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Could ‘Eating Wild’ Be The Missing Link to Optimum Health?


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I’m really happy to have Jo Robinson on the show today. I recently read her book, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, and was impressed by the rigor of her research and the health implications of her work. It’s no surprise that eating whole fruits and vegetables is an important part of a healthy diet, and most people know that local, organic produce is more nutrient-dense than conventional varieties. But Jo’s book reveals another important consideration when it comes to choosing fruits and vegetables: whether they are “wild” or cultivated varieties. We’ve literally bred the nutrients out of much of our modern produce in an effort to make them sweeter.

Don’t miss this one, and make sure to buy Jo’s book. I learned a lot reading it and we’ve put many of her suggestions into practice.

In this episode, we cover:

2:35 Why Jo Robinson spent 10 years reviewing 6,000 studies about food
4:33 How the transition from wild plants to cultivated plants affected nutrient density
6:13 Why did we start cultivating wild plants in the first place?
13:43 Simple steps to maximize nutrient density from ‘wild foods’
30:37 The most nutrient dense fruits and vegetables for optimum health

Links We Discuss

Full Text Transcript:

Steve Wright:  Hey, everyone.  Welcome to another episode of the Revolution Health Radio Show.  This show is brought to you by ChrisKresser.com, and I’m your host, Steve Wright.  My website is SCDLifestyle.com.  But with me is integrative medical practitioner and healthy skeptic, Chris Kresser.  So Chris, how’s your day going?

Chris Kresser:  It’s good.  I’m taking it a little easy today.  We had the big pre-launch of my book this morning.  Everyone will be hearing this a week after that.  And of course, three things went wrong at the last minute, so we were up late last night trying to figure it out, and it all went off smoothly this morning, but I’m a little tired from that but feeling good otherwise.  I’m really excited that my book is out there now ready for pre-order, and the fun is really beginning!

Steve Wright:  Yeah, I hear bringing those new products to the market and releasing those new things always goes just smooth as can be, smooth sailing.

Chris Kresser:  Right, exactly.

Steve Wright:  Well, congratulations!  This is a big first step, and it’s like entering into the foothills, right?  You’re about to climb the mountains.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.  We’ll be talking about it more in the future, but today we’re excited to have another great guest to talk to, Jo Robinson, who wrote the book called Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, really fascinating, and we’re going to talk to her in a few minutes here.

Steve Wright:  OK, well, before we bring Jo on, I want to tell everyone about Beyond Paleo.  If you’re new to the Revolution Health Radio Show, you’re new to the paleo diet, or you’re just interested in optimizing your health, you’re going to want to check out what over 30,000 other people have signed up for.  What it is, is it’s Chris’ free 13-part email series called Beyond Paleo, and in each of these emails, he’s going to send you his best tips and tricks for burning fat, boosting energy, and preventing and reversing disease without drugs.  So if this is something of interest, which, like I said, over 30,000 other people have already signed up for it, including myself, head over to ChrisKresser.com, look for the big red box, and put your name and email in that box, and Chris will send you the first free email later today.

OK, Chris, is Jo ready?

Why Jo Robinson Spent 10 Years Reviewing 6,000 Studies about Food

Chris Kresser:  I think we’re going to patch her in.  Let’s do it.  So Jo, tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in this subject.  I’ve been aware of your website, EatWild, for some time, so I’m just curious to hear more about where you’re coming from.

Jo Robinson:  I have been interested in food and nutrition since high school.  I wrote my first cookbook in high school.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Jo Robinson:  And when I was in college, I was doping all of my strung-out friends with B vitamins and recuperative vitamin C, and that’s because I had a grandmother who lived with us who was a food activist.  She was actually protesting white bread and Coca-Cola in 1910.

Chris Kresser:  That’s amazing.

Jo Robinson:  Yeah, so I got imprinted with this at an early age, and I’ve been interested in natural foods, whole foods, and health.

Chris Kresser: Your book, for listeners I mentioned it earlier on, but it is called Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, and I’ve read a couple of articles about it, and I actually just heard you today on Fresh Air as I was driving home for this interview!

Jo Robinson:  Yes!

Chris Kresser:  You mentioned you reviewed over 6000 peer-reviewed studies in writing this book, and it’s been 10 years in the making.  That is quite a project.

Jo Robinson:  It was a real tour de force for me.  I loved doing it.  I just kept finding more and more nuggets of information that were in these academic journals, good information, but nobody was bringing it to the public.  Every day I’d search through journals and find more and more that I thought consumers should be using right now.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  Kind of like a treasure hunt, huh?

Jo Robinson:  It was very much like a treasure hunt.  It still is.  It’s very much like that for me.

How the Transition from Wild Plants to Cultivated Plants Affected Nutrient Density

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  I can definitely relate to that.  A lot of my listeners, of course, are familiar with… we talk about ancestral health and the switch from a hunter-gatherer type of lifestyle to agriculture.  And of course, that switch brought a lot of benefits, but it was not without cost, and your book really focuses on one of perhaps the most significant costs from a health perspective, which was how the transition from wild plants to cultivated plants affects nutrient density and nutrient variety.  So tell us a little bit more about that transition and what happened and why it happened.

