I grew up in the midwest where I learned there is a proper way to cook and eat corn on the cob: first, you put a pot of water on the stove and when it is at a full boil, you run out to your garden, harvest three ears of corn, stripping off the husks while running back to the pot of boiling water. The corn is gingerly placed into the pot (to avoid hot splashes) and then you wait 8 minutes, remove them and roll them on a stick of butter, and salt as desired, and then chow down.
The quality of the corn depended on how fast you could run back to the pot of boiling water. It was an odd lesson for me to learn since we didn’t have a garden nor did we grow corn. But it highlighted what many believe to be true about fresh produce: the fresher it is, the better-tasting and more nutritious it is.
One of the most powerful reasons for growing your own food is to benefit from the highest levels of nutrition possible: crops can be prepared within minutes of harvesting from your garden. The next best place to get the freshest produce is at farmers’ markets: the farmers harvest either that morning or the night before the market.
But most of us buy from grocery stores where much of the fresh produce has been transported on average 1500 miles and could be 3-5 days old by the time we purchase it. Because of this long-distance distribution system, researchers have identified that some produce is more nutritious when canned or flash frozen.
Given the rising costs of food, it makes sense that we should be spending our money on fruits and vegetables that offer the highest nutritive quality of our food. Right?
How can we know the nutritional values of the food you buy? And what influences the nutrition levels of our food?
In 2014 I read a book titled Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson and it has influenced the kinds of crops I grow and purchase, how I preserve and store them, and the best way to cook them to retain the highest amount of nutrients. Though the book is 8 years old, I consider it a good reference source.
How Nutritious Is Our Food?
We know that soil health is directly related to the health and nutrition of our food. Harvesting at the right time plays an important role and proper storage from harvest to our kitchen is also important. But one factor seldom discussed is the actual variety of the crop we are eating.
The decision of what we eat was made long before we find ourselves standing in the produce aisle of our nearest grocery store. Sadly, none of the decision-making around the industrial production of our food involves its nutritional contribution to our bodies. Once the wild foods of our landscape, today’s fruits and vegetables have been through countless genetic manipulations over thousands of years of agriculture. The most recent focus (the last 80 years) of those genetic experiments has been to support a desired taste and ease of handling: we wanted sweeter and longer-lasting fruits and vegetables and the food industry wanted uniformity, packability, and slow-t0-show decay.
The cost of our desires was a loss of phytonutrients.
What is a phytonutrient?
Phyto comes from the Greek word phyton which means “plant.” Over millions of years, plants developed “an arsenal of chemical compounds that protect them from insects, disease, damaging ultraviolet light, inclement weather and browsing animals (p.5).” But our choices to alter the plants we eat and feed to the animals we eat have paid a steep price and much of that has been in the loss of nutritional density.
Using the latest research on bio-nutrition, the author tackles much of the conventional wisdom about fruits and vegetables, challenging what we believe about food selection and preparation. Organized by chapters on individual vegetables and fruits commonly eaten in Western culture, Robinson includes tips on buying from the limited varieties found in grocery stores, the lesser-known varieties that you are more likely to find at farmers’ markets, and lastly, ones that food gardeners can grow.
The author also examines some of the common myths about nutrition density and punctures them with modern nutritional research. I discovered that we believe a lot of things about fresh vegetables and fruit that simply aren’t true. After reading this book, I have changed many of the varieties that I grow each year, and have implemented some of the suggestions for handling and storing fresh produce.
The big takeaway for me as a food grower was to grow more colorful vegetables – bring on the purple and orange varieties! The deeper the color, the more nutritious. The coloration of plants is created by phytochemicals which are bioactive compounds that offer a diversity of health benefits.
Grow More Purple & Red Varieties
Historically, many of the vegetables and fruits that we eat were far more colorful: potatoes were reddish-purple, carrots were purple and corn was a rainbow of colors before we started tinkering with their genetics. Over the centuries, the reasons for such tinkering ranged widely but since the mid-20th century, industrial agriculture has focused on consistency, appearance, and ease of handling, not nutrition.
Just to give you a taste (pun intended), Robinson’s website, EatWild.com offers a list of 12 tips she recommends based on the latest (at the time of her writing) nutritional research.
- Tearing Romaine and Iceberg lettuce the day before you eat it quadruples its antioxidant content.
- The healing properties of garlic can be maximized by slicing, chopping, mashing, or pressing it and then letting it rest for a full 10 minutes before cooking.
- The yellowest corn in the store has 35 times more beta-carotene than white corn.
- Cooking potatoes and then chilling them for about 24 hours before you eat them (even if you reheat them) turns a high-glycemic vegetable into a low- or moderate-glycemic vegetable. Paradoxically, combining potatoes with oil (French fry alert!) helps keep them from disrupting your metabolism.
- Carrots are more nutritious cooked than raw. When cooked whole, they have 25 percent more falcarinol, a cancer-fighting compound, than carrots that have been sectioned before cooking.
- Beet greens are more nutritious than the beets themselves.
- The smaller the tomato, the more nutrients it contains. Deep red tomatoes have more antioxidants than yellow, gold, or green tomatoes.
- The most nutritious tomatoes in the supermarket are not in the produce aisles—they are in the canned goods section. Processed tomatoes, whether canned or cooked into a paste or sauce, are the richest known source of lycopene. They also have the most flavor.
- Storing broccoli wrapped in a plastic bag with tiny pinpricks in it will give you up to 125 percent more antioxidants than if you had stored the broccoli loosely wrapped or in a tightly sealed bag.
- Canned or jarred artichokes are just as nutritious as fresh.
- Thawing frozen berries in the microwave preserve twice as many antioxidants and more vitamin C than thawing them on the counter or inside your refrigerator.
- Ounce per ounce, there is more fiber in raspberries than in bran cereals.
Her website also offers a small list of more nutritious varieties to grow in your home garden. If you enjoy learning about the food we grow and eat, then this book is worth a read. Throughout the book, you will learn about plant chemistry, ethnobotany, and how industrial agriculture developed a food system with little to no concern for nutrition.