Is the healthiest part of dandelion its flower?

dandelionflowerwildfoodismDandelion is one of those plants whose presence is unavoidable.  Native to Europe and Asia, it is now well established throughout the temperate regions of the world, and can be found growing in lawns, fields, and parks, as well as disturbed areas like parking lots and along sidewalks.  While some individuals consider dandelion of no greater dignity than that of a “weed,” all parts of the plant are edible and highly nutritious (that’s right, free food right in your own backyard).

The leaves and roots are great raw or cooked, and bitterness can be mitigated through proper harvesting and processing techniques.  Yet what receives somewhat less attention, other than when discussing wine, is the most conspicuous part of the plant – the flower.

I enjoy dandelion flowers not just because they taste good, but additionally because they contain nutritional benefits in levels that oftentimes exceed those found in the roots and leaves.

Let’s take a look at some of these benefits (1).

Dandelion flowers have higher levels of polyphenols
Polyphenols are compounds synthesized by plants (as well as by animals) that play important biological roles in the life cycles of these organisms.  Whenever we consume foods rich in polyphenols, such as dandelion, we receive benefits that may aid in the prevention of degenerative diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The aerial parts of dandelion, especially the flowers, contain approximately 115 times the polyphenol content than that found in the roots (9.9 ± 0.28 g polyphenols per 100 g dandelion extract vs. 0.086 ± 0.003 g polyphenols per 100 g dandelion extract).

Dandelion flowers have greater antioxidant properties
Oxidation is a natural process in the human body that, if left unchecked, can result in conditions such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease (just to name a few).  Antioxidants combat the process of oxidation, and can be produced internally as well as provided externally through the consumption of antioxidant-rich foods.

One highly reactive molecule involved in oxidation is the hydroxyl radical, which causes damage to DNA, membrane lipids, and tissues within the body.  Compared to the roots, stems, and leaves of dandelion, an ethyl acetate and water extract of dandelion flowers has been shown to provide the most efficient inhibition of the hydroxyl radical, followed by an aqueous extract of the stems.  This may be due to the higher number of polyphenols found within the flowers, including the caffeic and chlorogenic acids, and the flavones luteolin and luteolin 7-O-glucoside.

Dandelion flowers are anti-inflammatory
Research has shown that dandelion flowers mitigate inflammation in rats who experience carrageenan-induced paw edema.  A methanolic extract of the flower provides the most significant inhibition (95%), compared to the leaves (69%) and roots (51%).

Dandelion flowers may owe their anti-inflammatory effects to their polyphenols, in particular luteolin and luteolin 7-O-glucoside.  Research suggests that these compounds may downregulate both inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) and cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2) – two enzymes involved in the inflammation process.

Dandelion flowers may act as chemopreventive agents
Angiogenesis is the process whereby new blood vessels are formed from the preexisting vascular system.  While this is a normal part of the wound healing process, angiogenesis is also involved in tumor progression from the benign to malignant state.

Ethanolic extracts of dandelion flowers and leaves have been shown to possess anti-angiogenic activity, and this may result from the actions of flavonoid compounds such as luteolin.  This suggests that the aerial components of dandelion may play an important complementary role in cancer treatment and prevention.

Dandelion flowers undoubtedly possess many more healing properties that await the discovery of future research.  What we know at this point is that these reproductive structures are rich in polyphenols, they possess great antioxidant potential, they’re anti-inflammatory, and they may play a role in chemoprevention.

And while the title of this post may be a bit bold (how do you really define “healthiest?”), the reality is that the entire organism – Taraxacum officinale – is highly nutritious and medicinal.  In addition to the benefits previously stated, research has suggested that dandelion possesses hepatoprotective, choleretic, and diuretic properties, and that the plant is a superior source of several vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber compared to other commonly eaten salad greens.

Which makes me wonder:  Why isn’t dandelion recommended as the green of choice by nutrition experts, especially when it is so nutrient dense and readily available?


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-Adam Haritan

5 unique health benefits of morel mushrooms

For mushroom hunters in the temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, nothing signifies the beginning of spring more than the first appearance of morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.).  These organisms are arguably considered among the most prized edible fungi on the planet, and it’s not uncommon to see them fetching a price of a few hundred dollars per dried pound in the market.

While most morel enthusiasts cherish this particular mushroom for its exceptional taste and culinary applicability, less attention is given to its physiological effects on the body.  This is unfortunate, because, like many members of the fungal kingdom, morel mushrooms possess important nutritional and medicinal properties that can play key roles in optimizing the health of those who consume them.

Let’s take a look at some of these unique characteristics, focusing on one species of yellow morel mushroom, Morchella esculenta.

Vitamin D

Mushrooms exposed to sunlight or UV radiation are great sources of dietary vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol).  While most vitamin D supplements contain D3 (cholecalciferol), dietary D2 from mushrooms has been shown to be as effective as vitamin D2 and D3 supplements in raising and maintaining 25(OH)D levels (1).

Morel mushrooms contain approximately 206 IUs of vitamin D2 per 100 grams of fresh material (2).

Protection against drug side effects

Pharmaceutical drugs are rife with side effects, and cisplatin (a chemotherapy drug) and gentamicin (an antibiotic) are no exceptions.  When administered to mice, these drugs can deplete the internal antioxidant defense system and induce kidney failure.  Research shows, however, that an aqueous-ethanol extract from cultivated morel mycelium has the remarkable ability to enhance the internal antioxidant defense system, thereby protecting against toxicity induced by the chemotherapy and antibiotic drugs (3).

Antioxidants

Oxidative stress is implicated in numerous conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes types 1 and 2.  Consuming antioxidant-rich food, therefore, is an important strategy to protect against this internal damage.

