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RHR: Why You Need to Eat More Vegetables—and How to Do It, with Dr. Tom Cowan


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Did you know that many traditional hunter-gatherer societies ate as many as 100 different species of plants? For several years, I've known that the biggest difference between my diet and the ancestral diet was not the meat that I was eating, or the eggs, or even the nuts and seeds, but that it was the vegetables—specifically, the lack of diversity in the plant foods I was eating. This lack of diversity not only affects our phytonutrient intake, but it also affects our microbiome because different types of gut microbes prefer different types of nutrients. Today I'm talking with Dr. Thomas Cowan about his unique solution to adding more plant phytonutrients to every meal.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we cover:

04:33 Why focus on vegetables?
08:18 How did our ancestors incorporate plants into their diets?
12:58 The biggest difference between traditional and modern diets
20:44 The challenges of adding wild plants to your diet
24:42 How the idea for vegetable powders was born
28:00 Ideas for using vegetable powders
37:38 Where can we learn more?

Link We Discuss:

Dr. Cowan’s Garden

Chris Kresser: Hey, everyone, it’s Chris Kresser. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week I’m excited to welcome Dr. Tom Cowan as a guest on the show.

Dr. Cowan discovered the work of two men who would have the most influence on his career while teaching gardening as a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland, South Africa. He read Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price, as well as Rudolf Steiner’s work on biodynamic agriculture, and these events inspired him to pursue a medical degree. He graduated from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 1984. After his residency in Family Practice at Johnson City Hospital in Johnson City, New York, he set up an anthroposophical medical practice in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Dr. Cowan then relocated to San Francisco in 2003.

He served as the vice president of the Physicians Association for Anthroposophical Medicine and is a founding board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation. During his career, he has studied and written about many subjects in medicine, including nutrition, homeopathy, anthroposophical medicine, and herbal medicine. He’s the principal author of the book The Fourfold Path to Healing, which was published in 2004 by New Trends Publishing, and is the co-author of the Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care published in 2013. He writes the “Ask the Doctor” column in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the Foundation’s quarterly magazine, and has lectured throughout the United States and Canada.

He has three grown children and three grandchildren and practices medicine in San Francisco, where he resides with his wife, Lynda Smith. Dr. Cowan sees patients at his office in San Francisco and is currently accepting new patients, and he also gives lectures and presentations.

I have known Dr. Cowan and his work for several years. I was exposed to him through the Weston A. Price Foundation, and also early on, maybe about 10 years ago, when my wife Elanne started to have hyperthyroid symptoms, we went and saw Dr. Cowan, and that’s where I first learned about low-dose naltrexone as a treatment for autoimmune disease.

I recently heard from Dr. Cowan about a new book that he has written about the role of vegetables in a healthy diet. You might think that that’s an obvious subject, but Dr. Cowan’s take is a little bit different than the typical approach, and I think this discussion will be reminiscent of my interview with Jo Robinson, who is the author of Eating on the Wild Side, several years back. I hope you enjoy the interview, and let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser: Dr. Cowan, thanks so much for being here.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Thank you, Chris. Good to talk to you.

Chris Kresser: Likewise. Yeah, I’m looking forward to this conversation, and I think my listeners are really going to enjoy it because your recent book is a really interesting take on a subject that, at first glance, you might think is really too obvious for a book, which is that vegetables are good for you. I think that’s something that almost every dietary philosophy can agree on, and most people who hear that aren’t going to be particularly surprised. So tell us a little bit more about why you decided to write a book on why vegetables are good for you. Of course, we’ll talk more about the specifics later on, but I’d love to just hear a little of your story and why this subject became of interest to you.

Why Focus on Vegetables?

Thomas Cowan, MD: I think the reason is because I think like you and probably like a lot of people and particularly a lot of people in the Weston Price or Paleo worlds. I tell this to a lot of people: One of the main decisions one has to make about food, and even about health is, is it true that there were people who did better than the common normal Americans these days?

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Thomas Cowan, MD: A lot of us have answered yes to that question because I would say the research on that is pretty overwhelming. That’s why we study traditional diets.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Having been interested in traditional diets for about 40 years and having a strong connection with Sally Fallon and the Weston Price movement, it has become clear to me over these years that you can sort of break down food groups into three types of food. One is the animal food, and the second is the seed food, and the third would be vegetables and maybe fruits together, mostly vegetables and some fruit. So then if you ask the next question, which is, how did traditional people… because we already believed that traditional people had really good diets and really good health outcomes, not all of them, but the ones that, for instance, Price studied.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Then it’s things like wild fish and pastured eggs and all that stuff, which actually is pretty available these days, so we kind of have that.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Then the seed food is sometimes grains and other times seeds and nuts. I think your typical pistachio or almond or cashew is pretty similar to what traditional people ate as seeds and nuts.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm. Not a huge difference there either.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Not a huge difference there. But everything I could find—and believe me, it was not easy to find this—about what traditional people ate in the way of vegetables, I guess the bottom line is it wasn’t broccoli and romaine lettuce.

