Eating on the Wild Side (a book review)

I just finished reading Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, by Jo Robinson and some of the information in it blew me away so I had to share!

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Taking trips to ‘you-pick’ farms is a great way to get produce that’s fresher and more nutrient-dense than supermarket options.

Jo Robinson is an investigative journalist specializing in science and health.  Her information is well-referenced and really just makes sense, especially when looked at from an ancestral point of view.  Here’s the basic idea – when we began planting our own food about 10,000 years ago, we naturally selected the varieties that grew the best and tasted the best.  Large size, sweet taste and ease of harvesting were of utmost importance, while nutrient content was rarely considered a factor at all.  And, unfortunately, many of the key nutrients in plants have a bitter flavor so we unwittingly bred these nutrients out of them. Not only that, but once our modern produce is planted, it is frequently sprayed with pesticides.  It is harvested when it’s convenient (often before it is ripe), then shipped thousands of miles, force-ripened when necessary and sometimes stored in warehouses.  It is often weeks between harvest and table, during which time, nutrients are rapidly being depleted.

Some quick background information before I go on – beneficial compounds in plants are called phytonutrients.  Plants produce these phytonutrients to protect themselves – from the sun, from predators, and from other threats such as mold or fungus.  It turns out these substances meant to protect the plants are actually good for us and, when we eat them, we reap their benefits.  Some of the more commonly known phytonutrients include lycopene in tomatoes, resveratrol in wine, carotenoids in carrots and glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables.  They are typically powerful antioxidants and cancer-fighters.

Now, on to the book.  Inside, you will find research-backed information on ancient and modern day fruits and vegetables.  There are many helpful charts on how to choose the most nutrient dense varieties – at the grocery store, at the farmer’s market and in your own garden.   At the end of each chapter, there’s a summary of the best methods for storing and preparing each type of fruit or vegetable.

For example, buy lettuce with loosely packed leaves (as in, the lettuce actually grows that way, not necessarily lettuce that’s sold that way).  Plants produce phytonutrients to protect themselves from the sun.  When the leaves are bunched tightly, most of them have little sun exposure so don’t produce the nutrients.  This is true for other plants too – when buying red apples, for example, look for those that are entirely red.  It’s a sign that these apples were near the top of the tree where sun exposure was most abundant.  ‘Red’ apples with a green side were at least partially hidden from the sun.

To continue with the lettuce example, lettuce also produces phytonutrients to protect itself from predators.  When the leaves are torn, the lettuce ‘thinks’ its being attacked by a predator and will produce these nutrients.  This will happen even once the lettuce has been picked from the ground.  So, tear your lettuce before you store it and the antioxidant value will double.  Put the torn leaves in a resealable bag, squeeze out the air and poke 10-20 tiny holes in the bag with a pin.  Place the bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.  This procedure allows the right amount of oxygen in and carbon dioxide out not only to keep the leaves fresh longer, but also to preserve nutrients and flavor.  Still, once they are torn, they will only last a few days so don’t wait long to eat them!

There’s also a quick tip to get the most out of your garlic.  The most active ingredient in garlic, allicin, is made only after the garlic is chopped/minced/pressed.  But, heat will stop the reaction and no allicin will be made.  To avoid this pitfall, mince your garlic, then allow it to sit for 10 minutes before heating it.  In those 10 minutes, most of the allicin will have been created and heat will not destroy it at that point.

Carrots should be cooked whole, then sliced to preserve 25% more falcarinol, a cancer-fighting compound.  Always buy whole carrots rather than baby carrots.  The baby carrots are simply odd bits off of larger carrots that have been shaped into sticks by removing the outer layer.  That outer layer contains 1/3 of the carrot’s phytonutrients!  And grab colorful carrots when you see them – purple ones contain more anthocyanins (powerful anti-oxidants) and beta-carotene than the orange ones.

Finally, broccoli begins to lose major cancer-fighting properties within 24 hours after harvest.   So buy broccoli locally and eat it as quickly as possible!

Eating on the Wild Side has changed the way I shop for my fruits and vegetables and I had thought I was doing a pretty great job already!  While I gave a few helpful tips here, there are many more in the book, along with the nice cheat sheets and summaries of each chapter.  You can find the book here: Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.

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