We are getting better at producing sweet tasting food. Farmers have been breeding ever more palatable fruit and vegetables for 10,000 years. Scientists have been speeding up this process for the past century.
Our food today is more pleasurable than what our ancestors had to eat. It’s generally more tender and less bitter. It is increasingly higher in sugar and starch.
But as we bred taste into our food we unwittingly bred out nutrition. Ever since we stopped foraging for wild plants, we have been getting fewer and fewer phytonutrients from our food. These are the compounds that could help us manage the diseases of civilization -- diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and dementia.
It’s too late for us to return to foraging for more than a tiny part of what we eat. I sometimes pick wild raspberries and dandelion greens along a trail, but never get enough for a full meal.
Instead, we can choose those fruits and vegetables that retain much of the nutritional content of their wild ancestors. We can’t all go Stalking the Wild Asparagus that Euell Gibbons wrote about in his 1962 bestseller about living off the land. But we can go “eating on the wild side,” which Jo Robinson writes about in her new book of that title.
“We can choose those select varieties of fruits and vegetables that have retained much of the nutritional content of their wild ancestors,” Ms. Robinson writes. “One of the most important discoveries of twenty-first-century food science is that there are vast nutritional differences among the many varieties of a given fruit or vegetable.”
Eating on the Wild Side just came out a week ago today, but it’s already making a big splash. After a correspondent alerted me to Ms. Robinson’s article, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” in the May 25 issue of The New York Times, I asked her publisher, Little, Brown and Company, to send me a review copy. As soon as I got it, I devoured the book, all of its 408 pages.
This new book is both important and interesting. Whether we have diabetes or not, little could be more important than the food we eat. And Eating on the Wild Side is loaded with specific recommendations for selecting, storing, and cooking all the fruits and vegetables that we regularly eat as well as many that are healthier. The recommendations are not the opinion of Jo Robinson. Drawing on her review of more than 600 scientific studies, she lays out a precise roadmap to better eating. She does all this in a fluid writing style that makes Eating on the Wild Side a joy to read.
I have been studying nutrition and have been writing about it ever since I learned in 1994 that I have diabetes. I already knew a little of what Ms. Robinson writes in her new book, but she taught me a whole lot more.
For example, my regular salad for lunch no longer includes baby spinach. That’s because, as she writes, “Spinach plants with midsize leaves have more phytonutrients than baby spinach or plants with larger leaves.” My salads now include more arugula, and I’ve added dandelion greens, two bitter greens that are therefore higher in phytonutrients. I am now regularly eating scallions, particularly the green tubular leaves, which are an even better source of phytonutrients than the bulbs. Like Ms. Robinson, I used to consider artichoke hearts to be a guilty pleasure. Now we know that they are loaded with antioxidants as well as being low in calories, and they too have become a regular addition to my salad.