Studies have shown that extracts from morel mycelium are effective in combating oxidation, primarily through the scavenging of reactive oxygen species (ROS), such as superoxide, hydroxyl, and nitric oxide radicals (4).

Antioxidants from morel mushrooms have also been shown to inhibit lipid peroxidation – a process involving tissue damage which, if left unchecked, can lead to inflammation and cancer (5).

Liver protection

Carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) is an inorganic compound which has been linked to disorders of the central nervous system and kidneys.  Research on animals has shown that administration of CCl4 with ethanol damages the liver by, among other things, depleting internal antioxidant stores.  When supplied with an extract of morel mycelium, however, protection is provided against liver damage, and antioxidant reserves can be restored.  This suggests that morel mushroom mycelium may provide therapeutic use as a hepatoprotective agent (6).

Immune system activity

A 2002 study analyzed the immunostimulatory property of a unique polysaccharide isolated from the morel mushroom.  Known as galactomannan, this compound comprises 2.0% of the dry fungal material, and may work on both innate immunity and adaptive immunity by enhancing macrophage activity (7).

In summary, morel mushrooms are excellent wild foods to add to your diet.  While they can be rather expensive at the supermarket, foraging provides a better option (in my opinion), though caution must be taken so as not to confuse this mushroom with the poisonous false morel (genus Gyromitra).  The biggest difference is that morels are hollow when cut in half lengthwise, while Gyromitras, which are typically a shade of reddish brown, are stuffed or chambered.  Of course, just knowing this information is no substitute for attending a mushroom walk or foray and having a trusted identifier discern for you the edible from the toxic.

Happy morel hunting!

 

The FDA is planning to change nutrition labels, and they miss the point completely

If you haven’t already heard, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing to change the way nutritional information is presented on a food label.

In the new label, for example, calories and serving sizes will be emphasized, and added sugars will now be listed in a separate category.

To visually represent the suggested changes, take a look at the current label (left) compared to the proposed label (right).

nutritionlabel1       nutritionlabel2

(Source: FDA)

The FDA’s goal, apparently, is to provide a label that better reflects the reality of what Americans are actually eating, rather than what experts think they should be eating.

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, elaborates: (1):

“Things like the size of a muffin have changed so dramatically. It is important that the information on the nutrition fact labels reflect the realities in the world today.”

Ah yes, the ever evolving muffin.  What was once the tiny manifestation of only a few earthly gifts – sourdough starter, wholewheat flour, egg, butter, sugar (and a few more ingredients) – has, over time, been significantly blown up and transformed into a byproduct of the latest technological advancements – refined white flour, a scoop of fortified vitamins and minerals, genetically engineered vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, aluminum-rich leavening agents, etc.

But it must be the nutrition facts label – with its misrepresented serving size and difficult-to-find calorie content – that has been causing all the problems … right?

I may be going out on an oak tree’s limb here, but I don’t think that the immediate problem lies within the over-consumption of those home-made sourdough muffins.  Instead, the real issue involves the allowance of nutritionally-corrupt ingredients in the food supply and passing the resulting products off as ways to “reduce cholesterol,” “support healthy arteries,” and “promote healthy blood pressure.”

Only in modern Western civilization can claims like these be made on heavily processed foods (Cherrios helps to lower cholesterol, apparently), while the majority of medicinal plant organisms, with extensive traditional applications and modern research to validate their efficacy, are relegated to the ranks of unproven, unfounded alternative therapies that ought to remain subordinate to the almighty conventional medical system.  An interesting paradigm, for sure.

The FDA, confused as to why the health of Americans is deteriorating, believes that the solution involves aesthetics.  After all, the only changes being proposed address words and numbers – not actual food quality.  How is the emphasis on serving size and calories, by increasing the size of the text, going to improve the health of consumers?  As far as I’m aware, most consumers can see just fine.  In the event that a consumer would care enough to inspect the nutrition label, I’d imagine that he or she would, sooner or later, locate the calorie content (note: if you have trouble finding it, check out the number next to the bold word, “Calories”).

Words can be highlighted, new categories can be added, and claims can be littered all over the package, but this will do very little to reverse the deteriorating health of junk food addicted Americans.

What the FDA doesn’t seem to realize is that the ingredients that comprise a food are far more important than the nutritional facts that represent the food .  Essentially, quality trumps quantity.  Is it really advantageous to know that a food is low fat, low cholesterol, and low sugar, when the product is made with antibiotic-laced dairy, genetically engineered soybean oil, and artificial sweeteners?  There ought to be more emphasis on what’s actually in a particular product by drawing attention to the ingredient list, for this list can tell a person much more than extra-large numbers on a nutrition facts label could ever reveal.

For example, the proposed labels will feature vitamin D content.  Let’s imagine that a certain food-like-product is high in vitamin D.  So what?  It was synthetically added to the hormonally-altered pasteurized low-fat milk, after the original vitamin D was thrown out with the rest of the critical nutrients, like saturated fat (yes, it is necessary for health) and fat-soluble vitamins.  I’d rather know about the source and quality of the milk, which could be derived from the ingredient list, than the limited nutritional profile that the FDA requires.  Give me any two food products, and I’ll tell you which one is almost certainly more optimal for the human body just by reading the ingredient list.

Let’s not forget that the proposed labels do nothing to address the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply.  With the increasing desire for GMO labeling in America (a recent Mellman Group survey found that 91% of voters supported GMO labeling), and the lack of consumer interest to emphasize serving size and calorie content on nutrition facts labels (no one is marching around Washington with signs exclaiming “Increase Calorie Font Size!”), why, on this beautiful Earth, is there such a push to address the concerns of the latter, while the desires of GMO labeling advocates are continually dismissed?