Chris Kresser: Watery tomatoes from the store?!

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yeah. Sometimes when I want to dramatize this point, I hold up my picture of Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, which is a famous Native American whose portrait hangs in the Smithsonian, and apparently he was around 70 when he had this portrait taken. I don’t think he ate alfalfa sprouts and romaine lettuce for lunch. I don’t know, of course, because I wasn’t there.

Chris Kresser: Well, you can surmise from his name, right? That he might have been eating something else.

How Did Our Ancestors Incorporate Plants into Their Diets?

Thomas Cowan, MD: Right. So then the question is, why do we eat vegetables? And they didn’t eat them because it was the main source of calories or fats or even proteins or carbohydrates. They ate them because they have all these phytonutrients—which just means plant chemicals—and antioxidants and all these things which we now associate essentially with vitamin pills.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: I started thinking about this 20 years ago. They ate a much wider variety, and now I know that it’s up to, in some people, 120 per year and 15 or 20 per day of different roots, different leaves, different vegetable fruits—like squash is actually a fruit, not a vegetable.

And so, of course, being who I am, I tried it! I thought, OK, I’ll eat 20 a day, 100 a year, and I can tell you it was pretty difficult, even though I’m an avid gardener and right now I have 63 different vegetables growing in my different gardens, so I’m pretty good at this, and the Bay Area is the food capital of the world, practically.

Think you’re eating an ancestral diet? Not if you’re eating typical vegetables.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: It’s still really difficult to do this. But that was my goal, not as my sort of main caloric intake, but diversity, which then gives you these incredible flavors and dishes and all that, and so that’s how I got started on this.

Chris Kresser: Yeah, that’s really fascinating because when I was writing my book, I did some similar research in terms of the diversity of plant species and found the same data that many traditional hunter-gatherer societies ate upwards of 100 species of plants. And for the average American, it’s something like 8 to 10.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Right.

Chris Kresser: Typically the lettuce and tomato on the burger and maybe carrots and a few others, and what’s more, as you point out in your book, even these are dramatically different than their ancestral versions would have been. The carrots that we have today would have been barely recognizable to traditional people who were eating the ancestors of the carrot. They’ve been bred over time to become sweeter and more palatable and, in the process, have lost a lot of their nutrient content. I think one of the examples you give in your book was related to apples, the difference between some wild apples and modern apples.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: Dramatic, right? I can’t remember the exact numbers, but it’s thousands, orders of magnitude.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yes, and if you think about modern agriculture or the “Green Revolution,” as I point it out—and Vandana Shiva has spoken about this a lot. If you take an acre of traditional, like, gathering land, so it had maybe buffalo and it had tubers and rabbits and grouse or whatever flew in and out, and all these different plants, and you figured out the nutrient content, every single nutrient—fats, proteins, omega-3’s, zinc, molybdenum, selenium, iron—every one is higher except one, and that’s carbohydrates.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Thomas Cowan, MD: So we’ve taken nutrients and then we grow corn.

Chris Kresser: Right!

Thomas Cowan, MD: Corn is mostly sugar. It’s a few other things, but not much. And so then we get diabetes.

Chris Kresser: Right. Big surprise.

Thomas Cowan, MD: It’s kind of crazy if you think about it, but that’s what happened. And it’s true they don’t “taste as good,” at least until you sort of retrain yourself, but they also didn’t eat them like a big bowl of wild carrot roots. That’s not much fun!

Chris Kresser: Right. These were kind of accents in the nutrient-dense diet that included typically a lot of different parts of the animal, animal foods, and then these seeds and roots and tubers.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yes, exactly.

