How to Make Our Food Great Again!

It’s never too late to improve your diet. Age doesn’t matter. Better health habits can turn back the clock and reverse the aging process!

I’ve always believed in eating clean, good food for my own health, my family’s health and the health of our planet. I became a vegetarian at 18 because I couldn’t imagine killing an animal myself, so I decided not to pay anyone to kill them for me. Right away, I started adding protein powder to my diet, just to be sure I had enough. I believe Hippocrates was right when he said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Now the world we live in might make that a bit difficult. My husband came across an article from a few years back in the New York Times called “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food” by Jo Robinson, author of the book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. It explains:

“Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges:  cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.”

Jo Robinson explains that people have been selecting plants that are high in starch and sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants for more than 400 generations. This has happened for a couple of reasons:

  1. Because of the preference for the sweeter taste of fruits and vegetables. But many of the healthiest plants for us to eat are savory and have a more bitter taste.
  2. She says early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These types of plants provided more energy and were more pleasurable to eat. They provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle (which we hardly have today).

In addition to that, Robinson says:

“The United States Department of Agriculture exerts far more effort developing disease-resistant fruits and vegetables than creating new varieties to enhance the disease resistance of consumers. In fact, I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content.

“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.”

So, we could actually put our society’s technological expertise to work on behalf of the consumer at long last. It’s not too late to breed new varieties of fruits and vegetables with increased health benefits for all of us. After all, the people who run the food industry have the same health needs as we do!

eating on the wild side

Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side, shows how to choose modern food varieties that approach the nutritional content of wild plants but that also please the modern palate. She explains that many of these newly identified varieties can be found in supermarkets and farmer’s markets. She also introduces simple, scientifically proven methods of preparation that enhance their flavor and nutrition.

Another important point in her article, though, explains how super-sweet corn, the most popular type, was born out of a cloud of radiation. In the 19th century, farmers took a more active role in breeding new varieties of crops. Beginning in the 1920’s, geneticists exposed corn seeds to radiation to learn more about the arrangement of plant genes. Eventually, it was discovered that the seeds had sweetened. Since the 1920’s, foods have been irradiated to preserve them.

Despite the changes that occur in the composition of the foods irradiated and in the bodies of consumers who eat them, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration says that:

“Ionizing radiation can extend shelf life and improve the quality and safety of foods.  National and international organizations and regulatory agencies have concluded that irradiated food is safe and wholesome…

“Labeling of irradiated foods…is undergoing reevaluation in the US.  If whole foods have been irradiated, FDA requires that the label bear the radura symbol and the phrase ‘treated with radiation’ or ‘treated by irradiation.’  Yet, if irradiated ingredients are added to foods that have not been irradiated, no special labeling is required on retail packages…

“Because the words ‘radiation’ and ‘irradiation’ may have negative connotations, the labeling requirement has been viewed as an obstacle to consumer acceptance.  Many in the food industry believe that an alternative wording, e.g. ‘electronically pasteurized,’ would be helpful.  In 1997, Congress attempted to resolve these issues in two ways.  First, it mandated that the FDA could not require print size on a label statement to be larger than that required for ingredients and second, it directed the FDA to reconsider the label requirement and to seek public comment on possible changes.  The FDA had not in fact mandated a type size but did require a statement that would be ‘prominent and conspicuous.’  In response to this congressional directive, the FDA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) in 1999 seeking public comment on the labeling of irradiated food, particularly on whether the current label may be misleading by implying a warning and invited suggestions of alternative labeling that would inform consumers without improperly alarming them.  Thousands of comments were received, with a large number compiled into a categorical database for further examination by the CFSAN’s Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements.  This leading office for labeling policy has not yet determined whether there will be a change in labeling requirements.”



Reading Robinson’s book, Eating on the Wild Side, is a good place to start. Here are some of her suggestions on how we can start to recoup the loss of nutrients in our foods:

  • Select corn with deep yellow kernels. To recapture the lost anthocyanins and beta-carotene, cook with blue, red or purple cornmeal, which is available in some supermarkets and on the internet. Make a stack of blue cornmeal pancakes for Sunday breakfast and top with maple syrup.
  • Look for arugula in the lettuce section of the supermarket. Arugula, also called salad rocket, is very similar to its wild ancestor. These greens are rich in cancer-fighting compounds and higher in antioxidants than many other lettuces.
  • Scallions, or green onions, resemble wild onions and are just as good for you. The green portions of scallions are more nutritious than the white bulbs, so use the entire plant.
  • Experiment with using fresh herbs. They have long been valued for their intense flavors and aroma, which is why they have not been given a flavor makeover. Since they’ve been left alone, their phytonutrient content has remained intact. Add one cup of mixed chopped Italian parsley and basil to a pound of your grass-fed beef or poultry or meat alternative to make “herb-burgers.”

Some things that come to my mind are:

  • Planting our own gardens with heritage seeds. These are seeds that have been passed down from the past before the breeding and irradiating of seeds and plants. You can most likely find them in any seed catalog. The Burpee seed company describes these Heirloom Seeds and Plants as:  “VINTAGE AND DELICIOUS…Old-fashioned vegetables and flowers that have been passed down through the generations. Heirloom seeds are old-time favorites that produce plants with the same traits planting after planting, season after season, generation after generation. Some heirlooms date back 100 years or more.”
All Heirlooms at Burpee
  • Eating ancient grains. These are the grains of our ancestors. They include spelt, Khorasan wheat (Kamut), millet, barley, teff, oats, freekeh, bulgur, sorghum, farro, einkorn, and emmer; and the pseudocereals quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and chia. By the way, I am happy to tell you that I have enjoyed ingredients and recipes from Hello Fresh that included ancient grains such as freekeh and farro. 
  • Buying organic foods whenever possible.
  • Reading labels. Whatever food packaging labels do or do not contain, we can still read for nutrient content and see what else we can discern from labeling.
  • Demanding the kind of labeling we want to see on our food packaging. Being a concerned and active consumer is a way to protect ourselves. Let your voice be heard!
  • Keeping informed. In order to speak up, we need to know what is or is not being done, what we want to see improved, and who to contact about it.

What do you have to add? Are there more things you can think of that can help us to eat healthy foods packed with nutrients? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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