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Eating on the Wild Side
The Missing Link to Optimum Health
By Jo Robinson
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2013 Jo Robinson
All rights reserved.
FROM WILD GREENS TO ICEBERG LETTUCE
BREEDING OUT THE MEDICINE
Today, we can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables twelve months of the year. When they are out of season in one region of the country, they are shipped in from another or imported from as far away as Chile or China. This seamless supply allows us to forget the seasonal cycle of plants and their brief harvest seasons. We can buy fresh greens in December, apples in April, and grapes all year round.
The people who first inhabited this land did not have that luxury. During the winter months, hunter-gatherers had to make do with their caches of dried meat, fish, roots, fruit, and herbs. When spring finally arrived, they were hungry for fresh food. Even then, however, their choices were limited. The wild berry bushes and fruit trees had yet to blossom. Root plants—such as camas (a type of lily), wild carrots, onions, and groundnuts—were too small to be harvested. The wild grasses and legumes had yet to form seeds. To satisfy their craving for something live and growing, they consumed large quantities of spring greens and shoots, the only fresh food on their strictly local and seasonal menu.
WILD GREENS—BOTH FOOD AND MEDICINE
The wild greens that hunter-gatherers consumed were so rich in phytonutrients that they used them as medicine as well as food. The leaves of wild lamb's-quarters (Chenopodium album), also known as goosefoot and fat hen, were consumed by hunter-gatherers from North America to Africa. The greens were eaten raw, fried in fat, dried, added to soups, or mixed with meat. The Pomo people, who lived in northern California, steamed the leaves and used them to treat stomachaches. The Potawatomi of the upper Mississippi region used lamb's-quarters to cure a condition that we now know to be scurvy, a nutritional deficiency caused by a lack of vitamin C. The Iroquois made a paste of the fresh greens and applied it to burns to relieve pain and speed healing. Many tribes consumed the seeds of the plant as well as the leaves, even though the seeds were very small and tedious to gather. Americans are now eating the seeds of domesticated varieties of lamb's-quarters, which are unusually high in protein. They go by the name quinoa.
Lamb's-quarters may prove to be a potent healer in twenty-first-century medicine as well. Recent studies show that the greens are rich in phytonutrients, fight viruses and bacteria, and block the growth of human breast cancer cells. More investigations are under way.
Dandelions, the plague of urban lawns, were a springtime treat for the Navajo, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Apache. The leaves were eaten raw, steamed, or boiled, and they were added to soups and stews. Compared to spinach, one of our present-day "superfoods," dandelion leaves have eight times more antioxidants, two times more calcium, three times more vitamin A, and five times more vitamin K and vitamin E. Our modern superfoods would have been substandard fare for hunter-gatherers.
Wild greens may be excellent for our health, but how do they taste? I suggest you find out. You can begin with dandelions. First, locate some dandelion leaves that are pesticide-free and have not been visited by neighborhood pets. Rinse a leaf and take a bite. As you will discover, the leaf is relatively thick and chewy and it is covered with tiny hairs, top and bottom. For a second or two, the leaves will taste rather bland. Then, in a flash, a bloom of bitterness will start at the roof of your mouth and spread down the back of your throat. If you pay close attention, you will note that your tongue and mouth are becoming faintly numb—undeniable proof of the plant's painkilling properties. Nothing in the grocery store has prepared you for this riot of sensations.
Over the course of ten thousand years of agriculture, our farming ancestors managed to remove the bitterness from most of our greens. Unwittingly, though, when they removed the bitterness, they were also stripping away a host of highly beneficial phytonutrients that happen to have a bitter, astringent, or sour taste. Our mild-to-a-fault iceberg lettuce, for example, has one-fortieth as many bionutrients as bitter dandelion greens. Calcium is bitter as well, so the calcium content of our modern greens is also relatively low. This could be one of the reasons that osteoporosis now afflicts so many older Americans. In 2011, forty-four million individuals were diagnosed with low bone density or with osteoporosis, placing them at high risk for fractures. Hunter-gatherers who consumed calcium-rich wild greens had much denser bones than we do today, despite the fact that they consumed no dairy products.
As a group, we Americans are more averse to eating bitter greens than people living in other parts of the world. Iceberg lettuce is our most popular variety of leafy green by far, despite the fact that legions of chefs, health seekers, and foodies have moved on to arugula and mesclun. According to the USDA, Americans consume more servings of iceberg lettuce per week than all other fresh vegetables combined, with the exception of white potatoes. Half the population has never purchased any salad greens other than iceberg lettuce. To meet this demand, farms in California and a few other locations produce four million metric tons of the bland lettuce every year.