Jo Robinson:  What’s so interesting about this whole field, about the difference between wild plants in terms of their polyphenols or phytonutrients and our modern ones is it’s been only within the last 15 or 20 years that we’ve had the technology to understand and measure these differences and in the field of medical research to know what these phytonutrients are doing for us.  And so I was just alarmed, really, by the differences in phytonutrients, which are these plant compounds which are beneficial to the plant first and foremost but also to ourselves, in what we see in the stores.  In some cases, there would be a hundred-fold difference.  So a wild plant might have a hundred times more of these phytonutrients than what we’re eating today.  This is an astounding difference with all kinds of implications for health.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it’s almost unbelievable.

Jo Robinson:  Yes.  Yeah.

Why Did We Start Cultivating Wild Plants in the First Place?

Chris Kresser:  And this decision to begin cultivating wild plants was like, I think, many decisions that happen along the course of human evolution.  It started out seeming like a good idea but then had some unforeseen consequences, so why did our ancestors start doing that in the first place?

Jo Robinson:  I think we don’t stop and think about this, the fact that there are 7 million species of animals on the planet and we’re the only ones of all of them who have walked away from our wild diet and created a new menu.  And the reason that we did it is because of our large brains!  We had the ability to foresee the future and plan for it and enormous capabilities and great powers of observation.  And 10 or 12 thousand years ago, we realized that there were some plants that tasted a lot better to us than others and that were much more productive, easier to harvest and gather, and so basically we just looked at each other and said:  We can do better than this.  And from that point on, that’s 400 generations, we have continued to select and breed plants ever tastier, ever larger, and unwittingly lower in key nutrients.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.  And the reason that they taste better is that a lot of the most nutrient-dense foods and the foods that have these phytonutrients and phytochemicals that we’re only now starting to understand the benefits of often have bitter and astringent types of flavors, don’t they?

Jo Robinson:  They do, and it turns out to be the most potent ones.

Chris Kresser:  Uh-huh.  Yeah, I studied Chinese medicine and herbology, and of course, in herbology that’s the case.  Some of the most potent, powerful botanicals in the pharmacopoeia are the ones that you can hardly choke down because they’re so bitter!

Jo Robinson:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s really interesting.  So it’s another kind of side effect of this transition to an agricultural diet, not just a change in the actual foods that we’re eating, but a change in the quality of the same foods, from corn, which was hardly even recognizable as corn, as you point out… is it teosinte?  Is that how you pronounce it?

Jo Robinson:  Mm-hmm, right.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  Maybe you could talk a little bit about that transition.  That’s pretty fascinating.

Jo Robinson:  Sure.  The wild ancestor of our modern corn is teosinte, a bushy plant that has 5 to 12 kernels per spike, and it didn’t even have cobs with silk and all of these things wrapped around, and it was just these spikes of grain that were in hard cases, as hard as an acorn.  The inside part or kernel was about 2% sugar and 30% protein, and over the millennia, we have created a plant that is so different, it’s almost impossible to relate it to our modern white corn.  Super sweet corn is 4% protein and between 30% and 45% sugar.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Jo Robinson:  And the other thing that we’ve done is that we’ve bred out all those colors.  A lot of the ancestral corn was blue or black, red, orange, dark yellow, and those colors are indicative of the anthocyanin content.  Anthocyanins are being investigated for their ability to fight cancer, obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammation, early onset Alzheimer’s.  They’re incredibly important nutrients, and we just took corn and blanched it, basically.  Now what we have is either white or pale yellow corn, so we’ve lost those anthocyanins, we’ve lost the protein, and we’ve had this huge infusion of sugar.

Chris Kresser:  How many of these varieties are – I’m not sure if you came across this in the research – but for example, I was listening to a program about rice and all the different varieties of rice that there used to be and how farmers knew exactly which varieties of rice to grow in certain situations.  Some were more resilient to drought, some were more resilient in flooding situations, and the program was talking about how many of these varieties have been lost forever.  How many of these wild plants do we still have access to, the seeds?  How much of it has been lost, and how much of it can we recover?

Jo Robinson:  Most of those wild plants, the ancestral plants, still exist.  They exist in small pockets in their area of origin.  Wild tomatoes came from the Andes, and if you were to go up in the flanks of the Andes, you would still find the very same wild tomatoes that were harvested by hunter-gatherers and hundreds of more varieties, just many, many different nuances of color and flavor and nutrient content.  And as you say, we’ve just winnowed them down to very few.  In some cases, we only have one variety in the supermarket, like our banana.  We have this one variety that everybody eats, and we think this is what the banana is.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Jo Robinson:  There are 400 different varieties that are being eaten around the world, and in this country we just have this pale white one that is extremely low in carotenoids.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.  So what are some other examples?  You mentioned already corn, of course, which was a really dramatic transition, and bananas as you just mentioned, too.  Are there any others that come to your mind in terms of a really dramatic difference from the wild varieties to the current varieties?  And then on the other side of that coin, are there some examples of foods that haven’t changed that much that someone would encounter at the grocery store or at the farmers’ market?

