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

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

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

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