An excellent way to begin eating on the wild side is to add more nutrient-rich greens to your diet. You will find many highly nutritious varieties at supermarkets, salad bars, and some restaurants. You will find even more healthful greens when you shop in natural-food stores, farmers markets, or buy seeds for your garden. In this chapter, you will learn how to select the most nutritious greens wherever you shop, even when certain recommended varieties are not available. You will also learn new ways to prepare, store, and serve them that will enrich their flavor and health benefits.
When you shop for fresh fruits and vegetables in a conventional supermarket, you will see that some items have labels showing their varietal name but others do not. When you shop for apples, for example, the name of each variety is usually posted on a sign. You know if you are buying a Gala, Red Delicious, or Honeycrisp. Typically, varietal names are also supplied for pears, cherries, grapes, avocados, oranges, onions, plums, mushrooms, and a number of other fruits and vegetables. This is not always true of lettuce and other greens, however. When you buy salad greens, you may have no way of knowing if that head of green looseleaf lettuce on display is Black-Seeded Simpson, Green Ice, or Salad Bowl. The produce manager is likely to be equally in the dark.
Fortunately, there are other ways to select the most nutritious greens in the store. Let's begin with lettuce. The lettuce varieties that have the most phytonutrients share two easily recognizable traits. The first is color. As a general rule, the most intensely colored salad greens have the most phytonutrients. There is also a hierarchy to the colors. Ironically, the most nutritious greens in the supermarket are not green at all but red, purple, or reddish brown. These particular hues come from phytonutrients called anthocyanins, which also make blueberries blue and strawberries red. Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that show great promise in fighting cancer, lowering blood pressure, slowing age-related memory loss, and even reducing the negative effects of eating high-sugar and high-fat foods.
The next most nutritious greens are dark green in color. Dark green varieties are rich in a phytonutrient called lutein, which is another potent antioxidant and has been shown to protect eye health and calm inflammation. As a general rule, lettuce varieties with light green leaves give you the fewest health benefits.
The second trait to look for is more surprising. The arrangement of the individual leaves on a lettuce plant plays a major role in determining its phytonutrient content. When a lettuce plant has leaves that are tightly wrapped like a cabbage's, the phytonutrient content tends to be very low. This is true of iceberg lettuce and other crisphead varieties. Plants with loose and open leaves, particularly the looseleaf varieties, contain many times more bionutrients. As a rule, plants that have a combination of open and wrapped leaves, such as romaine and Bibb lettuce, have moderate amounts.
Why does the arrangement of the leaves on a plant influence its phytonutrient content? The reason is that all leaves have a love-hate relationship with the sun: they need sunlight to grow and produce carbohydrates, but the sun's UV rays can destroy them. In order to survive, they have to manufacture their own botanical sunscreen—pigmented antioxidants that block the harmful effects of UV light. Looseleaf lettuce is the most vulnerable to UV rays because most of its leaves are exposed to direct sunlight. As a result, the leaves have to produce extra quantities of phytonutrients. When we eat looseleaf lettuce, we absorb those compounds, which then become part of our own self-defense system—not only against UV rays but against cancer, chronic inflammation, and cardiovascular disease as well. The plant's protection becomes our protection.
When leaves—such as the ones inside crisphead and romaine lettuce—are sheltered from the sun, they are not exposed to UV rays and can slack off on the production of phytonutrients. Remarkably, the leaves on the inside of iceberg lettuce have 1 percent of the antioxidant activity of the leaves on the sun-exposed outside of the plant. Location, location, location.
Now you have the information you need to select the most nutritious salad greens in the supermarket. Choose the most intensely colored lettuces—preferably red or dark green—that also have the loosest arrangement of leaves. Red looseleaf lettuce is the best choice; lab tests confirm that it is extra-rich in antioxidants and vitamins. Next comes dark green looseleaf lettuce, followed by red or dark green Bibb and romaine lettuces. Iceberg and other head lettuces may be crisp and refreshing, but they have very few phytonutrients to offer. Their light green leaves and high percentage of sheltered leaves are the reason for their low-nutrient status.
As a rule, the most nutritious greens in the grocery store have a more intense flavor than greens that are lower in food value. Some are hot and spicy, some are bitter, and some are sour. If a particular variety of lettuce is a bit intense for your taste, combine it with a milder variety, such as butterhead or romaine. You can also mellow its flavor by adding dried or fresh fruit to the salad. Avocado has a moderating effect as well. (Fat is one of the best antidotes to bitterness.) Adding a small amount of honey to a vinaigrette will also mask strong flavors. (See the recipe for honey mustard vinaigrette on page 39.)