Ultimately, the FDA’s proposed labels seem like a precarious step sideways (even, perhaps, backwards) … not a huge step forward.  If it plans on seeing any significant changes, it must acknowledge the fact that America’s commercial food supply hardly contains any real food whatsoever.

When the majority of food products are just different permutations of corn, wheat, and soy (think subsidization has anything to do with their ubiquity?), we’ve got a problem.  When the text size of “calories” requires magnification, we’ve got a problem.  When the majority of Americans demand labeling of genetically modified organisms, and that demand is ignored, we’ve got a problem.  When the focus on food shifts to isolated nutrients, numbers, and percentages, instead of what’s actually in the food, we’ve got a problem.

So, we’ve got a problem.  No worries, though, as there is a fairly simple solution.

Eat real food.  Food that comes from the Earth.  Eat lots of food that doesn’t even require packaging, as most products that require labels you could probably do without – and still thrive.  Even better, grow your own food, or harvest the food from the wild.  Labels are products of civilization; the foods of civilization are the ones that got us in this mess in the first place.

You don’t need an expert, a professional, nor the FDA to tell you what’s good for your body.  Are they paragons of optimal, adaptive health anyway?

Essentially, don’t outsource your health.  Take responsibility for it, in every area of life.

And trust your intuition – you already know which foods are best for you.

Not all maple syrup is the same, and here’s why

MaplesugarindustrywildfoodismWithin the supermarket of domesticated foods, a wild redeemer can usually be found:  maple syrup.  It is the largest commercially produced and consumed natural plant product that is derived exclusively from tree sap, and is one of the remaining wild foods left in the grocery store.

For those who do not have the time, nor the resources, to embark on the path of home sugar production, commercially bought maple syrup is a fine alternative.  But how do we know which kind is best for us?  Some notable authors declare that there are no nutritional differences between the various grades of syrup.  Are they entirely correct in their statements?

First, I’ll just throw it out there for those who may not know: products like Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Buttersworth’s are not real maple syrups.  They’re made from high-fructose corn syrup.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think Zea mays (corn) gives its sap for the production of sugar in ways quite like a maple tree.  What’s more, neither of the aforementioned products even contain the word “maple” in their list of ingredients.  I’m sure most of you know all this, but for those who don’t, I’d strongly advise against the consumption of these maple syrup knockoffs.

Moving on, let’s assume we have in front of us 4 different bottles of (real) maple syrup.  From left to right, the colors range from light to dark, and the grades progress from US Grade A Light Amber, all the way to US Grade B for Reprocessing.  This is the standard labeling in most of the states within the U.S., though Canada has different standards (from Canada No.1 Extra Light to Canada No. 3 Amber).  To alleviate confusion, the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) has recommended the adoption of a universal grading scale, assigning a Grade A to all products, and only differentiating by color and taste.

Now, the big question is this:  Is there a difference in nutritional value between the lightest bottles and the darkest?

The answer?  Of course!  There appears to be considerable variation between syrups (using the IMSI classifications of amber, dark, and very dark) in three main areas of nutritional concern:  mineral composition, total phenol content, and antioxidant potential (1).

Mineral composition
Very dark syrup, which tends to be produced from sap later in the season, has been shown to contain higher levels of calcium and phosphorus than those found in amber syrup.  There is, on average, 2.26 times the calcium and 2.76 times the phosphorus in very dark syrup compared to amber syrup.  All maple syrup contains a host of minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron, though very dark syrup may boast around 27% more total mineral content than its lighter alternative.

Total phenol content
Phenols are the main phytochemical compounds found in maple syrup.  Very dark syrup, on average, may contain up to 2.1 times the phenol content than that of amber syrup.  These plant compounds are associated with the darker color of fruits and vegetables, and may give the darker syrups their rich colors.  Beyond aesthetics, maple phenols may possess important biological activities, acting as antioxidant, anti-tumor, and anti-cancer agents.

For example, a phenolic-rich extract from maple syrup has been shown to induce cell cycle arrest in human colon cancer cells (2).

Another study showed that maple polyphenols may have potential cancer chemoprotective effects through the induction of cell cycle arrest in colon and breast cancer cells (3).

Antioxidant potential
Among fruits and vegetables, high phenol content is associated with higher antioxidant potential.  This is exactly what we see with maple syrup.  On average, very dark maple syrup has almost 2 times the antioxidant potential than that of amber syrup.  This potential may be greater than those of vitamin C and synthetic commercial antioxidants.

Oxidation is a contributing factor in certain illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  The consumption of dietary antioxidants, like those found in maple syrup, therefore, is necessary to keep the oxidation process in check.

In summary, darker maple syrup tends to contain a higher total mineral content (especially calcium and phosphorus), more phenols, and a higher antioxidant potential than lighter maple syrup.  This is handy information for those who may be confused by all the varying labels on maple syrup bottles.

A point I haven’t addressed yet, though one that is worth mentioning, is that home sugar production can be unparalleled when it comes to quality.  Most commercial maple syrup is produced with the heavy utilization of plastic in several steps throughout the process.  It wouldn’t be too far fetched to expect some leaching of plastic compounds into the final product.  The use of more inert materials, therefore, such as stainless steel and glass (included in some home operations), can result in a product that exceeds the quality of any syrup bought in the store.

Regardless of how you acquire maple syrup – either through the grocery store, a neighbor, or your own sugar bush – including this nutritious food at home is a great way to increase the wildness of your diet.

And remember, when choosing a particular grade of maple syrup based on the nutritional profile, a general rule of thumb can be applied:  the darker the syrup, the better!

