eat fruits and vegetables, which ones you pick, what kinds you pick and how you prepare them and how you store them. So let's talk about some specifics. Greens. A lot of us eat salad, you know, five to 10 times a week. And you tell us that some of the wild greens that we used to eat had a lot of health and medicinal properties that were really beneficial. And you say among them are dandelions...
DAVIES: ...and you suggest trying a dandelion. What do you taste when you eat a dandelion?
ROBINSON: Well, I recommend that people do this, because one of the premises of my book is that we're not going to go back and eat wild food, per se. We're not going to like the taste of most of it. So go out and find a dandelion leaf, rinse it well, and then take a bite and just pay attention to your senses.
You know, for the first, oh, 10 seconds, you'll have very little - you won't sense very much at all, except that you'll notice that the leaf is hairy and quite dense, quite chewy. But then, this bloom of bitterness is going to come at the roof of your mouth and go down your throat, and it's going to stay there for about 10 minutes. And many of the wild plants that we used to eat had levels of bitterness similar to that dandelion. But the dandelion was a lot healthier for us, you know, compared with spinach, which we consider a super food. It has twice as much calcium and three times as much Vitamin A, five times more Vitamins K and E, and eight times more antioxidants. So our wild food that, you know, we - our remote ancestors ate was much better for us, but we wouldn't like the taste of it.
So I'm - my book is actually a field guide to nutritious food, what I call wild equivalents in the supermarket. They have held onto a lot of their wild nutrients, but they have that flavor that we've come to love and expect.
DAVIES: OK. Let's talk about some salad greens: iceberg lettuce, very commonly eaten in the United States. How much do we eat, and how good is it for us?
ROBINSON: I was surprised to learn it's the most popular lettuce, by far. I know many people who have moved on to mesclun and radicchio and more savory greens, but half the people in this county have never eaten any lettuce other than iceberg lettuce, and we produce 450 million metric tons of it a year. And it turns out to be extremely low in phytonutrients. It is - you'd have to eat about 10 cups of iceberg lettuce to get the equivalent of a half a cup of a loose-leaf lettuce.
And so, I mean, that's, you know, it's a very popular vegetable. It's one that people turn to, but it's one that we should start to wean ourselves away from and find others that we also like the taste of that have held on to some of these phytonutrients.
DAVIES: Right. Now, you note that if you're picking, you know, varieties of apples, they're clearly labeled. Not often the case with lettuce.
DAVIES: Is there a simple rule for getting the green that's going to be better for you?
ROBINSON: There is a simple rule, and it has an interesting explanation. The reason that iceberg lettuce is so low in phytonutrients is that plants produce these compounds largely to protect themselves from external threats like UV light and predation from insects, fungus, diseases. And when the leaves of a plant - like iceberg lettuce - are all wrapped up over each other, those inside leaves don't have to produce phytonutrients to protect themselves from the sunlight.
And since most of iceberg lettuce, the leaves are inside, they're extremely low in these healthful compounds. So what you want to do is you want to look for lettuce that grows with all of the leaves open to the sun, and that's loose-leaf lettuce. It is much more nutritious, because that plant has to continually defend itself against these damaging UV rays.
So the best choices in the supermarket are loose-leaf lettuce, the dark green varieties, but most of all, the leafy red varieties, because in addition to having some kinds of, like, carotenoids and other nutrients, they're rich in anthocyanins. So you get a double bonus of phytonutrients when you eat a leafy red lettuce.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jo Robinson. She is a health writer and food activist. Her new book is called "Eating on the Wild Side." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with health writer Jo Robinson. Her book, "Eating on the Wild Side" argues that ancient, wilder fruits and vegetables were healthier than many modern varieties. When we left off, she was talking about the benefits of eating red, leafy lettuce.
Describe what you do when you bring home your lettuce.
DAVIES: I mean, this was interesting to read.
ROBINSON: Yeah. It's kind of a magic trick. In addition to looking at studies showing the nutrient content of our fruits and vegetables, I've been looking at the food sciences that are finally learning what we need to do to preserve and even enhance the phytonutrients in our food. This is a brand new science, about 15 years old.
So I came across this study. It seems bizarre at first, but if you take your lettuce right from the store and you rinse it and dry it, and then, if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it, you're going to increase the antioxidant activity, the antioxidant benefits that you get from that lettuce four-fold. You know, the next day when you eat it, it's going to have four times more antioxidants.
