'Humble' Foods Are Great for Your Health (and Soil Health for Other Plants)

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • One of the most memorable meals I ever enjoyed was on vacation in 2001. Mom and I were travelling in New England and ended up making reservations at the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire for a communal dinner. The staff gave us options of beef, chicken or fish, or vegetarian meals. Mom picked the chicken while I went with the vegetarian choice since we had just walked through the village’s acreage and seen the produce that was going to be used with our own eyes. That dinner with those freshly picked vegetables reawakened and reacquainted my taste buds to the joys of produce and introduced me to the concept of local foods.

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    In the time since, I’ve kept an eye out for leaders of this movement. One of those is Dan Barber, the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The award-winning chef has focused on bringing the principles of good farming to the table. He did a 2010 TedTalk presentation entitled, “How I Fell in Love with a Fish” that made me think about sustainable food.


    In a recent New York Times column, Barber talks about how the next step in the food sustainability effort (as well as “eating local”) is to embrace lesser known crops. He points out that approximately 80 percent of Americans say they prioritize sustainability when purchasing food, but adds that corn and soy make up more than 50 percent of harvested acres in the United States.


    Barber describes how some farmers use specific crop rotation in order to build the soil and also to develop flavor in the crops. For instance, one farmer uses grains and legumes that are less coveted by consumers as well as cover crops to build the quality in the soil before he plants emmer wheat, which is also known as farro. Barber’s point is that these less well known plants – which previously were relegated to feed livestock – not only help build up the soil but are a great addition to your diet.


    Here are four examples of these types of plants:

    • Mustard – Mustard is often plowed back into the soil and helps reduce pest and disease problems for future crops. The plant’s seeds are used to make the condiment, mustard. The leaves –known as mustard greens – also are edible. Mustard greens help lower cholesterol and offer a lot of phytonutrients that may help prevent cancer. These greens also have anti-inflammatory properties.
    • Soybeans – This plant fixes nitrogen, which is an essential micronutrient that is needed for growth, into the soil. Soybeans are high in protein, have antioxidant properties and also can play a beneficial role in supporting cardiovascular health. However, the George Mateljan Foundation points out that while soybeans are commonly eaten by residents in countries such as Japan, China and Korea, U.S. adults may not metabolize these legumes in the same way. Therefore, I’d encourage you to add these legumes slowly to your diet if you are not currently using them.
    • Kidney beans – This plant also fixes nitrogen into the soil. Kidney beans contain fiber that helps lower cholesterol and maintains even blood sugar levels. Kidney beans also help lower the risk of heart attack because of their high fiber content as well as their supply of magnesium and folate. Kidney beans are a good source of iron, which is crucial for energy, as well as thiamin, which is necessary for brain cells and cognitive function.
    • Cowpeas – This plant also fixes nitrogen into the soil. These legumes often are known as black-eyed peas, crowder peas and southern peas. A one-cup serving offers 45 percent of daily fiber and 24 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron. Cowpeas also are a good source of protein, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus and copper, as well as a very good source of folate and manganese.

    In his New York Times column, Barber points out that consumers often opt to buy the seasonal crops like asparagus, tomatoes and zucchini when visiting the farmer’s market and ignore these other “humble” crops. Based on Barber’s suggestion, I plan to try to expand my purchases to include these other foods that are not only good for the body, but also for soil health in the production of other foods.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:


  • Barber, D. (2014). What farm-to-table got wrong. New York Times.

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    George Matlejan Foundation. (ND). Kidney beans.


    George Mateljan Foundation. (ND). Mustard greens.


    George Mateljan Foundation. (ND). Soybeans.


    Self Nutrition Data. (ND). Cowpeas, common (blackeyes, crowder, southern), mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt.

Published On: May 20, 2014