Jo Robinson:  Most of our fruits and vegetables have changed dramatically.  Apples are a good example.  Most of the wild apples in the world are as small as cherries, and they have these long stems that are two or three times longer than the fruit, so they look like cherries, and since they were so small, they were mostly seeds and very bitter.  We would not eat those apples today, but the hunter-gatherers all around the world did, and some of them, there’s this one variety that still grows in Nepal, it has 400 times more antioxidants than some of the ones in our supermarket.  It’s astonishing, really.

Simple Steps to Maximize Nutrient Density from ‘Wild Foods’

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.  We’ll come back to that.  I know in your book you mention some strategies to maximize nutrient density using stuff that is available, vegetables and fruits.  We’ll come back to that towards the end.  I wanted to ask you a little bit about some other aspects of modern food processing and industrialized food production that negatively affect nutrient quality.  We’re talking about cultivation here, but you mention some other aspects of the industrialized food system that decrease nutrient quality, like when a food is picked and when it’s actually eaten, for example, or how it’s stored or processed.

Jo Robinson:  Yes.  We didn’t know – these studies are so new; they’re 10 years old, 15 years old – that freshness is not just about flavor, but it’s about antioxidant activity.  Plants, once they’re picked, they’re not really dead.  They continue to respire, and they burn up their antioxidants and their stored sugars by the hour.  And some plants burn it up much more rapidly than others, and it turns out that the ones that are most highly recommended for health – and this is asparagus and broccoli and kale and spinach, mushrooms, arugula, lettuce – they respire so rapidly that within two or three days of harvest they might have half or even less of the antioxidants.  They’re more bitter, and they don’t have their natural sugars, so they don’t taste as good, and they’re much less better for us, and we just assumed, well, if they could arrive in the grocery store and still look fresh – I mean, the whole thing is now how can we grow varieties that will look fresh even though they’ve been shipped for a week and in a warehouse from a week to six months and still look fresh?  And they’ve figured that out, but what they haven’t done is they haven’t held onto the sugars, the flavor, and especially the antioxidants.

Chris Kresser:  The nutrients, right.  Yeah, we’ve talked a lot on this show about the importance of eating locally from this perspective.  You can easily imagine a situation where you go to the grocery store, and you pick out some broccoli.  That broccoli has been picked… What’s the average amount of time?  Is there an average, or does it vary a lot?  If you see some broccoli on a shelf, how long has it been there?

Jo Robinson:  This one study that looked at the difference in the total nutrient content of broccoli when it’s first picked and when it’s in the supermarket an average of about seven weeks later, it found that after that seven weeks they fed it to rats in all these different models of cancer and cardiovascular disease and found out that at the end of that seven weeks, which is when we buy it from a supermarket, it had lost its ability to cancer and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.  It’s scary.

Chris Kresser:  It is, yeah.  And very few people know about that.  There’s kind of a perception now that if you get organic broccoli from the supermarket it’s going to be more nutrient dense, but the reality is when it’s picked and how quickly it’s consumed is far, far more important than whether it’s organic or not organic, isn’t it?  From a nutrient perspective.

Jo Robinson:  It is for many fruits and vegetables.  Yeah, uh-huh.  And when you think it was only in probably 1900 that we went away from local production and local consumption.  This is a new phenomenon.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Jo Robinson:  And I think that our chronic health problems are a reflection of that.

Chris Kresser:  So really, the ideal scenario would be, of course, growing broccoli in your own backyard and harvesting it and eating it that same day.  But short of that, at the very least, if you have access to a farmers’ market, going to the market, picking up the broccoli, and then eating it that day or maybe the next day as one of the first vegetables you eat because you know after reading your book that it’s one that loses its nutrient value as quickly or more quickly than most others.

Jo Robinson:  That’s right.  And let’s say you do buy them in the supermarket, which most people do buy these rapidly respiring fruits and vegetables, you need to eat them first.  They eat them the night that you buy them or the next day, and you let the apples and potatoes and carrots last longer because they’re not burning up their antioxidants so rapidly.

Chris Kresser:  Right.  Yeah, that’s so important because, I think, a lot of people without this knowledge, they buy the broccoli, they put it in a drawer in the refrigerator, and they might eat it a week later, perhaps, and think that they’re getting the same benefit that they would if they would’ve eaten it right away.

Jo Robinson:  Yeah, like kale, it’s pushed to the back!

Chris Kresser:  Right!

Jo Robinson:  And you don’t see it until it’s way too late!