The Biggest Difference between Traditional and Modern Diets

Chris Kresser: So do you think this is the kind of elephant in the room when it comes to the difference between traditional and modern diets? As you said in the beginning, we’ve heard a lot about the difference between conventional meats and then pasture-raised organic meats and wild-caught fish and things like that, and then obviously the difference between eating a whole-food, real-food diet and the modern processed, refined, comes-in-a-bag-and-a-box type of foods, which many Americans are subsisting on at this point, but there hasn’t really been a lot of discussion about the difference between the plant foods, perhaps in part because it would be a major victory even to get Americans eating plants in the first place! Maybe we’re just focusing on the lowest hanging fruit there, and to worry about what kind of plants is maybe the next level, but most people that are listening to this podcast are people who have already bought into the importance of eating real food and plant foods, and they’re looking for the way to take things to the next level. It seems to me that this is the most obvious next step.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Well, that’s what I thought. This is the next step. As I said and as you pointed out, we have the plant part wrong.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Thomas Cowan, MD: It’s interesting. Even the USDA now recommends eating the different parts of the plant, and for me, the parts of the plant goes back to the work of Goethe, who said the ideal plant has roots and leaves and flowers and fruits. That’s the threefold plant that Rudolf Steiner actually based his whole biodynamics, etc., on. That’s what the USDA says, and the USDA says you should eat all the major colors of plants every day because they all have a different spectrum of these phytochemicals with big, long names. Lycopene prevents prostate cancer, etc., etc.

But again, like you said, the Paleo people and the Weston Price people who know a lot about food and are doing great stuff on promoting food awareness and even, to a certain extent, changing the face of American agriculture, they haven’t really taken up this plant diversity call, and so I thought I would do it!

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Like, Hey, guys! This is the next step.

Chris Kresser: I’m glad you did because it’s eye opening. I’m sure you know Jo Robinson.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yes.

Chris Kresser: Eating on the Wild Side. I had her on last year, and we talked a little bit about this, too, because she’s coming at it from a similar angle, slightly different, also talking about the importance of how we prepare food, how quickly we eat it from the time that it’s harvested rather than shipping to 5000 miles across the country in a dark, refrigerated truck.

When we think about, just on a day-to-day basis, a change that could make a big impact, this, again, seems very obvious to me, and I wanted to just maybe flesh out a few details for people that are listening just to kind of put this in perspective. Maybe we could talk about why plants like some of the ones you mention, ashitaba, may be even better than kale. People have t-shirts now with kale on them. It’s become kind of like the poster child of nutritious plant food, but when you compare it to ashitaba, it doesn’t stand up so well.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Right. Another difference that traditional people, and I had firsthand experience of this when I was in Africa, but the other difference is these people were very economical with their time and with their efforts. They were very savvy about food, so the plants that they ate tended to be perennials, which means they grow year after year, which also means they’re a whole lot less work!

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: You don’t have to prepare the soil and start seedlings and all this stuff. I mean, they did a little of that, too, but they grew perennial vegetables. Or they didn’t grow them. They tended them, which is different. First of all, plants have to defend themselves by making chemicals. They can’t run away, and they can’t bite people or whatever animals, so they make chemicals to keep themselves healthy and protect themselves. And when a plant is allowed to live for five years, ten years, or a hundred years, it can mine the soil and create all sorts of chemical strategies to keep itself well and heal wounds and prevent oxidation and ward off predators and not taste so sweet so that predators will eat them, and concentrate nutrients. Whether it’s ashitaba or tree collards, which grow 12 to 15 years in California, and they have all these basically nutrient-dense collard greens as their leaves, so they’ll end up having more nutrients, more phytochemicals than even kale. Not that I have anything against growing annuals and eating annuals, and I have nothing against kale, I eat it myself, but it’s just part of the spectrum of diversity. So I started growing perennials, every single one I could think of, and I think at this point I don’t even know a single perennial vegetable that I can grow that I don’t have growing! I mean, there may be some that somebody could tell me about.

Chris Kresser: Mm-hmm.

Thomas Cowan, MD: And then the next step is even getting into wild vegetables, which is a whole other level of taste diversity. You start to see them, like fiddleheads and ramps. Ramps were onions and garlic before there were onions and garlic. It’s a whole world out there that’s not only fascinating, but a culinary adventure.

Chris Kresser: Right, and the thing that’s important about these wild plants is they are typically much more nutrient dense because they haven’t been genetically modified over time to become sweeter and more palatable.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yes, exactly.

Chris Kresser: That cultivation is what typically leads to, as you were saying earlier, the higher carbohydrate content in exchange for the nutrient density of the plant. Typically the sweeter something is and the higher the carbohydrate content, the lower the nutrient density is. The bitter flavor is one that tends to be more associated with that nutrient density.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Exactly.

Chris Kresser: Coffee is the one bitter taste that many Americans do still seem primed for, but not so much with the dark leafy greens and the tree collards and things like that.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yeah, right.

