Month: September 2013

The Standard Bitter-Deficient Diet

garlicmustardIn the previous post, I discussed the role of wild food as medicine and examined the utility of wild plants in a particular Lebanese population.  In the Bekaa Valley, some of the most commonly foraged items act not only as fuel, but as medicine, too.

For many reasons, wild plants are, on average, more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts.  This is in large part due to the amount of phytonutrients they contain.  Because organisms in the wild do not rely on human intervention for their survival, they must develop their own strategies to protect themselves.  These strategies can include mechanical defenses (thorns), camouflauge, and chemical defenses (alkaloids, phenolic compounds).

Humans have been breeding out many of the bitter (read: medicinal) compounds in a trade-off for bigger and tastier yields.  Because of this, many nutrient deficiencies and degenerative diseases have become commonplace in the world of domesticated diets.

Is it possible to ameliorate this dilemma by re-introducing bitter foods into the standard bitter-deficient diet?  Are consumers eager to explore the world of lost medicine and sacrifice taste in exchange for health?

A review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1) examined this issue, and concluded that most tastes associated with plant medicine, like bitter, acrid, and astringent are aversive to consumers, necessitating scientific modification for inclusion into the typical Western diet.

Before I get into the ramifications of this subject, I’d like to review two of the plant compound classes discussed in this article.


Tannins are water-soluble polyphenolic compounds that have been selectively bred out of many foods in the human diet.  True, these bitter molecules can pose a threat to health, as they can interfere with protein absorption and the availability of iron, but they are nevertheless present in several wild foods.  Indigenous cultures employed a variety of mechanisms to reduce the tannin content of plants (leaching from acorns), and although these processes were effective, it’s not hard to imagine that some tannin residue was left.

And what might the effect be of low-tannin consumption?  Not surprisingly, research suggests that tannins possess beneficial activity against carcinogens, microbes, and oxidation in small doses (2,3).  These plant compounds are there to defend the organism against predation, and small amounts may confer protective effects to the consumer as well.


Flavonoids are polyphenolic compounds that act as pigments and antioxidants in plants.  Examples include quercetin, naringin, and hesperidin.  Because they impart a bitter flavor to plants, food companies are keen on decreasing the amount of these compounds in their products.  This is commonplace in the citrus industry.

But flavonoids have been shown to act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and anti-thrombotic agents in the reduction of cardiovascular disease (4).  Tampering with the quantity of flavonoids in the human diet may promote unintended side-effects by diminishing the ability of the body to defend itself against disease.

It’s important to understand the traditional use of wild plants in the context of the human diet.  There’s no denying the toxic effects of certain plants, even edible ones.  But remember, a wild food diet doesn’t rely on one item for all its nutrition.  Doing this can present problems to a population (think maize and pellagra).  Wild Foodism is about broadening the diversity of the diet, spreading out the nutrition and medicine amongst dozens of species to mitigate the chances of intoxicating the body.

But the question remains:  Why don’t we like bitter?  Humans are hypothesized to have developed an aversion to bitter tastes as a protective mechanism against poisonous substances.  It is not necessarily true, however, that the more toxic a plant is, the more bitter it tastes.  Instead, it may be true that adaptation to bitter foods raises the bitter threshold, so that the more bitter an animal’s diet is, the less aversion the diet creates.  For example, herbivores consuming a diet of leaves will display an increased tolerance to bitter foods, while carnivores, who consume little to no plant matter, exhibit very little tolerance (5).

The standard bitter-deficient dieter, who consumes little to none of these acrid tastes, will very likely present a strong aversion to medicinal foods, much to the detriment of his or her health.  This person has no recollection of this taste in its species’ history, and is now like the carnivore who has a very low threshold and strong aversion to bitter foods.  Because of this, the dieter is not receiving adequate natural medicine on a daily basis in dosages that are just enough to bestow protection from disease.

Back to the ramifications from this article …

The authors discuss a certain problem faced by the food industry, and even label it “The Dilemma.”  In short, because consumers are driven by taste, cost, and convenience, they are essentially demanding food to be cheap and tasty. The food industry is involved in the delicate struggle of nutritionally enhancing foods while simultaneously rendering them acceptable to consumers.  To make up for the loss in phytonutrition, strategies like genetic modification are introduced, as well as the creation of new “functional foods” to insert and/or enhance existing concentrations of nutrients.

Of course, there is no acknowledgement of the underlying issue, which is that we have lost track of our natural diet.  The current Western diet is extremely deficient in natural plant compounds as a result of the 10,000-year agricultural process of breeding out the medicinal agents required for optimal health.  To food scientists, this opens doors of opportunities as they discover new ways to alter the current food supply in such a way as to add back in the lost medicine.  More technological innovation is not the answer, however.  It is precisely the reason for this problem.