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  So speaking of this, storage, you mention a few different interesting points about how to properly store certain fruits and vegetables to maximize their nutrient value.  Maybe you could give us a few examples of that.

Jo Robinson:  These rapid respirers, the most nutritious of all fruits and vegetables, we need to do everything we can to stop that oxidation process.  And that means keeping things away from light and oxygen and heat, primarily.  I’ll give you an example about spinach.  Spinach loses its antioxidants within a week, so when you get it and bring it home, you want to put it in a plastic bag, a sealable bag, and press most of the air out of it, seal it.  But then prick it with little holes, like I’d just take a needle or a pin, 10 holes per side – This came from a study.  I’m not inventing this!

Chris Kresser:  Not making it up, yeah!

Jo Robinson:  I’m not making it up.  And what you’ve done is you’ve limited the amount of oxygen that that spinach has access to, so it can’t use up its antioxidants as rapidly.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Jo Robinson:  And it’s also going to keep its sugars longer.  So this one easy trick, this particular study found that if you do this, if you put it in a bag and you prick it with little tiny holes, that you have 125% more antioxidants after just one day.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Jo Robinson:  And you would’ve lost that.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Jo Robinson:  So it’s important to do that if you’re striving for optimum health, which many of us are.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Jo Robinson:  Or if you’re fighting disease.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly.  How about lettuce?  A lot of people, as you point out in the book, one of the few vegetables they eat is iceberg lettuce.  But even people who are health conscious, they tend to eat a lot of salads and lettuce, so what’s the best way to store lettuce and leafy greens when you get them home?

Jo Robinson:  The first step in the process is choosing the right varieties.  It’s no surprise that iceberg lettuce is really low in nutrients.  When you’re in the store, there’s this hierarchy of nutrition in lettuce.  After the iceberg comes light green leafy lettuce and then dark green leafy lettuce.  Each of those is more nutritious than the next.  And then green leafy lettuce with brown and orange tinges, and then finally the most nutritious lettuce is red leaf lettuce.  So you veer towards that dark green and especially the red colors.  And then you bring them home and one of the things that you can do – and here’s another bizarre study.  I love these!

Chris Kresser:  Me too!

Jo Robinson:  This particular one found that if you take your lettuce and you rip it up the day before you eat it, so you brought it home from the store and you rinsed it and you dried it.  Rip it into bite-sized pieces, put it in that plastic bag, squeeze the air out, do the pin pricks, and in one day, because you have ripped it up, it will have four times more antioxidants.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Jo Robinson:  And why?  The question is, why?  It’s because, as I said before, that lettuce is still living.  It’s not dead.  And it thinks that it’s being eaten by this big animal when we ripped it up.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Jo Robinson:  And so overnight it’s going to create these compounds, these phytonutrients to protect itself from the next animal that comes along.  And we’ve ripped it up and we’ve just given it the message to make more phytonutrients.  And the next day we get to eat them.

Chris Kresser:  Right.  It’s like a form of hormesis or adaptive, positive stress.

Jo Robinson:  That’s right.

Chris Kresser:  Some of the studies that I’ve read about the beneficial effects of antioxidants in humans are that they’re actually mild pro-oxidants but they invoke our own antioxidant defense system.

Jo Robinson:  Yes, that’s one of the mechanisms.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  That’s really fascinating.  Lettuce, just one thought:  The other thing that you mentioned that I wasn’t aware of about lettuce was that the varieties that are less densely packed together, the looser leafed, are more nutritious.  Is that right?  Did I get that right?

Jo Robinson:  Yes, and it’s that same principle because compared with the head lettuce, which is all wrapped up tight, loose-leaf lettuce has all of its leaves arrayed to the sun.  Well, the sun has UVA/UVB rays, which will destroy that lettuce unless it produces this botanical sunscreen, all these phytonutrients.  So that’s why the loose-leaf lettuce is better for us than the head lettuce because it was stressed, as we were talking about, by sunlight.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Jo Robinson:  So we get all those benefits.

Chris Kresser:  That makes sense.  Let’s talk a little bit about garlic.  You mention in the book that a lot of people are aware of garlic’s antimicrobial properties, but they may not be aware just how powerful those can be and how to maximize those by preparing it properly.

Jo Robinson:  Right.  Something that has impressed me, going to health conferences and reading studies, is that garlic is one of the most potent cancer fighters known.  And it wasn’t known until… I think it was a 2006 study, that if we take garlic, fresh garlic, and if we put it into hot oil or hot foods right away, we destroy its ability to produce allicin, which is the cancer-fighting compound that’s so important in garlic.  This study found that if you simply chop it, press it, dice it, and set it aside for 10 minutes, during that time that its resting it makes copious amounts of this allicin.  And once it’s created, it is not destroyed by heat.

Chris Kresser:  Uh-huh.

Jo Robinson:  So this simple step, anytime we’re cooking with garlic, just press and rest, we will have those benefits we thought we were getting all along.  That’s an example of a nugget that I pulled out that people should have known about.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, yeah.  And it’s not that big of a deal.