DAVIES: And that's because the plant is trying to react to my tearing it, as if it's threatened, and produce more...
ROBINSON: Exactly. Plants don't die when we pick them. They continue to respire and react to threats. And, you know, it thinks that we're this enormous cow that's eating it, and it's going to - you know, overnight, it's going to produce a lot of these phytonutrients so that the next time that cow comes around, it's going to ward them away.
DAVIES: Right. So I have to say, when I read this, this struck me as a lot of work, to take my greens, and then I'd wash them and then I'd dry them and then I tear them up. And we have those wonderful, convenient, you know, mixed greens now that come in sealed bags, or in those little hard plastic things with the lids. What about them? Are they OK?
ROBINSON: Most greens are what I call heavy breathers. And the scientists would say that they have a high respiration rate. And so as soon as they're harvested, they start absorbing a lot of oxygen, and oxygen is harmful to them. So they have to use up their stored antioxidants to protect themselves. And meanwhile, they're no longer producing carbohydrates, so they have to use up their stored sugars.
And lettuce is one of a number of plants that, in just a few days after harvest, it's going to have fewer phytonutrients and antioxidants, and it's going to have less sugar. So many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old. They're not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them.
And there's other fruits and vegetables that also burn up their antioxidants and their sugar at a really rapid rate, and they happen to be those superstars of nutrition that we're all encouraged to eat. So I'm just going to give you a list of things that you should get as fresh as possible, perhaps from a farmers' market - which is going to be probably fresher than a supermarket - and eat as soon as possible.
And so it would be artichokes, arugula, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, lettuce, parsley, mushrooms and spinach. So all of those, just day by day, they're giving you fewer and fewer nutrients and reducing your opportunity to experience optimum health.
DAVIES: So some vegetables don't. Some of them will hold them when you store them. Those will tend to...
DAVIES: ...give up the good stuff. So broccoli...
DAVIES: ...don't leave it in there three days and then eat it.
ROBINSON: That's right. But garlic and onions and apples and a lot of the root vegetables can be stored for months and not change the benefits that they give you. So it's important to know. Like, you know, I think you should have an Eat Me First list on your refrigerator of those that you should eat the day you bring them home, or the next day. I mean, it could be a measurable difference in your health.
DAVIES: You know, I think a lot of us have gotten a little skeptical of health advice, because over the years, you know, we hear that a particular food or a particular vitamin or a particular, you know, medication may be beneficial. And then five or 10 years later there are studies that show, you know, that it isn't effective, or maybe even that it's harmful in some ways.
ROBINSON: Yes. It's so frustrating.
DAVIES: Right. And a lot of what you write in the book just has such certainty to it. I mean, you'll say that, you know, this food has, you know, 20 times the lycopene of another. I mean, can we be sure of this? Is this research as clear and, you know, irrefutable as that?
ROBINSON: Yeah. Yes. Yes, certainly about the amounts, because I spent 10 years researching this book, and I read 6,000 peer-reviewed studies published in credible journals. And so we can be quite confident in the amounts of phytonutrients in different fruits and vegetables. I mean, we're learning new ways to measure them and new technologies, so there's some differences that, you know, that's happening over time.
But we can be quite certain that the amounts are correct. As for the health benefits, this is an infant science, and, you know, we're going to learn so much more in the next 20 years. But - so when I write about potential health benefits, I'm really careful to put in the perhaps and should be and, you know, in a number of years, we'll know better, and this is only in a small human study, because I don't want to commit the error of jumping ahead of the research and making claims that can't be substantiated. But as the months go by, there's more and more studies that are adding more certainty to the benefits of eating whole foods. I'm not talking supplements. I'm not talking medications, which have adverse, negative effects, but whole foods of certain types.
And it's really looking very promising that this could be the missing link to optimum health, that we've bred out these phytonutrients and other important compounds, and by adding them back for test tube studies, animal studies and now human studies, they're all lining up together, saying that this could be really beneficial for everyone and could - here's all the coulds - and it could reduce the risk of some very deadly and costly diseases.
DAVIES: Well, Jo Robinson, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
ROBINSON: It was my pleasure.
DAVIES: Jo Robinson's book is called "Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.