The Challenges Adding Wild Plants to Your Diet

Chris Kresser: So other than just the amount of work that it took, which is obviously considerable, to cultivate wild plants, I mean, you can’t just go down to the supermarket and buy these things. That’s part of the point, part of the problem, really. And even the farmers’ market. I mean, you might find some wild plants at the farmers’ market, but here we live in Berkeley, and there are, like, five farmers’ markets throughout the week. I’ve gone to all of them, and certainly there are nutritious organic local plants there, but not very many wild vegetables that I’ve seen. So when you set out to do this, when you decided that it was important and you set out to do it, what were some of the other challenges that you faced in addition to just having to grow them yourself? What did your days of eating look like, and what did you come up against?

Thomas Cowan, MD: Well, I got to the point where, like I said, I had 10 or so different perennial vegetables growing and pickable at any one time in addition to 10 to 20 annuals, even in the winter in San Francisco where I live. And then I was given access to a garden in Napa, so I could start growing whatever variety and try to sort of turn the clock back. There’s butternut squash and then there’s ancient butternut squash! So I kept trying to turn the clock back. On the one hand, it was working for me because I do as much in the kitchen as probably any human being has a right to! But I spent two or three hours preparing vegetables per day.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Thomas Cowan, MD: That was OK for me, but I didn’t see that as, OK, America. Here’s what we’re going to do!

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Thomas Cowan, MD: First of all, they didn’t have the vegetables, and they couldn’t buy them. As you say, they don’t exist at the farmers’ market. And it’s just too much time for most people, so that was the next problem I ran up against.

Chris Kresser: Right. There’s another problem, which I’ve seen as a clinician and I suspect you have, as well, which is that many of my patients have compromised gut function and aren’t able to really digest very well the dense, fibrous plant foods like the wild plants, and even things like kale, because of that high insoluble fiber content.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yes.

Chris Kresser: And so if they set out to eat 20 different fibrous vegetables in a day, they would be a wreck by the end of that day.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yes. Mind you, we’re talking small amounts because we’re not trying to get calories or fats or proteins or even carbohydrates, but absolutely, you’re right.

Chris Kresser: Right. So you were spending two to three hours in the kitchen, you were growing all of this stuff yourself, and you realized—and I would agree with this wholeheartedly—that the vast majority of people—and even people in the Paleo and Weston A. Price communities, who are totally committed to food—I mean, most people I know don’t have a big surplus of time at this point in the way that we’re living and are working hard just to be able to eat at home and get the basics down, so adding another hour and a half of food prep a day is not really a welcome suggestion. So where did you go from there?

How the Idea for Vegetable Powders Was Born

Thomas Cowan, MD: From there, on the one hand, I was, like I said, given access to growing food in this about-an-acre garden in Napa. I started doing that, and I ended up looking at this bed and having 500 butternut squash and two 70-foot rows of kale and hundreds of pounds of tomatoes and fennel, and I thought, What am I going to do with this stuff?!

On the other hand, there are two other things that happened. One is I went to a restaurant called Bar Tartine in San Francisco, and they had about 60 different vegetable powders that they were using to season their food, mostly just for culinary reasons. It was a beautiful display, this sort of vibrant green kale and brilliant red tomatoes and deep orange squash and horseradish root powder. I started tasting them, and I thought to myself, Well that’s the way to do it.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Then I went to my son, and there’s kind of a funny story because about 30 years ago I was brewing kombucha in our closet. My son was 5 or 6, and they all hated it because it made the house smell.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: But he’s also been always into business. He had me selling carrot juice at the farmstand. I was making carrot juice and he got the money, which is sort of Asher in a nutshell! Somehow it got brought up, and I said, “Well, you made fun of me for the kombucha, but you lost $50 million because you didn’t turn it into a business!”

Chris Kresser: Yeah! Don’t you regret that?!

Thomas Cowan, MD: “So you can make fun of me all you want!” But anyway, that got him to say, “OK, so what’s the next kombucha?” And I said, “Perennial vegetables and diversity of vegetables.” And so this time he wasn’t laughing!

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: At least not as much. We started looking into it, and then we found out about Miron jars, or I had known about them, but they’re these deep violet jars that actually preserve the integrity of the powders. That was a key for me because I didn’t want to make powders that lost their vitality.

Chris Kresser: Right.

Thomas Cowan, MD: But I was convinced that if we put them in these jars, as hard as it is to believe, I think, the quality of the light in the jars actually improves the potency of the contents. That let me think these could last a year or whatever, something like that. And so the next thing you know, we had a family meeting and we formed a company to turn the vegetables that we grow and we can source, and we’re now getting wild vegetables, and we’re going to try to help people get these.