Jo Robinson:  No, it’s not.

Chris Kresser:  It’s not that difficult to add that to your routine.  And I’m sure a lot of people who have been chowing raw garlic because they thought that was the only way to get the benefits – and particularly their partners – might be grateful to have this information!  I’m just curious:  Have there been any studies done comparing the allicin content… I mean, I’m sure you could do that just by looking at data that compare supplements with certain allicin content and then raw garlic that’s prepared in this kind of way.  Are we talking about similar concentrations?  Because, of course, it’s my belief that we’re adapted to get nutrients from whole foods and that’s the best way to get them, but I wonder if that’s consistent in this case with garlic as a therapeutic agent.

Jo Robinson:  Yeah, with garlic we’re talking about aged garlic, which is prepared specifically for health reasons.  We’re talking about garlic salts and flakes, this bottled garlic that you can get pre-peeled and all of those things.  And the aged garlic, which is prepared for health reasons, is actually very effective, but none of the commercial preparations are any good for us except for freeze-dried garlic.  Freeze-drying preserves those nutrients that are in garlic, so that’s great.  But the fresh garlic prepared correctly is just an excellent protective food, and we need to be eating a lot of it.

Chris Kresser:  And cheap and readily available and relatively easy to prepare, as you’ve pointed out, in that way.

Jo Robinson:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  And of course, used in a lot of different types of cuisine, too.

Jo Robinson:  Yeah.  And here’s something you might be interested in because you know a lot about this subject.  It’s just been discovered why garlic is such an incredibly potent antioxidant – and I was thrilled to find out – It’s because it will attack free radicals, which are these noxious particles that your listeners probably know about, more rapidly than any other substance known.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Jo Robinson:  These free radicals are going to attack the nearest molecule to them in a nanosecond.  Boom!  But garlic is faster.  Garlic is going to destroy those free radicals before they can get to an important part of our body, like our DNA.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm, so we’re talking about not only the kind of indirect effect of activating this antioxidant defense system, but also the direct effect of quenching oxidative damage, which, of course, is a major mechanism in almost all modern chronic inflammatory disease.

Jo Robinson:  Which our ancestors, as you know, who were hunter-gatherers did not have.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right.  They had other problems, but they didn’t have those problems!

Jo Robinson:  That’s right.  And here’s what I find so interesting:  The problems that they did have – except for warfare – we’ve solved most of them.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right.

Jo Robinson:  We’ve solved the problems that killed hunter-gatherers.  So what is evident to people who are interested in paleo food and especially with this added component of these missing phytonutrients, is that if we take advantage of all of our modern medicine that we have and our diagnostic tests and our emergency medicine and add back these phytonutrients, which are so protective against the diseases that are killing us now, we will be the healthiest people who ever walked on this planet.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right.

Jo Robinson:  Instead of people who are living a very long time and not doing a very good job of it.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right.  I mean, why not get the best of both worlds here?  It’s such a lost opportunity because as you pointed out, we have the knowledge now to do it, and I’m sure you experience this yourself, but oftentimes when I’m reading the literature, I have these moments where I’m like:  This is amazing!  This is game changing.

Jo Robinson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  This is a whole new paradigm, and why isn’t everybody out talking about this?!  There’s this really frustrating lag time between what the researchers are talking about in the literature and then what becomes the conventional paradigm, mainstream knowledge.  So yeah, kudos to you for taking a huge step in making this information available, because I’ve been studying these topics for a long time myself as well, and I learned a lot reading your book and a lot of information that we’ve already put into practice.  Like, for example, we go to the farmers’ market every Saturday, and now we have broccoli on Saturday night pretty reliably!

Jo Robinson:  I’m pleased to hear that!

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The Most Nutrient Dense Fruits and Vegetables for Optimum Health

Chris Kresser:  We know that that’s the way to get most of the nutrients.  Speaking of that, there are so many good examples in your book, of course, and so I really recommend to everyone listening to go out and get the book.  It’s a real goldmine of information and really practical stuff that you can start using right away.  But for some of our listeners, Jo, maybe you could just talk about some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits that you can buy in the average supermarket and farmers’ market today whose nutrients haven’t been cultivated out of them, so to speak.

Jo Robinson:  Yes, and this is a new idea to people as well, which is there is a vast range of these important nutrients among the varieties of fruits and vegetables in the store.  For example, we all know that onions are great for us.  We’ve known that for a long time.  But if you get a sweet onion, you’re going to have about 20% the antioxidants and also the cancer-fighting compounds as you would get from choosing one that has more fire to it.  Once we know this, we can say:  OK, I’m going to choose a sweet onion if I’m going to put a big slab on a sandwich, but if I’m ever cooking with onions, I’m only going to get these hot ones because they’re so much better for me.  And I was surprised to learn that the most nutritious onions in the store are the green onions, scallions, that we don’t even think about as a highly nutritious food.  Some of them have 120 times more antioxidants than a white onion.