References
Li L, Seeram NP (2012). Chemical composition and biological effects of maple syrup. In: Patil, BS, Guddadarangavvanahally KJ, Chidambara M, Kotamballi N and Seeram, NP (eds). Emerging trends
in dietary components for preventing and combating disease, 1st ed. Amer Chem Soc., pp 323-333.

How birch bark heals wounds faster, and how to make birch bark medicine for skin

yellowbirchwildfoodismWhen treating illness or disease, it makes sense to consume food and medicine of the highest quality.

Should not the same standard apply, then, to the things we put onto our bodies, for instance, in the event of an injury or wound?

For those individuals who are looking for something – how should I say it – less toxic? – than the creams and lotions with concentrated antibiotics (known to contribute to antibiotic resistance), synthetic preservatives, synthetic fragrances, and synthetic colors:  consider looking to the birch tree for potential wound relief.

According to researchers from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Freiburg, an extract from silver birch bark (Betula pendula) is able to expedite the wound-healing process, doing so in two unique ways (1).

First, the extract enhances acute inflammation.  When skin is damaged, certain inflammatory mediators are recruited to the area of injury.  Birch bark, in particular the triterpine betulin, heightens this particular response when applied to wounds, allowing for greater production of inflammatory substances that fight harmful bacteria and remove dead tissue.  This pro-inflammatory process is only temporary, which is a good thing, as extended inflammation could be detrimental to the wound healing process.

Second, the extract enhances tissue repair.  After skin is damaged and inflammation is underway, new skin cells must close the wound.  Birch bark, when applied to skin, causes keratinocytes to migrate more quickly to the site of injury, helping to seal the wound.  It seems as though the compounds betulin and lupeol are responsible for this crucial second step.

While the particular mechanisms behind the wound-healing properties of birch bark provide new information for scientists, the use of birch bark to heal wounds has been known by researchers for quite some time.  A 2010 case study documented the ability of birch bark extract to successfully treat severe necrotizing herpes zoster (shingles) in a patient who failed to respond to conventional topical treatments (2).

In another report, birch bark extract was shown to be effective in treating two patients with second degree burning (3).

The history of birch bark for wound treatment goes back yet even further.  If we are to look at the traditional use of birch trees by indigenous peoples, at least in North America, we find that several groups used the bark to treat various skin disorders.

For example, paper birch was used to treat skin rashes.  The Cree used the outer bark to bandage burns.  Inner bark, added to pitch and grease, was used by the Cree as ointment for persistent scabs and rashes.

Gray birch was used by the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq for infected cuts, and powdered wood from the downy birch was used by the Cree to treat chafed skin (4).

Although Native Americans did not produce extractions as sophisticated as the modern ones currently used in research, they were still able to take advantage of the skin-healing properties of birch trees through simpler methods, and so can you.

Both betulin and lupeol, the chemicals responsible for the wound-healing effects of birch bark, are poorly soluble in water.  To make birch bark extractions, then, alcohol and fat would be better solvents.  This can be accomplished by removing the bark (the researchers used the outer bark), crushing it into small pieces, and extracting the materials in alcohol or fat.  After a few weeks, the mixture can be strained and bottled for later use.

A salve can also be quite effective, produced by extracting the bark in olive oil, straining, and adding the solution to melted beeswax.  Upon solidifying, the salve is ready for use.

Being able to identify birch trees is important, as they can also be utilized for food, medicine, sap and syrup, basketry, dyes, lumber, fire wood, and so on.  When using them to treat wounds, however, understand that there is a limit to what they can accomplish.  If you are out in the wild and injure yourself severely, professional emergency medical help might be the better option.

Still, it is important to know that birch bark can be used in certain circumstances to treat skin disorders.  And what’s even more important than just knowing about it is taking action and putting this information to good use.

References
3. Schempp C, Huyke C (2005) Behandlung von Verbrennungen 2. Grades mit Birkencreme. Der Merkurstab 5: 402.
4. Moerman, D. E. (2008) Native American Ethnobotany. London: Timber Press, Inc.

Healing chronic diseases for free with wild food

chickweedwinterwildfoodismFrom Reuters:  “One in three Americans with a chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or high blood pressure has difficulty paying for food, medications or both, according to a new study.”

It has become quite evident by now that the most heavily subsidized and advertised foods are responsible for the declining health of America’s citizens, offering little in the way of solutions.

Remember, as the popular phrase reminds us, that a problem cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created it.  Relating this to the topic at hand:  Even if all Americans with chronic diseases could afford food and medications, this would do very little to solve the overarching issue.

(Note: the chronic illnesses discussed in this article refer primarily to the ones caused by diet and lifestyle, and not the disorders of absolute genetic influence.)

What is the overarching issue?  America is centered around a diet of domesticated, medicine-deficient foods.  Not surprisingly, these same adulterated foods are associated with chronic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension.

Through the agricultural process of domestication, wild organisms have had most of their medicines bred out of them in exchange for improvements in taste, size, and yield.  Today, medicinal compounds are sought after by pharmaceutical researchers, extracted and patented, and sold back to sick Americans at enormous profit margins.

We’re sold on the idea of an inferior diet.  We’re sold the foods of an inferior diet.  We get sick on an inferior diet, and expect these same foods to provide relief and aid ourselves back to health (with the help of synthetic drugs, of course).

If only we had let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.

Sometimes, we confuse ourselves so much that even the obvious – what is literally in plain view – remains obscured.  Food was, and also has been, free.  For the majority of our time on this planet, we, Homo sapiens, consumed the wild foods that grew naturally in our ecosystems.  Only with the development of large-scale agriculture did we start to see evidence of massive surpluses of food, necessitating individuals to reign over the food supply and ultimately assign monetary value to their agricultural commodities.  And yet, the wild foods remained free.