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Ideas for Using Vegetable Powders

Chris Kresser: And they’re fantastic. You were generous enough to send me some, and I have really enjoyed using them. Let’s talk a little bit about how you use them. I’ve been using them in sauces. I use them in smoothies. I’ve sprinkled the powders on cooked vegetables or other foods, just to enhance their flavor. Sometimes we make a ground beef dish where we have some bone broth and ground beef, and then we use the Threefold Blend Powder in that, which is beet and carrot. What else is there in that?

Thomas Cowan, MD: Kale and chard and squash and zucchini.

Chris Kresser: Right, so that adds a really nice flavor to the beef. But the concept here, just backing up a little bit, is that if you powder these vegetables, you take what would be a pretty enormous amount of plant matter and you condense it into a jar that’s about the size of… I don’t know. What would be an analog?

Thomas Cowan, MD: Like a peanut jar.

Chris Kresser: Right, or even smaller. And then you only really need to eat a couple of teaspoons of maybe a few of these different powders a day and you’re meeting those phytonutrient needs in a fraction of not only the time that you would spend—presuming you even had the space and you were predisposed to do it—cultivating all of these plants, but also just the preparation during the day and even the digestive ability to incorporate all of these plants into your diet throughout the day. I’ve found that it was just vastly simpler to take out a couple of these jars pretty much every time we cook or every time we sit down and eat and sprinkle some of the powders on the food.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yeah, exactly.

Chris Kresser: I know that you’ve been using these for a while, but I suspect that some of your patients are using them and friends. What’s been the response so far?

Thomas Cowan, MD: There are a couple of principles that we’re using. We’ve talked about diversity, etc., but the other one is I have a deep belief that we—“we” being humans, people—we are the best chemical analyzers on the planet. The way we analyze chemicals is flavor. Of course, I have no objection to people checking this with instruments and all that stuff, but I have come to believe that the squash with the best flavor is the most nutrient dense. I think that’s how we are hardwired.

Chris Kresser: It makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Right. I grow this kind of tomatoes called Indigo Black tomatoes, which, believe it or not, taste like bacon. And they have the highest lycopene content by about 10 times as any other.

The point about that is we’re doing this for flavor, and the flavor cues you into or corresponds to nutrient content. We grow the most flavorful leeks and the most flavorful kale and perennials and the most flavorful varieties we can find. We try to prepare the soil. We don’t use machines. We hardly dig the soil, just compost, organic nutrients, to create the best flavor we can.

And then also, as you said, a teaspoon of kale powder is about six or seven huge leaves of kale. That’s a lot of kale.

Chris Kresser: Yeah.

Thomas Cowan, MD: That’s more than anybody needs to eat even in a day, and so like you said, you put it in soup, you sprinkle it on eggs, you can make dishes. Some of them are more for, like, you can make pumpkin pie with the squash powder or the pumpkin powder, so it can be an actual baking ingredient. We’re about to launch five or six, all varieties of beets. You can make beet chocolate dishes or traditional high-end culinary fare. Beet powder is known to lower blood pressure.

Chris Kresser: Yes.

Thomas Cowan, MD: I use it for patients with high blood pressure. So there’s everything from just high-end culinary to actually almost treating certain diseases. The reality is those are the same things.

Chris Kresser: Exactly. It’s interesting because I think we’re so conditioned to think that more is better and that we need kind of enormous quantities of something for it to have an impact on us, but I just want to reiterate, with these powders, what’s really amazing is that, like you said, a teaspoon is equivalent to six or seven large leaves of kale, and you don’t even need that in a day. So you could have as little as half a teaspoon per day of that powder and you’d be probably surpassing what you’d get if you were just eating straight-up kale, and that’s just one of the powders. Ideally you’re using smaller amounts of many different powders to mimic that 20 different plant species per day, the benchmark that we’re going for.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Right.

Chris Kresser: And you can do it in a way where you don’t have to significantly overhaul your diet. That’s the thing. If you’re already eating well and you’re already eating animal foods and plants with every meal, you don’t really have to change anything. You’re just changing maybe a little bit how your prepare those foods and then how you season them.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Exactly. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with eating vegetables or fruits fresh. I do that every day and I eat salads. But you put Threefold Blend, which is the six different vegetables, in a salad dressing and it’s now 12 vegetables instead of six.