Chris Kresser:  That’s amazing.  Green onions are actually considered to be a medicinal in Chinese medicine, so it’s fascinating that they knew that thousands of years ago without having access to any of these modern methods that we’re using now.

Jo Robinson:  Yes.  I didn’t know that.  That’s so interesting.  But they did have powers of observation!

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely!  Which is the scientific method!

Jo Robinson:  Yeah!  And we go to the doctor and we’re prescribed something, and nobody’s observing anything.

Chris Kresser:  Right.  Exactly.

Jo Robinson:  And it’s the green part of the green onion that’s best for us, so chop it all the way up!

Chris Kresser:  One that surprised me a lot was artichokes and artichoke hearts, because here you have a white vegetable, which typically, maybe with the exception of cauliflower, we think of white as being not very nutritious as an appearance, but you mentioned that artichokes and particularly artichoke hearts are one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables we can eat.

Jo Robinson:  That’s because – and this is something else that I’ve just recently learned – there are many, many families of these polyphenols, these phytonutrients, I call them, but only two of them have pigments.  Only two of them, two families can be seen visually.  So what the artichoke hearts have and other pale-looking vegetables and fruits, they have very potent phytonutrients that have no pigment to them.  And we don’t know, we can’t look at them and know that they’re good for us.  We need to go by a list.  We need to have someone tell us:  These are great for you even though they’re not purple and red and green and all these colors that we’ve been told to look for.  And those colors are important, but there are many foods that are white and good for us.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.  And then tomatoes.  Small varieties of tomatoes are more nutritious than larger varieties, right?

Jo Robinson:  Amazingly so.  Lycopene is the most important phytonutrient in tomatoes, and a small cherry tomato might have 20 times more lycopene than a big slicing beefsteak tomato, which is a total human creation.  You will not find that in nature!  In nature, tomatoes look just like cherry tomatoes or even smaller.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Jo Robinson:  And so cherry tomatoes are actually as good as wild tomatoes in terms of their health benefits, and they’re sitting right there in the grocery store, and we didn’t know it!

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, easy to find, and I’m sure most of our listeners here are well aware of the taste difference between a cherry tomato or any tomato from the farmers’ market or the backyard and the grocery store, so it’s great to know that there are even further reasons to choose those varieties.

Jo Robinson:  Yes, and that brings up an important point.  Many phytonutrients that are best for us are bitter, but it’s not always the case.  Sometimes the sweet foods are better for us, and that’s the case for these cherry tomatoes, which are higher in sugar and have much more flavor density than the large ones, and they’re better for us, so that’s a great situation.

Chris Kresser:  That’s a win-win!

Jo Robinson:  We don’t have to have bitter foods always to be healthier.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  So what about fruits?  What are the most nutritious fruits from this perspective?  Which are the ones that have maintained more of their nutrient density than others?

Jo Robinson:  Well, the ones we eat the most of have the least nutrition density pretty much across the board.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s typical.

Jo Robinson:  It is typical.  For example, Thompson Seedless grapes, it’s a thousand-year-old heirloom.  We can’t assume that heirloom plants are better for us.  This was a mutant that someone discovered and fell in love with a thousand years ago somewhere in Persia because it didn’t have any seeds.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Jo Robinson:  But what they didn’t know, and what they only know within the last 15 years, is that the Thompson Seedless grape has lost the ability to produce anthocyanins and resveratrol, which are two reasons to eat grapes and to drink red wine.  And that’s our favorite grape.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Jo Robinson:  So what you want to do is you want to get the darker colored grapes.  The darker, almost black ones are great for us.  Concord grapes are wonderful.  They’re almost a wild grape.  They’re basically a cross between many wild grapes, different kinds of wild grapes, and the dark red ones, and they now are seedless.  We’ve found a way to make them seedless, so we don’t have to lose the nutrients just to get a seedless grape.  I’m growing these wonderful black seedless grapes that I can hardly wait for them to ripen.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.  I’m glad you brought that up, because one of the things I really love about your book is that you provide this great information about varieties of all of these foods that are not typical anymore but that if you’re a gardener and you’re inclined, you can often order these seeds, I would imagine, from catalogs or something like that and grow them yourself.

Jo Robinson:  Gardeners are in the best possible position to have the most nutritious, best tasting food, and I’m really a proponent of gardening, and I’m delighted to see that it’s spreading like a plague across this country.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Jo Robinson:  It’s wonderful.  People are tearing up their parking strips and planting fruits and vegetables.  This is such a healthy trend.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.

Jo Robinson:  At the end of each chapter of my book I list exactly which varieties to look for in the farmers’ market but also in seed catalogs, so you could just go down that list and order them.  If you can’t find them in the seed catalogs that you’re used to using, you can simply Google the name, and you will find them.  You will find those seeds.  And you can harvest them when they’re fully ripened and eat them as soon as you harvest them.  That’s the way to go.  I have a wonderful garden, and every year it gets a little better as my research progresses!  I really want us to be moving in that direction.

