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Jo Robinson: Eating On The Wild Side

Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and teas are rich sources of phytonutrients. Unlike the traditional nutrients (protein, fat, vitamins, minerals), phytonutrients are not “essential” for life, so some people prefer the term “phytochemical”.—USDA Agricultural Research Service

Phytochemicals derived from plants have provided the basis for numerous commercial medications used today for the treatment of a wide range of diseases such as high blood pressure, pain, asthma, and cancers. —Nutrition.gov

Vegetables and fruits are rich sources of antioxidants. There is good evidence that eating a diet that includes plenty of vegetables and fruits is healthy, and official U.S. Government policy urges people to eat more of these foods. Research has shown that people who eat more vegetables and fruits have lower risks of several diseases; however, it is not clear whether these results are related to the amount of antioxidants in vegetables and fruits, to other components of these foods, to other factors in people’s diets, or to other lifestyle choices.—NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

…And, these phytonutrients it is now known, are able to protect us against Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer, and Diabetes, and Obesity and Alzheimer’s Disease. The research is in its beginning, but now we have test tube studies, animal studies, and human studies all lining up, telling us that these compounds are actually essential for optimum health. —Jo Robinson, author of Eating On The Wild Side

Jo Robinson’s new book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health takes careful measure of the last 15 years of scientific research in the fields involving food and nutrition— tens of thousands of individual studies, and boils them down into a sizable number of startling new revelations.

According to Robinson, the scientific research, 250 separate studies that are listed in the back of her book, reveal the many ways that antioxidants and phytonutrient compounds enhance human health, and the importance of eating cultivated varieties of plants and fruits that approximate the nutritional value of their wild ancestors.

Jo Robinson is a veteran journalist, author, and a food activist since high school, who credits her grandmother, an Adelle Davis convert, for teaching her the value of eating healthy foods. It was not until years later that Robinson discovered her grandmother had herself been a food activist in 1910, protesting the USDA’s promotion of white bread over whole wheat bread, and against the sale of coca-cola that reinforced for Robinson that the government and the medical establishment didn’t always know what was best when it came to the subject of human nutrition. For Robinson, it’s up to the individual to make their own informed decisions over which foods to eat.

Eating On The Wild Side is broadly divided into two sections, Vegetables and Fruits, and offers specific guidelines for choosing the most nutritious varieties within these commonly eaten foods.

Her central point is that many of the cultivated foods we eat are less nutritious than their wild counterparts, not just over the last 100 years, but since the dawn of farming 10,000 years ago. Beyond this controversial premise—there is a wealth of fascinating information on which cultivated varieties retain their “wild equivalence” in nutritional value, how to prepare these fresh ingredients to preserve (or enhance) their nutritional content, how to store fresh foods, recipes for making healthy dishes from the recommended high-octane nutritional ingredients, and the latest scientific research on the health benefits of eating foods rich in antioxidants and phytonutrient content.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the latest scientific findings Eating On The Wild Side reveals:

  • The arrangement of a plant’s leaves plays a major role in determining its phytonutrient levels: a lettuce plant with tightly wrapped leaves ( for example, a cabbage) tends to contain very low phytonutrients as compared with open and looseleaf varieties (red looseleaf lettuce contains among the highest levels).
  • The general perception about plants and fruits typically high in phytonutrients is that they are usually rich in skin color, this is not necessarily true. White flesh nectarines contain 5 times more phytonutrient compounds than the yellow flesh variety. In the supermarket, the pale colored artichoke (including the heart) usually contains the highest levels of phytonutrients of any other vegetables. There are 25,000 phytonutrients compounds that have been discovered, only two families of the entire group of fruits and vegetables are colored.
  • To enhance the phytonutrients in lettuce, cut the lettuce into strips and store it in a plastic bag with a few small ventilation holes up to one day for maximum value. The lettuce responds to being torn by releasing more phytonutrient compounds into its leaves. Make sure to eat the lettuce within 2 days to maintain freshness and quality.
  • Cherry tomatoes contain the highest levels of Lycopene, up to 25 times more of this antioxidant than the bigger varieties.
  • Up until the 1970’s when we ate sweet corn, it was 10% sugar. Then a mutant gene in corn was discovered that produced triple the amount of sugar, and now the super-sweet varieties contain up to 40% sugar, as much or more sugar than a snicker (candy) bar. 95% of corn that is eaten today is of the super sweet variety.

Although this is a book easily recommendable to anyone interested in learning how to choose healthier foods to eat, Eating on the Wild Side does require of the reader a trust in the nutritional science to date. Of the 30,000 studies examining the health implications of antioxidants and phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables since 2000, does this relatively new body of knowledge represent a true breakthrough in our understanding of the role these compounds play (at the molecular level) upon human health?

Robinson’s (for the most part) does not describe specific studies she relied upon directly in her book (there are research citations organized by chapter and relevance in the book’s appendix), she is still careful to qualify new information by characterizing the general nature of the study, whether it was a test-tube, animal, or human study where the new information derived. Beyond that (and trust in the author that she selected studies that amassed an established pattern of evidence over time, not merely being of suggestive value)—it’s up to the reader to decide on their own (or investigate further), the relative merits of the voluminous health claims offered in the book.

As Jo Robinson stated during our interview when asked if some may find portions of her book not convincing, she acknowledged the book does contain controversial information— but even at the least, it shows people how to choose varieties of fruits and vegetables that are more nutritious to eat.

If, on no other merit, Jo Robinson’s book generates public awareness of the importance of eating (and growing) nutritionally rich food varieties—and less emphasis on production yields alone—the better for us all.

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