Chris Kresser: Right. You’re getting a lot more nutrient density for what you would be doing anyway. Yeah, it hasn’t reduced the amount of vegetables that I eat. In fact, one of my favorite uses for the powders, as I mentioned, is just seasoning vegetables with them, particularly kind of like-on-like, putting the Perennial Greens Powder on dark winter greens. It just really kind of brings out their inherent flavor and amplifies it.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: I have to admit, because I’ve known about this for several years, too, and it’s been a source of dissonance for me, where I knew that the biggest difference between my diet and the ancestral diet was not the meat that I was eating or the eggs that I was eating or the fish I was eating or even nuts and seeds and things like that, but it was the plant foods and the lack of diversity of plant foods. I came to believe that that not only affected phytonutrient status, but it also probably had an effect on the microbiome because we’re learning now about the importance of microbial diversity and how different species or genre of microbes in the gut like different types of foods and nutrients and have all of these different overlapping interactions with different types of nutrients.

There was a little bit of background anxiety for me, knowing that and just also not feeling like I had the time or wherewithal to cultivate all of those plants and prepare them accordingly in the course of my daily life. So having access to the powders has actually been a big anxiety reliever for me in that way! Now when I’m planning a meal, I don’t have to worry as much about how I’m going to incorporate all of these different plants into the meal. I tend to eat pretty simply. I have an animal food, and then I have salad or a single vegetable or a couple of different vegetables, and then I usually have a starchy plant of some sort, and then I use the powders and I don’t worry about it.

Thomas Cowan, MD: That’s exactly what I do!

Chris Kresser: So in a way, it has actually saved me time because I don’t stress about preparing as many vegetables throughout the day as I used to.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Exactly. We’re going to come out with these wild vegetable powders, like ramps and fiddleheads and whatever else we can get our hands on.

Chris Kresser: Yeah, which is just not even an option at all for me right now. I don’t have access to those. And again, if you don’t have access to them in Berkeley, California, or San Francisco, there probably aren’t many people who do, at least in the industrialized world at this point.

So where can people learn more about these powders and get them if they want to try them out?

Where Can We Learn More?

Thomas Cowan, MD: Well, we have a website called Dr. Cowan’s Garden. By the way, that was my children’s decision to name it that. I don’t know if I like it.

Chris Kresser: I like it! It’s accessible.

Thomas Cowan, MD: It’s all right. So it’s DrCowansGarden.com. There’s a store and there’s a video and recipes. I wrote a book describing this, which is called How (& Why) to Eat More Vegetables, which describes the things that we’re talking about. My son Joe did all the recipes with his fiancee Emily, and we did all the pictures, so it was really a fun family project. We have more recipes on the website, and apparently there’s Instagram and Facebook, which I, frankly, don’t know much about. I know that they exist.

Chris Kresser: Yeah, it’s a fantastic book. It’s a pleasure to read a book that is just as long as it needs to be and no longer. I read it in one sitting. It’s a short little book, but also very informative and entertaining, I think, to read. I appreciated some of the personal anecdotes and learning more about your story and how this all came to be.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Yeah.

Chris Kresser: The powders that are available now, I think, are Winter Squash and the Threefold Blend Powder, which we’ve talked about. There’s Leek Salt and Leek Powder. Leeks, by the way, for those who don’t know, are incredibly nutrient dense. Then there’s Kale Powder, there’s a Chard Powder that’s coming soon, and as you mentioned, it sounds like there are some wild plants that are on the way, the Ashitaba Powder.

Thomas Cowan, MD: And the Perennial Greens and a new beet blend that we’re working on.

Chris Kresser: Right. Yeah, the Perennial Greens, I had a sneak peek of, and that’s definitely one of my favorites. I have a smoothie with a teaspoon of that on most days, and then we’ve been using the Threefold Blend in a variety of ways—salad dressings, sauces, with ground beef, etc. I’m excited. I can’t wait to get my hands on some of these newer powders, particularly the wild ones.

When I got your note with the book… I don’t get excited about too many books. I joke about the junk book mail that I get now at this point. Probably five to seven books are sent to me each week to review, and this one really stood out. I immediately saw that this could be a real game changer in terms of how we approach food, and I haven’t seen something like that come along in quite a while. It just was totally in alignment with everything that I had learned in my own research, and just on a personal level, not to mention for my patients and just my readership and the listeners, I was excited about incorporating this into my own life. So thank you for your vision in this and for making it a reality so that we can all not have to grow 63 different varieties of plants! Now don’t get me wrong—I love growing plants. We have a big garden, my wife is into permaculture and we love it, but if we can do it in a kind of pleasurable way and we’re not under pressure, it’s a lot more fun, right?

Thomas Cowan, MD: I got it.

Chris Kresser: Yeah. So thank you.

Thomas Cowan, MD: Well, I really appreciate this, Chris. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.

Chris Kresser: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I want to help get the word out on this. For those of you who are listening, I highly recommend giving this a try. It will definitely change the way you approach food, and I think you’ll feel the difference. I certainly have.