I understand that our species, at least in the United States, has evolved quite a bit away from the natural processes of hunting and gathering (i.e. self-sufficient living), and it may not be feasible to expect the average American to reacquaint him or herself with these skills.  But it seems to me that this idea – of becoming more self-sufficient in all areas of life – targets the root problem, and is not just another band-aid to superficially cover the wound.

Contrast my thoughts, about becoming more self-sufficient in all areas of life, with what Reuters has to say:

…the authors recommend looking into eligibility for food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC…

And later..

“The most important thing people can do is talk with their doctors about it,” said Berkowitz.

Yes, it is possible that the proposed solutions, at least in the short-run, will allow individuals to access food and medications during difficult times.  But is the lack of access to food assistance programs the real issue here?  Do all doctors teach self-reliance?  Do they have the answers as to why more and more Americans are experiencing chronic diseases with no conventional relief?

True, particular individuals with chronic diseases may not be able to afford certain foods.  But are the foods of the standard American diet really the ones best equipped to heal ourselves in times of distress?

A radical paradigm shift must be enacted, apparently, to understand that the most natural and healing foods for the human body are, and always have been, the wild foods of this planet.

And these foods are free.

I understand that this extreme transformation, from once relying on others (supermarkets, doctors, pharmacists) to now taking full responsibility for one’s health, may not be the feasible, overnight solution for which everyone is looking.  It’s not meant to be a short-term fix.  But if more and more individuals understood that true health could be gained and maintained by sustainably utilizing the natural resources of this planet, then perhaps we would finally see real change.

No, I’m not talking about the change that comes from recommending that men, ages 31 to 50, consume 2 cups of dark green vegetables, 6 cups of orange and red vegetables, 2 cups of beans and peas, 6 cups of starchy vegetables, and 5 cups of “other” vegetables weekly (1).  Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong crowd here, but I have yet to meet anyone doing just that.

What we need to see, for any real progress to occur, is an emphasis on the kind of lifestyle that has been shown to be effective, for instance, in producing healthy children, with adequate bone and facial structures, generation after generation.  Healthy indigenous populations, consuming a majority of their calories from wild foods, come to mind.

I suppose that in an ideal world, things would be different.  We would have less food assistance programs, and more food education courses.  We would have less food banks, and more wild food to harvest.  Never again would we think of food as just a source of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.  And never again would we think that “healthy” food costs too much.  Instead, we would understand the food we consume to be the foundation of all nourishment, medicine, and health.

Ultimately, we would treat food less as a commodity, and more so as the sacred resource it always has been.

22 trees that can be tapped for sap and syrup

mapletappingwildfoodismAs winter wanes and spring approaches, wild foodists all across North America tap into the time-honored tradition of sugar production – mainly, the transformation of maple tree sap into maple syrup.  This process, passed on from the Native Americans to the early settlers, is still quite popular today, and is responsible for one of the few wild foods that can be purchased commercially in most supermarkets.

Most people associate syrup with the maple tree, and although much of today’s syrup does originate from the sugar maple, all species of maple can be tapped.  Even better, many other trees from other genera can be tapped to extract sap, which ultimately can be turned into delicious syrup.

In this post, I won’t be discussing the methods involved in tapping for sugar production.  If you are unfamiliar with the process, there are a variety of great websites, videos, and books to guide you.  Rather, I would like to provide a list of various trees (maples, birches, walnuts, etc.) that you can tap successfully to yield wonderful, sugary products.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
The sugar maple yields the highest volume and concentration of sap, making it a superior candidate for tapping.

Black maple (Acer nigrum)
Black maples produce as much sweet sap as sugar maples.  The trees closely resemble sugar maples and can be distinguished by their leaves.  Black maples tend to have leaves with three major lobes, while leaves from sugar maples have five lobes.

Red maple (Acer rubrum)
Sap yields from red maples are generally lower than those from sugar maples, although some tapping operations utilize only red maples.  The trees bud out earlier in the spring, which may reduce syrup quality near the end of sugaring season.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
Like red maples, silver maples bud out earlier in the spring and have a lower sugar content than sugar maples (1.7% compared to 2.0%).

Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
Native to Europe, Norway maples are now considered invasive throughout much of the United Sates.  They are not as sweet as sugar maples, yet can be tapped regardless.

Boxelder (Acer negundo)
Also known as Manitoba maple, boxelders can be found growing in urban areas and along roadsides.  They’re not recommended as a first choice for sugar production, although maple producers in the Canadian prairies rely almost exclusively on boxelders for their sap.  Research suggests that boxelders may yield only half the syrup of typical sugar maples.

Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)
Bigleaf maple is the main species of maple growing between central California and British Columbia.  Native Americans have tapped these trees for centuries, and although the sugar content and sap flow are less than those from sugar maples, these trees can still provide a commercially viable source of syrup for the Pacific Coast.

Canyon maple, big tooth maple (Acer grandidentatum)
These trees are found primarily throughout the Rocky Mountain states.  They also grow in Texas, where they are referred to as Uvalde bigtooth maples.  The sugar content is comparable to that of sugar maples, but the volume produced is much less.

Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum)
Rocky Mountain maples are native to western North America, and have been used traditionally by various groups, including the Plateau Natives.

Gorosoe (Acer mono)
Gorosoe, which translates to “The tree that is good for the bones,” is the most commonly tapped maple tree in Korea.  The sap is usually consumed fresh as a beverage, and not boiled down to a syrup.

