2/13/14

Why is corn so sweet?

Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health is a must-read for anyone interested in eating more nutritiously. Author Jo Robinson has compiled 10 years of research and data from historical documents, scientific journals, nutritional studies, academia, and other referenced sources to present a simple guide to choosing the most nutritious vegetables and fruit as part of our everyday diet.

This book explains how the wild ancestors of today's common fruits and vegetables were far more healthful than our choices today. Natural selectivity and the intervention by hunter-gatherers, farmers, scientists, and big business agriculture have bred nutrients out, often in favor of other qualities. Aren't these supposed to be the most healthy parts of our diets? Modern varieties are less bitter, not so chewy, larger, or in other ways more appealing to the human palate. They ship better and farther, ripen more evenly, or grow to a uniform size, making commercial successes. But science can now measure micro nutrients and analysis shows that these selective interventions have also depleted essential phyto-nutrients (ie. nutritional value in plant substances) from today's popular and most widely grown and marketed fruits and veggies.

Still, there are so many types of fruits and vegetables and so many varieties within each type, that - armed with the knowledge from this book - we can still fill our plates with the most nutritious choices. With each chapter concentrating on one vegetable, Robinson shares info and tips such as:
  • how the vegetable or fruit evolved from its wild ancestor plants
  • how our mega food industry grows, harvests, ripens, stores and delivers produce
  • specific varieties which are the most nutritious and why
  • what parts of the veggie or fruit you should eat
  • how to select, buy, clean, and store the freshest choices
  • the shelf life of phytonutrients
  • good alternatives to some of the most "popular" vegetables and fruit
  • how to prepare, cut, cook and eat to maintain the most nutrients (some recipes included)

This book is a real eye-opener. Without even considering genetically modified foods (GMOs), Robinson's  accounts of how our crops have been and are currently being mutated, modified, hybridized, and treated are astonishing, and, in some cases, disturbing to me. Check these tidbits:

CORN: 95% of the sweet corn grown today traces back to two mutant strains, one of which occurred when scientists exposed corn seeds to intense radiation during atomic bomb tests in the Marshall Islands in 1946. A geneticist later discovered, rather by accident, that this resulted in an intense "sweetness" to the corn kernel, and crossed it with other corn varieties to create a viable plant.

GRAPES: Since the 1960s, Thompson grapes, the common seedless green grapes sold at supermarkets, have been grown with the spraying of a plant hormone called gibberellic acid, for the sole purpose of elongating the grape and making it 75% larger than normal. Our grapes are "gibbed."

ORANGES, TOMATOES, BANANAS & OTHERS:  Many of our fresh produce selections are picked long before ripening, subjected to gassing in warehouses to make their skins turn the color of ripeness, then sold to us as fresh picked. I've cringed when reading labels on oranges which also confess to "added color."

Read this book (I'm starting through it a second time, taking notes now) and you'll learn things like:
  • currants are a healthy alternative to raisins
  • red and pink grapefruit are sweeter and nutritionally better than white varieties
  • 2000 types of bananas are grown worldwide, but Cavendish is the only one commonly sold in the USA
  • more mangoes are eaten daily around the world than apples
  • why dried plums are the new prunes
  • broccoli needs to be eaten soon after harvest to preserve its cancer-fighting properties
  • canned blueberries are better for you than fresh ones
Sweet potatoes I grew in '13 (clockwise): All Purple, Beauregard, and O'Henry
 I just finished the book, and I've been changing my vegetable choices based upon what I've learned from Eating on the Wild Side. I selected the varieties to plant in my new asparagus bed based on Robinson's recommendations. I've tried and enjoyed a new recipe for Garlic Roasted Cabbage. I've developed a delicious black bean soup recipe, made in my pressure cooker, and a yummy recipe for Braised Red Cabbage (I'll share these soon). I'm adding Haas avocados to more dishes - when they are not too expensive! I tried and like dried plums and even chopped some fine to add to my granola, discovering a tasty and nutritious alternative to raisins in future recipes. I am giving more points to the "all purple" sweet potatoes I grew last season, even though they are a bit drier when cooked than the typical orange-fleshed varieties. I understand better why picking your own garden varieties and buying from local farmers markets is so advantageous over buying supermarket produce. Do I prefer eating a pink lady to a granny smith apple? Sure, but my future choices will definitely to be swayed by what I've just read.

Thanks to my "wildside" friend Cathy for recommending this book to me! Put it on your reading list soon, and start getting more health benefits from the fruits and vegetables you eat.

View a video interview with the author, Jo Robinson.