A real solution would be to educate individuals on the properties wild foods possess and then gradually re-introduce these foods back into the diet of modernized Homo sapiens.  For example, if you find it hard to consume bitter greens, start with the ones you currently like and slowly add in the wild varieties.  A progression might look something like this: iceberg lettuce, romaine, kale, dandelion.  And for the record, just because a plant is wild does not mean that it is bitter.  Chickweed and violet greens are fairly mild and make a great addition to many meals.

All of this sounds simple and naive, but it is effective.  Perhaps when armed with a strategy like this we would then be less like the carnivore who has no tolerance for bitter tastes, and instead somewhere between it and the herbivore who has adapted fully to a medicine-rich diet (we’ll call this omnivory).

And I’ll propose that we’d be much healthier, too.

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Thank you!
Adam Haritan




Wild food has medicine

We’re all familiar with the familiar phrase of Hippocrates:  “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

But notice he didn’t say “Let food be thy source of calories, and medicine be thy white pill that may or may not contribute to a host of undesirable side-effects.”

Food is more than just a source of energy.  It’s more than carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals.  Ideally, our food should possess the medicine necessary to keep us well.

As the agricultural revolution accelerated, the wild plants that once sustained us had most of the bitter medicine bred out of them by humans in a trade-off for taste and size.  These powerful compounds found in a wild plant, like garlic mustard, are what protect it from predation and consumption in the wild.  Through the process of breeding, these protective compounds are mitigated to allow for a tastier crop (think broccoli).  Without these bitter compounds, the cultivated organisms cannot fend for themselves quite like they could in the wild, and are reliant on the services humans provide, like adequate sun exposure, water, food, fencing, etc.

Answer this:  Have you ever seen cauliflower growing in the wild?

No?  Why not?

It is not strong enough to survive on its own.  Through years of domesticating the Brassicaceae genus, most of the protective bitter compounds have been removed.  Today we have “cauliflower,” or a subspecies of Brassica oloracea, which absolutely requires the support of humans for its reproduction and survival.

Cauliflower tastes great (I think so) and has a healthy nutrient profile.  It just doesn’t possess the same medicinal composition that a wild Brassica may contain.

Those who traditionally consume wild plants are aware of the medicinal effects and utilize the food for both nutrition and medicine.  Inhabitants of the Bekaa Valley of north-east Lebanon, for example, are no exception.  There are six of these plants commonly harvested by them in the spring season (1).  They include:

Cichorium intybus (chicory)

Eryngium creticum (eryngo)

Foeniculum vulgare (fennel)

Malva sylvestris (high mallow)

Thymus syriacus (wild thyme)

Gundelia tournefortii (akkoub)

When surveyed about the uses for these particular plants, the individuals discussed their edible properties while mentioning medicinal actions as well.  For example, chicory leaves and stalks are gathered in the spring for consumption, but are also used, according to those interviewed, for their blood-strengthening properties in treating anemia.  Current research shows that chicory is high in folate, at 110 mg per half-cup of chopped, raw leaves.  In treating folate deficiency anemia, chicory may indeed help.

Eryngo, a perennial in the carrot family, is harvested in the Bekaa Valley for its leaves and shoots.  It is prepared either raw or cooked.  When asked about its other uses, the individuals discussed its hypoglycemic effects and its value as an antidote to scorpion poison.  Sure enough, research has confirmed both the hypoglycemic action of eryngo’s aerial parts in rat studies, as well as the potent antidote activity from its leaves.

You see, it isn’t difficult to treat oneself without conventional supplementation.  The consumption of wild plants makes it very easy to receive nature’s medicine in a complete package, devoid of the major side-effects modern pharmaceuticals present.

Instead of eating a nutrient-deficient diet of domesticated foods, getting sick from this lack of nutrition and paying companies for drugs that are usually extracted from the wild predecessors to the foods nowadays eaten … we can simply eat more wild food.

Lessons from Zimbabwe

AmaranthushybridusCommunities all over the world utilize wild plants for many reasons.  Here in the United States, the foods have fallen out of favor for the majority of citizens and have been replaced by a diet composed primarily of domesticated staple crops like corn, wheat, and soy.  Even though the evidence is clear that on average, wild plants are more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts, this fact alone may not be enough to recruit the U.S. population.

But if not for the nutrition, why else would individuals adopt a lifestyle of eating “weeds?”  Perhaps  the answer lies amongst the residents of Shurugwi District, Zimbabwe, who supplement their tropical agricultural diet of cassava, maize, millet, sorghum, and wheat with wild plants they gather within their community (1) .  They don’t earn much money either, as most are unemployed and make less than $50 per month.  Foraging for them, it turns out, is not only a means for nutrition supplementation, but also for food access and security.

Take a close look at the nutrient levels of the 5 most common wild edibles consumed in Shurugwi District, Zimbabwe (click to enlarge).