Butternut, white walnut (Juglans cinerea)
The butternut produces a sap that yields roughly 2% sugar – similar to sugar maples.  The timing and total volume of sap are also comparable to sugar maples.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
The black walnut tree is a valuable timber species, whose sap flows in autumn, winter, and spring.  It is more common in the Midwest than in the Northeastern United States.

Heartnut (Juglans ailantifolia)
A cultivar of Japanese walnuts, heartnuts have sugar contents comparable to sugar maples, but produce much less sap.

English walnut (Juglans regia)
These are the walnuts commonly eaten and purchased from supermarkets.  They are not typically found in the Eastern United States, but rather are grown most abundantly in California.  English walnut trees can be tapped successfully, especially when subjected to a freezing winter and spring.

Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
The paper birch has a lower sugar content than sugar maple (less than 1%), but is the sweetest of the birch trees.

Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
The yellow birch tree has been found to have a higher mineral composition, lower sugar content, and a higher ORAC value (measure of antioxidant capacity) than sugar maple.

Black birch (Betula lenta)
Native to eastern North America, black birch is most popular for its use in making birch beer.

River birch (Betula nigra)
Found growing abundantly in the southeastern United States, and planted as an ornamental in the Northeast, the river birch can successfully be tapped.

Gray birch (Betula populifolia)
Gray birch is more of a shrub than a tree, but may be tapped if it grows large enough.

European white birch (Betula pendula)
Native to Europe, and grown as an ornamental in urban and suburban areas of the United States, European white birch can be tapped.

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Native to North America, the sycamore tree has a lower sugar content than sugar maple, yet is reported to produce a syrup that exudes a butterscotch flavor.

Ironwood, hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)
These trees produce a sap later in the spring, although the sugar content and volume are much less than those from birch trees.

And there you have it – a list of 22 trees that can be tapped.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, as other trees surely produce a sap that can be extracted through tapping.  It is, however, a good representation of the most commonly tapped trees, including those that have been used traditionally for centuries, and some that are just recently gaining in popularity.

If you are fortunate to have access to any of the aforementioned trees – and the trees are healthy – explore the traditional art of sugar production by learning and participating in this beautiful craft.


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-Adam Haritan

 

 

 

 

The chemicals in a blueberry

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece highlighting the work of an Australian high school chemistry teacher (1).  The teacher, James Kennedy, created posters of different foods showcasing their chemical constituents by displaying them as a list of ingredients, much like what one would see on a processed food label (2).

For example, here is a poster illustrating the naturally occurring chemicals within a blueberry (click to enlarge).

blueberrieswildfoodism

The goal, according to Kennedy, was to visually represent chemicals as an introduction to an organic chemistry course.  Further, he hoped to alleviate his students’ fears regarding chemicals by showing that nature is teeming with naturally occurring chemicals that are more complex than anything found in the lab.

As a former student of organic chemistry, I find his posters to be quite fascinating.  However, as a student of nutrition, wild food, and the natural processes of life, I can also see where his message has the potential to be misinterpreted by those who accept his work at face value.

Let me explain.

There are many more chemicals found within a blueberry, in addition to the ones listed.

True, the naturally occurring chemicals listed on the poster are probably found in a (cultivated) blueberry.  Kennedy derived his list from nutrition analyses, botany books, and peer-reviewed chemical analyses.  But does it represent all the chemicals found in a blueberry?  Most likely not.  Researchers are constantly discovering and isolating new chemicals to the extent that technology allows.

There is no such thing as a static list in nature.

In 50 years, perhaps the list of chemicals in a blueberry will be twice as comprehensive.  An improvement in technology might allow for this to happen, but so too can the ebb and flow of nature.  Nothing is static; everything is changing and evolving as time (from our perspective) moves forward.  Who’s to say that the list of chemicals in a blueberry today will be exactly the same 50 years from now?

As an organism is exposed to various conditions and stresses, its chemical composition will surely be altered, at least in quantity.  For example, organic grape juices have been shown to possess higher values of polyphenols and resveratrol (antioxidants) compared to conventional grape juices (3).  Can the quantity of certain chemicals in an organism be manipulated so much that they are reduced to zero?  Perhaps this is a hypothesis worth exploring.

Chemicals in nature are found in a proportion favorable to the organism.

They are not found in isolation.  Blueberries contain the flavor chemical, 3-methylbutyraldehyde, and it functions just fine in conjunction with all the other constituents within the fruit.  This doesn’t mean, however, that a synthetically created 3-methylbutyraldehyde, operating outside its natural matrix, acts the same way.

Now, I know Kennedy is not suggesting that an isolated chemical found within a blueberry is safe for human consumption outside its complex system, but this theory is well accepted elsewhere.

For example, the pharmaceutical industry derives many of its drugs from the isolation of plant chemicals.  The opium poppy has been used traditionally as food and medicine by various groups, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.  Codeine, an opiate chemical found within the opium poppy, has been isolated and used conventionally to relieve coughs and pain.

It is not without its side effects, however, as codeine has been known to cause vomiting, memory loss, and depression.  Removed from its natural system within the opium poppy, it can be quite detrimental.

A more telling example would be the relationship between cocaine and the coca leaf.  Coca leaves, for thousands of years, have been chewed by various South American indigenous groups for stimulation and enhanced cognition.  Cocaine, an alkaloid isolated from the plant, is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that can cause life-threatening hyperthermia, arrhythmias, and death.

Bottom line:  a chemical within a complex system is vastly different than its isolated counterpart.

Food is more than the sum total of its chemicals.

