Here’s a photo of my veggie garden from today. I know what you’re thinking: anti-oxidants, phytonutrients, anti-cancer, fountain of youth!
Not so fast. A recent NYT essay by Jo Robinson, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” disabuses us of our illusions about the healthfulness of much modern produce. It is practically gospel today that if we “eat the rainbow” and load up on leafy greens in particular, we will have an edge against the four big ones: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. But according to Robinson, “unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.”
For example: “Wild dandelions, once a springtime treat for Native Americans, have seven times more phytonutrients than spinach, which we consider a ‘superfood.’ A purple potato native to Peru has 28 times more cancer-fighting anthocyanins than common russet potatoes. One species of apple has a staggering 100 times more phytonutrients than the Golden Delicious displayed in our supermarkets.”
Robinson traces the de-nutrifying to the fact that, long ago, the healthiest plants were more bitter, sour and astringent, and that once we realized we could breed crops for sweetness and starchiness, we sacrificed health to pleasure. She talks at length about the transformation of corn, from ancestral Teosinte to today’s “supersweet” corn, more than 10x sweeter (now approaching 40% sugar content) but immensely less nutritious. The USDA is busy breeding more disease-resistant varieties of crops—a good thing—but unfortunately has paid zero attention to these crops’ nutritional profile.
Robinson does offer encouragement, however. For corn, she suggests we look for deeper yellow, as well as colored (blue, red, and purple) cornmeal. Arugula is apparently quite similar to its healthy ancestor, and scallions (especially the green part) are just as healthful as wild onions and far more nutritious than regular ones. Finally, herbs have not been terribly tinkered with and their “phytonutrient content has remained intact.”
In sum: “We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.” I look forward to learning more from her forthcoming book, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.