Thank you again, Dr. Cowan, and good luck with this.

Thomas Cowan, MD: OK. Thanks again, Chris.

Chris Kresser: Take care. Bye-bye.

Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you next time.

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Join the conversation

  1. Sounds really interesting but wondering if nutrients are lost in the dehydration process?

  2. This sounds like a great idea, but also makes me a little nervous. Plant powders will have concentrated toxins as well as nutrients. If you made a plant powder that included spinach, for example, the concentrated oxalates could quickly lead to kidney stones in people with compromised gut flora. Not sure I want to experiment with that. This is sort of the same argument I have against juicing. Eating the actual plant seems to be a built-in mechanism to protect against toxic overload. However, I am definitely inspired to start growing my own -perennial- vegetables!

    • Juicing a carrot, a stick of celery, a little beetroot and an apple will result in *zero* toxic overload.

      Some juicing in the diet is totally fine, in fact daily juicing is fine.

    • Yes, many greens and other veggies and fruits are very high in oxalate and cause serious problems for those of us with kidney stones. The can also contribute to a wide variety of other health issues. When the oxalate gets through a leaky gut, in can end up in tissues pretty much anywhere in the body.

      I have to disagree with the comment below. While juicing can be fine for many people, those of us who have oxalate issues have to be careful. Beets are very high oxalate, carrots usually medium, and I believe celery is medium to high. If you are juicing veggies, you can end up with a concentrated amount of oxalate in the juice.

      The Trying Low Oxalates yahoo group is the best resource I’ve found on this issue. There is a comprehensive and up to date food list, and items are still actively tested. The owner is Susan Costen Owens a researcher who has been focused on oxalate issues for many years.

      • Oxalic acid, when converted into an inorganic acid by cooking or processing the food, often results in causing inorganic oxalic acid crystals to form in the kidneys.

        I agree with the above. What I stated was that juicing a carrot, a stick of celery and a little beet, does not cause a
        “toxic overload” which was the comment I responded to.

        Those with kidney stones, need to look elsewhere than juiced raw veggies containing oxalic acid for why they have kidney problems.

  3. I think Asian cultures do a much better job of this than we do in North America. In addition to these new veggie sprinkles, which look very interesting, how about all the dried seaweed/seaveggie sprinkles in Asian markets? They seem like a good source of something similar to what you’d get in these powders.

  4. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Cowan for my documentary because of his work helping patients with IBD. He’s brilliant! So glad to see him getting coverage here.

  5. Very interesting…but after a gander at the prices…*gulp*!

    I know, I know, hot to put a price on health? But when the cost of living keeps going up, when 2/3 of my income is for shelter, and transportation, and taxes…its hard to justify some veggie powders…at $50 for 5+ounces. Yikes.

    The reality is the current trends in the “earth-grown” supplement industry is pushing many of us out. Im’ the guy who didnt come to all this stuff last week, but its been a “thing” in my life for 30-odd (very odd at times) years. Never been much of a supplement guy, went the food and exercise routes instead of supplements like so many others. But lately I have found some use for a random few supplements…but many-oh-man if they ain’t pricey.

    Plus how do I really know what Im getting? I cant lab-test any of them…none of us can…we have to trust in the claims of people we find on the internet! And any perusal of the news will tell you that’s an extremely risky venture. There might be more gimmicks out there then there are suckers…er…customers.

  6. Great interview, ta. I was very pleased to hear at the nutrient density of leeks, our go-to winter staple vegetable. We have a great crop this year and expect them to be standing proudly through the snow soon.

  7. I agree, a sample pack that allows us to try all the flavors and try it out would be so convenient!
    I also had a question- how is this product distinct from the “green vegetable powder blends” that you commonly find in health food stores and contain 30-40 different vegetable ingredients (i think they are meant to be added to smoothies)?


  8. Very interesting! I’d love to try the powders!
    I am very much restricted in my diet, not just gluten, dairy, but also oxalates, lectins, histamines…
    Kale i.e. I cannot eat or spinach with the very high oxalates.
    Or lectins. Dr Cowan points out the plants evolved with their own mechanisms to not be eaten, that’s why some have high contents of the above mentioned.
    So, by ‘processing’ ( how does he make them into powders?) they get much more concentrated, right?, that’s even worse for a person like me. Or am I missing something?
    Thank you

  9. How are these powders dried? Most dried foods are fermented. I have problems with histamine.

  10. I feel very blessed right now. In my heart I’ve been praying for a way to increase my veggies. I’m still learning to cook so, besides roasting, cooking veggies seems like one more challenge to overcome. This is especially true as I don’t want to roast everything. I feel empowered to eat healthy while I’m still learning and it’s by far the greatest feeling ever! Thank you for inviting Dr Cowan and for all the information shared. Chris gave a great deal of tidbits that I didn’t know before today, as well. I’m feeling so good right now!