Amaranthus hybridus, commonly known as smooth pigweed, is an excellent source of calcium, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin C (all above the DRI).  The ratio of nutrition to caloric density in all of the foods listed is quite high, meaning individuals are receiving high amounts of vitamins and minerals without consuming many calories (when combined with staple crops, like maize, caloric intake is increased).  This nutrition persists into the dry seasons, when periods of drought create food shortages.  Because the residents preserve the wild plants through different methods, they are able to provide a buffer against cold and dry spells when they occur.  The foraged food, therefore, plays two important roles in Shurugwi District: nutrition and food security.

In the United States, 46.5 million people, or 15% of the population, live in poverty.  Many inhabit food deserts and have access only to convenience stores and gas stations.  Efforts are being made to alleviate this problem, but very few focus on the massive potential that one solution contains.  What if there was a shift in focus to wild food identification and foraging, as well as preservation and storage?  As the inhabitants of Shurugwi District demonstrate, a strategy is necessary to ensure food access and security, not only involving the cultivation of crops through agriculture, but the sustainable harvest of wild edibles as well.

Yes, certain wild edibles alone may not meet the caloric needs of those who consume them.  But any effort to increase the consumption of these plants (and/or animals) is a huge step forward for every human being in the quest for sustainability, survival, and health.

Forage first for the experts

nettlesMany people interested in Wild Foodism are eager to implement the lifestyle, yet do not know where to start.  I receive many requests for the literature and websites I use, and while I believe they are an important factor in the learning process, there is a much better resource available: the seasoned foragers, hunters, and gatherers already in your community.

There is no doubt that in every community there is at least one person who is familiar with the local edible flora and fauna.  This is precisely how I learned, and I highly recommend seeking out these individuals.  A simple online search, with perhaps some extra digging around, will yield promising results.  Many cities host wild edible walks, and several state parks provide guided hikes and activities involving the organisms within that particular environment.

I do not want to downplay the benefits that wild food books offer; I have learned a great deal with their help.  Experience is the best teacher, however, and having an expert guide you through the identification, uses, history, and location of various plants facilitates a greater learning response that will help you embed the information more effectively.

Get started today.  Forage not only for the wild edibles in your environment, but also for the experts who have much to share.

What is a wild foodie?


A wild foodie is one who takes the next step in the quest for optimal health.  She is aware that the domesticated foods of today may not be enough to guarantee her ability to thrive, and knows that beyond fresh, beyond local, and beyond organic lies a dimension of food that is unparalleled in quality, sustainability, and nutrition.

A wild foodie is one who reacquaints himself with his ecosystem.  He participates in it through the sound harvesting and gathering of the food it provides.  Through this direct connection, he reintegrates not only his presence and activity with nature, but reintegrates those of the human species as well.

A wild foodie understands that she cannot go back in time and undo the injustices inflicted upon Earth.  She realizes that she must be adapted to both the natural rhythms of life, as well as those enforced by modern civilization.  She simply takes the next step forward and assumes responsibility for the health of her body and the planet by incorporating more wild foods into her lifestyle whenever she can.  A little bit here, a little bit there, until one day her diet has been transformed into a direct engagement between her and the organisms with which she cohabitates.

A wild foodie is one who is ready to experience the robustness of the human species, who knows that the supermarket diet just won’t cut it.

Are you ready to be a wild foodie?

Wild Foodism is all-inclusive


No matter which dietary protocol you adhere to, slight alterations can be made to improve the quailty and diversity of the foods you ingest.  Wild Foodism cannot be compared to any particular diet, but rather can be used to augment every single one.

A vegetarian dieter can replace store-bought greens with wild greens foraged throughout the week.

A fruitarian dieter can replace hybridized fruits with wild fruits picked at the peak of freshness.

A paleo dieter can replace pastured meats with wild game harvested sustainably.

As you can see, any diet can be upgraded with the simple replacement of nutritionally-inferior domesticated produce with nutrient-intense wild food.  It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach either; the more wild food you include in your diet, the better.

What is Wild Foodism?


There is an overflow of diets saturating the modern human’s psyche.  Interestingly, all varieties claim to hold the key to sustained health and vitality.  Yet no matter what ratio of carbohydrates:fats:proteins is proclaimed to be ideal, and regardless of whether or not entire kingdoms of organisms are shunned, the typical diet fails to acknowledge one crucial aspect about our natural evolutionary upbringing:  we fared quite well (extremely well, actually) on wild food.

Wild Foodism is a movement bringing greater awareness of the most natural diet back into the consciousness of human beings.  One can argue that too much red meat is bad, that saturated fat causes heart disease (both points scientifically challenged), or that the consumption of grains has led to the degeneration of our species, but unless the discussion of wild food is brought to the table, all diets come up short.

Evidence has shown repeatedly that wild foods are almost always superior in nutritional quality compared to their domesticated relatives (wild lettuce vs. romaine lettuce, wild blueberries vs. cultivated blueberries, etc.).  Including more wild food into your lifestyle will guarantee greater food diversity, increased nutrient intake, and a deeper connection to the land (and water).

Explore the wild food lifestyle by incorporating more wild plants and/or animals into your diet, and reap all the rewards nature has been waiting to deliver.