The list of ingredients in a blueberry hints at reductionist philosophy, implying that a complex system can be understood completely in terms of its individual parts.  Surely we cannot believe that a blueberry is solely Kennedy’s list of chemical ingredients.  If this were to be true, then we should be able to recreate the blueberry simply by blending those ingredients together.

Obviously, this isn’t likely to happen.  There is much more to a blueberry (or to any organism for that matter) than its chemical composition alone.  Conventional science is useful in isolating some components within a living system, but lacks the ability to fully describe the essence that brings it to life.

Overall, Kennedy’s work to introduce his students to the world of organic chemistry is compelling, and he makes a great point:  chemicals are not simply the products of science experiments performed in the lab.  They are found in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat.

His posters do a good job of highlighting this.  Remember, however, that chemical composition is only a fraction of what is known about an organism.

Nature is full of naturally occurring compounds that work synergistically to assist, in part, in creating complex arrangements.  In turn, these structures work to create even larger systems ad infinitum.

Such is the holographic nature of our universe, a beautiful and intricate system that cannot be reduced to a single list of ingredients.

Are vegetarians at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency? Wild foods offer help

blacktrumpetwildfoodismIt’s not hard to imagine that eliminating an entire kingdom of life (Animalia) could result in a deficiency somewhere down the line, if – let’s say – that kingdom was a phenomenal source of a particular nutrient.

Such is the case with vitamin B12, an important nutrient concentrated in foods derived from animals, like meat, milk, eggs, fish, and shellfish.

What makes sense intuitively has been confirmed by research: those practicing vegetarian or vegan diets are at greater risk for vitamin B12 deficiency than omnivores (1).

Now, this isn’t to say that only vegetarians and vegans are at risk, as other groups prone to deficiency include the elderly, those who lack intrinsic factor (a substance produced by stomach cells necessary for absorption of B12), and those who do not produce enough stomach acid.  Generally speaking, however, individuals who abstain from animal foods, without securing and consuming alternative B12 sources, may find themselves deficient.

Why is this important?  Vitamin B12 is necessary for the metabolism of cells in the gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, and nervous tissue, and works with folate in the synthesis and regulation of DNA.  Deficiencies can lead to impaired cell division, permanent nerve damage, and pernicious anemia.  The current RDA for vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg (μg) in individuals 14 years and older.

It’s not always easy to discern which foods contain a form of B12 usable by the human body.  A quick look at some nutrition labels may reveal the presence of vitamin B12 – for example, in the cyanobacterium sprirulina – however, what some foods actually contain is a biologically inactive form of B12, known as pseudo-B12.

Vitamin B12 and pseudo-B12 are not the same; only the former is biologically active in the human body and therefore able to correct deficiencies.

How are we to know which foods contain active vitamin B12, especially when some plant food nutrition labels make this claim?  New research has fortunately uncovered important information regarding this particular subject, and it looks like certain wild foods may offer assistance to those experiencing deficiencies (2).

Algae

Various wild algae are consumed by humans all over the world.  Algae are rich in certain nutrients like iron, iodine, vitamin C, manganese, and folate.

Two of the most widely consumed algae – green (Enteromorpha sp.) and purple (Porphyra sp.) lavers – are also great sources of biologically active vitamin B12, containing approximately 133 μg per 100 g dry weight.  Research has shown that consumption of dried laver, also known as nori, can prevent vitamin B12 deficiency in vegans.

Mushrooms

The fungal kingdom is often overlooked when it comes to diet and nutrition, yet research has been continuously unraveling important nutritional and medicinal properties of certain fungi.  While many common mushrooms contain little to no vitamin B12, two species in particular contain adequate amounts.

Black trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides) and golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) mushrooms contain considerable amounts of biologically active vitamin B12 (1.09−2.65 μg/100 g dry weight), and may improve vitamin levels in those experiencing deficiencies.

In addition to the aforementioned organisms, most wild animals contain biologically active vitamin B12, concentrated especially in the liver and kidneys.  Popular shellfish, such as wild oysters, mussels, and short-necked clams are good sources of active B12.  Other shellfish, such as abalones, ark shells, and whelks contain substantial amounts of pseudo-B12, and are not recommended to correct deficiencies.

In general, consuming quality whole food is the best way to ensure optimal levels of any nutrient, as no vitamin or mineral exists independently in nature.  For those who do not ingest adequate amounts of B12-containing foods (wild or cultivated), supplements are effective in increasing circulating levels.

If supplementing, consider ingesting a B12 supplement independent of your full-spectrum multivitamin. B12 in the presence of vitamin C and copper can become degraded as a result of oxidation.  These degradation products can also further block the absorption of active B12 (3).

If you suspect a vitamin B12 deficiency, consider having your levels checked.  Develop a strategy that ensures optimal intake through possible routes of food and supplementation.

And remember – animals tend to be the most concentrated food sources of active B12, but there is indeed hope, provided by our wild algal, fungal, and bacterial friends, in correcting deficiencies.

Are acorns, wild foods, and the paleo diet bad for teeth? Here’s what the research really says

huntergathererwildfoodism

Source: PNAS

NPR recently published an article entitled “Looks Like The Paleo Diet Wasn’t Always So Hot For Ancient Teeth” (1). In it, author Christopher Joyce summarized the results of a new study regarding hunter-gatherers and dental caries (cavities).

Up until now, it has been hypothesized that the shift from hunting and gathering to a life based on farming and agriculture correlated with an increase in dental decay.  This new research, published in the journal PNAS, challenges the notion that hunter-gatherers were largely free from dental problems and instead suggests that a particular diet of wild foods can in fact lead to poor oral health (2).