Chris Kresser:  It’s almost like the concept of a victory garden, but for health.

Jo Robinson:  Yes.

Chris Kresser: Like victory over all of these chronic inflammatory diseases that are literally killing us and debilitating us every year.  And something as relatively simple as just choosing some of these wild varieties to grow in your backyard, which, of course, has other benefits, like getting you off your butt and moving around and exposed to sunlight and getting your hands in the dirt and feeling your feet on the ground and all of these other important things that we talk about that are crucial contributors to health… and saving money, too, of course!  There’s also that.  So it makes sense on so many different levels, and I just think that your book is such a great resource.  It’s so important.  And I’m just really excited to be able to help get the word out about this because it has definitely changed the way that we… You know, I consider myself a foodie.  I consider myself pretty well educated about food, of course.  I write about it, talk about it a lot, and I definitely learned a lot reading your book, and I’m looking forward to putting even more of it into practice.  So thanks again for joining us, Jo.  The name of the book is Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.  It’s, of course, available in all the usual locations, so go out and pick up a copy and get to work!

Jo Robinson:  Thanks so much.  It’s been great talking with you.

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Join the conversation

  1. Awesome podcast! I was JUST thinking about this when I reached down in the crisper last week and grabbed a week old head of cauliflower : /

  2. I am trying to find a reference for the article Ms. Robinson cites on broccoli transport times of up to seven weeks. I am confused how the plant could still be firm after being in transport so long, when I can’t successfully keep it from starting to wilt for more than a few days in my fridge… even in water.

    Thanks for the great show.

  3. this podcast was so good that I went right up and bought hey book. These researches will to support what I already tell my nutrional patients in my webconferences.
    Heloise R.D.
    Québec, Canada

  4. This is a complex issue. I have yet to read Jo’s book. The phytonutrient content difference of wild versus mainstream organic is huge. HOWEVER, independent lab analysis shows high nutrition (of grade C+/B-) is more nutrient dense than wild, which is better than mainstream organic, generally speaking. Check out the comparison chart for blueberries. What will happen they reach grade A?

    Wild has much higher selenium levels than mainstream organic or conventional.. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2186?fg=&man=&lfacet=&count=&max=25&sort=&qlookup=Blueberries%2C+wild%2C+frozen&offset=&format=Full&new=

  5. What a cool show this one was! But it raised a couple questions for me:

    1) What about the nutrients in raw meat? If the nutritional content of vegetables degrades over the course of a few days in the refridge, what happens to a pound of ground beef in the refridge for a few days or freezer for a couple months? Perhaps it’s all a wash after the meat is cooked, but what if its eaten as tartar?

    2) How is the phytonutrient content of lactofermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchee) affected over the time it takes to complete the fermentation and subsequent storage time. I pressume lactofermented veggies fair quite well in this regard since it was originally used as a means of long term storage.

  6. Ms. Robinson’s advice seems impractical to implement. I have a weekly farmers’ market in my area, and according to both of you, I should buy only enough broccoli/cauliflower/kale for 1–2 days’ worth of eating. I can eat only so many servings of vegetables in 2 days. What am I supposed to do for vegetables the other 5 days — buy the lifeless versions in a grocery store?

    Also, as a freelancer who gets paid by the amount of work I do, I’m always pressed for time. I literally can’t afford the time to shop for groceries more than once/week or do scratch cooking more than 1–2 times/week. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

  7. Fascinating. Thanks for this. There’s only one thing that gives me pause.

    Jo places a great deal of emphasis on phytonutrients, antioxidents… but what about good ol’ vitamins? For instance, if I tear up my lettuce to increase the antioxident level, will vitamins level increase, decrease, or remain constant? It’s important to look at the whole picture.

  8. Chris, I’m really confused by what Jo is saying, as follows:

    “And so overnight it’s (lettuce) going to create these compounds, these phytonutrients to protect itself from the next animal that comes along. And we’ve ripped it up and we’ve just given it the message to make more phytonutrients. And the next day we get to eat them.”
    Does she rally mean “phytonutrients”, or, perhaps PHYTOTOXINS, such as when you cause distress to a potato? Especially when she talks about the plant wanting to protect itself from the next animal that comes along.
    I bought her book anyway, in spite of this troubling statement, but I’m wondering if she really knows what she’s talking about here, being a journalist, not a scientist. Also, in the recent Smithsonian magazine, there’s a great article about how important it is to cook, or ferment, or somehow pre-digest or mechanically prepare many raw foods, in order to get sufficient nutrients from them. It’s possible to eat several thousand calories of raw foods per day, and only have a few hundred available for absorption because they pass right through the small intestine without any appreciable absorption, and end up simply feeding the gut bacteria in the large intestine, — too late to be of much value for the body. Many people eating this type of diet end up malnourished. Did you discuss ways to optimize the utilization of the foods she promotes, balancing the absorption against the risk of destroying the nutrients?