CHOOSING THE FRESHEST LETTUCE
The freshness of lettuce and other salad greens also influences their nutritional benefits. The longer the greens have been in transit or stored in a warehouse or displayed in the store, the lower their antioxidant value and the more bitter they taste. Knowing how to pick the freshest greens in the supermarket is especially important in the winter months, when up to 12 percent of our lettuce is imported from Mexico—adding days to the average transit time.
As a rule, whole heads of lettuce are fresher than packaged greens or lettuce that is sold precut, because it takes time to process the greens. Also, cut leaves spoil more rapidly than whole heads of lettuce. (When the heads are separated into individual leaves, the plant produces chemicals that speed the leaves' decay.) When you examine the lettuce, look for crisp leaves with no sign of yellowing or wilting. The lettuce should also feel heavy for its size, an indication that it has preserved its internal moisture and will be crisp and inviting.
Why Do Some People Like Bitter Foods and Others Reject Them?
All people dislike intensely bitter, acidic, sour, or astringent flavors. It's a part of our basic survival kit. This built-in repulsion protects us from eating poisonous plants, which are characterized by those flavors. We take one bite and spit them out.
Our response to moderately bitter food is more varied. Surveys show that, among the US population, about 25 percent enjoy bitter foods and seek them out. Fifty percent tolerate bitter foods but do not favor them. The remaining 25 percent find most bitter flavors very unpleasant.
The people who are highly sensitive to bitter flavors are most likely to avoid coffee or drink it with cream or sugar. Green tea and soy products are distasteful to them. If they drink wine, they prefer white to red. They find that white grapefruit tastes unpleasantly bitter. Even though they know they "should" eat more kale, spinach, and broccoli, they prefer corn, potatoes, and peas.
This wide range of responses to bitter flavors is influenced by many factors, including culture, childhood diet, and the availability of different types of foods. Children in some cultures enjoy food that would taste very bitter to adults living in other parts of the world. Hunter-gatherers relished food that most of us would find repellent.
As a group, we Americans are more averse to bitter flavors than people from other countries. For example, most Americans prefer sweet apples to tart ones, caffe latte to espresso, and milk chocolate to dark chocolate.
Nothing reveals our national aversion to bitterness, however, as much as our choice of beer. The bitterness of beer is ranked in terms of international bitterness units, or IBUs, a scale that ranges from 1 to 100. The higher the number, the more bitter the brew. The Irish brand Guinness, a relatively bitter-tasting beer, ranges between 45 and 60 IBUs. German pilsners approach 100. Budweiser, a light American lager, is only 8 IBUs. Although hundreds of new US microbreweries are now producing full-flavored beer, our bestselling brand continues to be Bud Light, which is a mere 6.4 IBUs. When it comes to beer, we are the world's wimps.
There is a biological component to the bitter response that can override all other factors. Each of us inherits a unique set of genes that governs our response to flavors. One set of genes, for example, determines the size and number of taste buds on your tongue and the lining of your mouth. People born with genes that code for large numbers of small taste buds are more sensitive to bitter flavors and to all other taste sensations as well. Physiologists call them supertasters.
Many supertasters have grown up being accused of being picky, squeamish, or "fussy eaters." In reality, they are better tasters than the rest of the population and need a smaller amount of a given flavor to get the same response. What tastes slightly bitter to other people tastes far more bitter to them.
Being a supertaster can make it more difficult to enjoy nutritious vegetables that have an astringent, sour, or bitter taste. Throughout this book, I describe ways to mask bitter flavors or to prevent them from developing in the first place. I also highlight the foods that have a mild flavor and are also unusually rich in nutrients.
Since the 1990s, packages of "triple-washed" salad greens have been very popular in US markets. Forty percent of the salad greens now grown in California are cut up and packed into bags. To make a salad from packaged greens, all you have to do is rip open the bag, dump the greens into a bowl, and anoint them with a ready-made salad dressing. People have been eating more salads as a result.
"California salad" is a general term for a mix of different kinds of lettuce and salad vegetables. Typically, it is sold in a plastic bag or lidded container. The mix can contain hot and spicy greens (arugula, radicchio, mustard greens, and Asian greens), mild lettuces (Bibb lettuce, baby spinach, and oak leaf lettuce), or a combination of the two. Some contain as many as fifteen different vegetables, including less familiar greens and herbs such as chervil, mâche (corn salad), beet greens, and cilantro. All bags of mixed greens, no matter their exact composition, have more phytonutrients than salads made from iceberg or romaine lettuce alone. For maximum health benefits, choose the mix with the highest proportion of red, dark green, or purple-tinged leaves.
Excerpted from Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. Copyright © 2013 Jo Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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