If you haven’t read the NPR piece, no problem.  Here’s the gist:  Archaeological evidence from a Moroccan cave revealed the remains of a hunter-gatherer population that existed between 12,000 – 15,000 years ago.  Archaeologists were astonished to discover a very high rate of dental caries among the bodies, claiming that acorns may have been the culprits.  Acorns, according the study’s author, are very high in carbohydrates, and with their sticky texture can adhere to teeth.  Dental decay is the ultimate result.  This is the earliest discovery of dental caries in a population, challenging the belief that the paleo diet is inherently healthy.

End summary.

Now, it would be easy to address the points Joyce makes regarding the paleolithic diet and
lifestyle – that Stone Age life was “certainly” brutal and short, that there is one single paleo diet, and that saber-toothed cats were maniacally running around everywhere – but it’s not my intention to rebut these particular issues.

Fortunately, I was able to access the original study published in PNAS, and would like to reveal what the researchers actually discovered.

As it turns out, acorns weren’t the only botanical remains found.  Twenty-two different plants were discovered, including juniper, pine nuts, pistachio, wild pulses, wild oats, goosefoot, ephedra, rose, and elderberry.  Sure, acorns outnumbered the other plants, but nowhere in the NPR article is another species mentioned.  The researchers even specifically stated that carbohydrates found in wild pulses and wild oats may have contributed to the high prevalence of dental decay.

But let’s just assume, for the time being, that acorns were the major cause of the dental caries.  The holm oak acorns discovered (Quercus ilex) are reported to be low in tannin content.  Tannins are astringent compounds that can interfere with protein and mineral absorption and, unless action is taken to mitigate their effects, can be detrimental to the human body.  A major finding, mentioned nowhere in the NPR article, is that the acorns were thought to have been eaten raw.  According to the study:

“The rarity of charred seeds indicates that acorns were consumed raw or underwent an initial processing stage that did not involve the use of fire.”

Yes, the individuals may have used fire later on in their preparation of acorns, but the possibility exists that they were eaten raw.

Why does this matter?  Acorns are almost always processed in a particular way to increase edibility.  Ethnobotanical research reveals that clay, lye, lime, and water have all been used to decrease the tannin content of acorns, followed by the addition of heat.  Even though holm oak acorns are low in tannic acids, wild food experts still recommend that all acorns be leached prior to consumption.  Arthur Haines, a botanist who runs the Delta Institute of Natural History in Maine, writes (3):

“Despite what you may have been told, all acorns should be leached prior to consuming them in any quantity.”

There isn’t much evidence to support raw acorn consumption by healthy, indigenous populations.  Rather, what we do find is that those who process acorns through proper leaching and cooking often exude the qualities of superb health, with healthy teeth and bone structures.  Tannic acids affect protein and mineral absorption, and may alter the availability of certain compounds necessary for healthy teeth and bone formation, thus leading to dental caries.

The study isn’t saying that leaching was always omitted.  It is possible that the North African hunter-gatherers leached the acorns and reduced the tannin content.  But heat could have reduced the content even further, as shown in studies using clay to reduce the tannic acids of acorns.  However, as stated above, the researchers suggested that the acorns were eaten raw, with no evidence of leaching.

There’s another issue involved with the consumption of unprocessed acorns, that being the presence of excesssive phytic acid in the diet.  Phytic acid is the primary storage form of phosphorous in plants (including acorns), and when ingested, decreases the availability of certain minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium, and magnesium.  Some oaks contain as much as 2.67% phytic acid by weight, similar to linseed, pinto beans, and tofu (4).

Phytic acid, unless properly dealt with, may affect mineralization involved in enamel building (5).  If this population of hunter-gatherers took the necessary precautions of leaching and cooking the acorns (which they could have, but the evidence is lacking), the phytic and tannic acids would be minimized.  The researchers place most of the blame on acorns as the reason for rampant tooth decay, but perhaps the issue has more to do with the processing methods (raw/leached/cooked), and less to do with the species.

The researchers also revealed other possible explanations for the oral wear and tear experienced by these hunter-gatherers.  For example, land snails were part of their diet, and consumption of abrasive particles could have contributed to tooth wear.  This specific population was known to use stones to pound and grind their food, and abrasive particles from the stones may have led to further tooth wear.  The individuals may have also harbored virulent bacterial strains specific to dental decay that spread rapidly within the population.  Without adequate oral hygiene, this could have greatly influenced the prevalence of dental caries.

It’s difficult to know exactly what led to the high prevalence of tooth decay within this Moroccan hunter-gatherer population.  The NPR article focuses almost entirely on the consumption of acorns as the leading cause, however based on the evidence, only a correlation can be made (and even that is tenuous).

There is limited evidence to suggest that acorns, at least from the holm oak species, are cariogenic.  If they were, we might also find a higher prevalence of dental decay among indigenous groups that relied on acorns as dietary staples.  This isn’t the case, however, and instead we see acorn-eating populations throughout history who experienced great health.

Many more points could be addressed – for example, generalizing this particular diet of wild foods to all paleo diets.  However, no single paleo diet exists.  The real paleo diet of the past, which was a hunting and gathering wild food diet, varied greatly between different areas of the world, and was based on the biodiversity within particular ecosystems.  To say that the paleo diet wasn’t always conducive to good oral health, therefore, is inaccurate.  The North African hunter-gatherer diet of the Later Stone Age?  Maybe.  But not all.

Fear not, for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has indeed been shown to be a bit more favorable for oral health, though this point was somehow left out of the NPR article.  The researchers from this study stated:

“Frequencies of carious lesions in archaeological populations range from 2.2–48.1% of teeth for agricultural populations, but only 0–14.3% for hunter-gatherers.”

I’ll keep eating my acorns, properly processed of course.  I hope you will too.

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