    • A phytonutrient is simply a naturally occurring chemical found in foods. These include antioxidants, which, as I mentioned, might more accurately be called “pro-oxidants” because of their hormetic effect. But phytonutrient is still the common term for these compounds, so I think her use of it was correct. Jo is extremely knowledgable on these topics and reviewed over 6,000 studies in the ten years it took her to write this book. She knows her stuff.

      • Chris, thanks for the reply,

        Naturally occurring chemicals found in foods can be either nutritive, or toxic.

        Causing the lettuce plant to do something to “protect itself from the next animal coming along” sure sounds like a toxin, not a nutrient, to me. An odd choice of words on her part,

        The variation of chemical characteristics of plants based on time is an interesting area that needs more research, and it sounds like her book will be useful in that regard. Using her example — lettuce– brings to mind the dramatic changes that occur with home-grown lettuce once it starts to bolt and starts going to seed. The normally sweet leaves no longer contain a clear liquid, but, instead, a milky white fluid, which is very bitter. And, a bitter taste is usually nature’s way of saying beware! Then again, it could turn out to be the healthiest lettuce ever. Somebody needs to look into all this…..

  9. Something that has always seemed ironic to me is how paleo/ancestral diets are so concerned with the “anti-nutrients” in bred down domesticated foods you would buy at a supermarket.

    How would they ever have been able to survive on the wild foods that hunter/gatherers actually consumed?

    All of these wild foods would have had a much greater concentration of anti-nutrients (aka phytonutrients/photochemicals). Were all of these hunter/gatherers going through elaborate preparation methods to reduce anti-nutrient content? Doubtful.

    • New Zealand was one of the last lands to be settled by humans. This occurred around 1300 AD. The indigenous people here are Maori. They were neolithic, practised cultivation but also a fair amount of hunting/gathering. I am astounded the more I learn about their food culture how much fermentation they did e.g

      kina (sea urchins, Evechinus chloroticus) are harvested and then stored either under fresh water or buried underground. The most frequently-occurring process appeared to be an alkaline fermentation. Large numbers of Clostridium perfringens were detected in one set of samples prepared outside of the traditional season, but this was the only pathogen detected. In Kina stored in buried plastic bottles during the traditionally-accepted time of the year, bacterial numbers decreased. Tiroi is prepared from mussels and Puha (sow thistle, Sonchos asper) that have been cooked to some degree, combined and stored. Of three methods used to prepare and store Tiroi, the results for one indicated the possible involvement of a lactic acid fermentation, but the other two methods were effectively only cooking and bottling processes.

      CONCLUSIONS: In the case of Kina, the use of an alkaline fermentation to prepare a seafood for consumption is unusual. One method of Tiroi production is a lactic acid fermentation.


  10. Does having more antioxidants and phytonutrients actually mean these foods are healthier? We see it a lot where there is an assumption that if A is good the 10xA must be even better.

    I’ve recently read Perfect Health Diet and they talk a lot about the sweet spot for maximum health in various vitamins and other nutrients and the problems of both too much and too little. They also point out situations where the healthiest amount is dependent on other nutrients too.

    Many of these chemicals are meant to protect the plant from insects and other threats, it’s possible that these plants with super high amounts are not optimal for us either.

  11. Excellent. Thank you, Jo, and thank you, Chris.
    I’d add, along the same lines, there’s one class of wild veggies that’s often forgotten in the west, namely: algae. They’re easy to prep, can be tasty, not too expensive if you pick your source, and haven’t been subject to selection by farming.

  12. Thank-goodness eating wild edible plants is part of the Cypriot culture. There are still a number of people that go out into the fields and forage wild plants to eat. You can even find them in most of the local fruit and veg shops ! Wild asparagus and nettles being my favourite. 🙂

  13. Off the growing season: should we be preferring frozen vegetables in winter to those in the produce section?

  14. This is an eye opener for sure, and I look forward to reading Jo’s book soon.

    Living in the cold north, I am left wondering what to do during the 8 months of the year when our farmers markets are closed? I am slowly learning to garden for myself, so summer months will be pretty easy. I guess it brings back the notion of eating seasonally AND locally as much as possible. Beyond that maybe I just need to lighten up a bit and make the most of what is available. It is so easy to get overwhelmed with all of the news out there, new studies, new miracle foods and supplements, etc.

    Thanks Chris and Jo for this invaluable podcast!

  15. Wow this was one of the most valuable radio shows ever. Chris I think you will want to update the 9 Steps to Perfect Health series to include this important information.

  16. Isn’t one option simply to not rely much on veggies for nutrition? Its worked well for me for the past decade, they are mostly just a vehicle for animal fat, then eat a little safe starch and I’m good. I just don’t have the time it would take to eat wild plants unfortunately. I’d gladly try them if someone else was selling :>)