  11. Hey Dr Cowan! How’s about putting together a “sample pack” so we can taste a few of these in smaller amounts?? Like another commentor mentioned, being elderly is insanely expensive and these products are costly — esp if I want to try a few of them…. or maybe even a decent senior discount for those of us not bringing in the big bucks??

  12. I’m not against the idea of a powder, but haven’t there been studies that suggest the body processes whole foods differently than their powder equivalents? Or is that a minor point compared to accessing these uncommon vegetables in the first place?

  13. I am curious about way seems like something of a contradiction, which is that earlier you talk about the perils of the SAD and the packaged, processed foods, and I couldn’t help but think about how powdering vegetables certainly seems like a fairly intensive act of processing. I am sure Dr. Cowan has considered this and actual expected him to address it during the podcast, but he didn’t. So I’m wondering what the impact or effect of dehydrating and powdering vegetables is on nutrient content. With animal products like milk, dehydration can actually denature proteins, I seem to recall? No doubt milk and vegetables are apples and oranges so to speak, but for sure eating plant powders can’t be identical to eating actual plants. I wonder if you could just briefly address this, Chris?

    • Well put. And while the good doctor is at it, maybe the science on how dehydration affects the enzymes and their potency.

  14. This interview was one of the most enlightening I’ve heard/read in a long time. I’ll be following Dr. Cowan and trying his nutritious powders. The local groceries/veggie stands can only do so much. Thanks, Chris!

    • “This interview was one of the most enlightening I’ve heard/read in a long time.
      Veggie stands can only do so much”

      Seems to me that you haven’t quite grasped the fact that Vegetables are where this whole process started from!

      And without a doubt, there is no science offered whatsoever to support the claim that these dehydrated powders are nutritious at all, despite people asking for the stats, none are provided.

  15. Great article and look forward to trying the powders, but for those of us that would like to try growing these these vegetables ourselves, it would be very helpful to also provide some resources for where to find the seeds/seedlings.

  16. Hi Dr. Kresser — I am super interested in hearing more about your wife’s efforts at permaculture. .have you written about it? How can I learn more. .I am trying to include permacultural (is that a word?) ideas into my home’s typical suburban landscape, and love hearing what others are doing. .

  17. Given how many plants are represented in a jar, I’m sure it is a good deal. But since I am an old, retired guy living on Social Security and a small pension, I wish there were smaller, cheaper sizes.

  18. Thank you for sharing Dr. Cowan’s exciting product! I’m so amped to learn that I can save time in the kitchen AND improve my health!!!

    I cook for a living, started living a Primal lifestyle with my boyfriend a few years ago after learning of his serious digestive problems and have recently learned how important it is to introduce and maintain a larger variety of vegetables in our diet. Perfect timing as this was the first of your podcasts that I listened to after subscribing.

    You mentioned the issue of insoluble fiber keeping your patients from doing this easily, so I assume you might recommend these powders to those patients? Is that correct? I would love to optimize our nutrient intake with these powders but am curious about whether it’s a decent decision to try them despite my boyfriend’s IBS. I know everyone’s circumstances will be different, but is there any reason we shouldn’t try the powders?

    Thanks again, I’m a huge fan of nutrition/physiology and really enjoyed your Paleo Code book and look forward to catching up on your podcasts 🙂

    • At this point it’s best for him to just try and see what happens. I don’t have enough experience using them in patients with digestive issues to be able to say whether they are well-tolerated or not. I would start with a small dose and see how he does.

  19. This is such an exciting venture, Dr. Cowan! I learned about the powders from subscribing to your newsletters. There’s so much in the news about GMOs, but no one, at least in mainstream media, is talking much about how even traditional plant breeding has changed the face of the plant world. I had a garden at UC Davis for a while and dabbled in heirloom vegetables, being as fond of their history as the vegetables themselves. I haven’t gardened in over a decade, but I’ve been reading and writing about various agricultural related topics lately, which all of this collectively, is nudging me toward a desire to have my own small garden again. I look forward to trying these powders as I still have difficulty digesting many fruits and vegetables, but that is improving. I can imagine that many of these perennials could be grown in pots on patios. Both you and Chris have been immensely helpful in restoring my health. An inspiring interview – thanks, Chris and Dr. Cowan!