I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, not another article on superfoods…”
Or maybe you weren’t thinking that at all, but now you are because I brought it up.
Or maybe I’m just looking into things a little too much. Anyway…
I’m not here to proclaim that I have discovered a new miracle food – an ancient plant that sheds unwanted pounds, curbs your appetite, supercharges your immune system, and contains so many antioxidants that the concept of infinity seems miniscule in comparison.
Foods like that probably exist, but I’ll let someone else sell you on them.
Rather, my intention in writing this article is a bit different.
If you’ve felt confused over all the superfood hype – not sure which Amazonian berry should go into your morning smoothie; considering if it’s really worth spending $29.99 on 3 ounces of powdered fruit that contains more vitamin C than 12,000 oranges – I’m here to say, “It’s okay.”
Really, it is. Your health can flourish with or without these products.
Phew, take a breath. I just saved you some serious cash!
However, I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily. If I did, my writing would be done for the day, but I would also be doing everyone a big disfavor.
You see, while it may be easy to reject the whole concept of superfoods and much of what the movement stands for, there is some truth behind all the hype – enough that it may not be worth dismissing completely. Unfortunately, though, this truth tends to become slightly twisted, causing mass confusion and ultimately… poor decision-making.
Did I just confuse you some more? Let me explain…
Yes, superfoods are necessary
It’s true, which is why I have to pause and think whenever I hear someone declare that superfoods are bogus.
Critics will claim that our bodies can function quite well so long as they are fed by apples, bananas, oranges, cruciferous vegetables, and other items found in the grocery store’s produce department. No need for superfoods, they say, as the true superfoods consist of our common fruits and veggies.
But therein lies the problem: “quite well” does not equate to “optimal” when defining health performance, and relying on a diet of heavily domesticated foods has never been shown to generate exceptional health, especially when analyzing health across multiple generations.
Let’s take a step back…
You see, many millennia ago, as the agricultural revolution commenced and subsequently accelerated, humans became very proficient at breeding many of the medicinal compounds out of the wild plants that once sustained our species. What we lost in medicine we gained in taste and size.
Let’s look at an example…
The powerful medicines found in a wild plant – for instance, in wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) – protect the species from predation and consumption in the wild. Through the process of breeding, these protective compounds are usually weakened and reduced in order to produce a tastier crop (think cauliflower). Without the original bitter compounds, the cultivated organisms cannot defend themselves quite as well as their wild counterparts can, and as a result, they generally require the services humans provide, such as adequate sun exposure, water, food, fencing, etc.
Question: Have you ever seen cauliflower growing in the wild?
No? Why not?
Cauliflower 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 oleracea, and it absolutely requires the support of humans for its reproduction and survival.
Cauliflower tastes great and has a healthy nutrient profile. It just doesn’t possess the same medicinal composition that a wild cabbage may contain. Whenever we eliminate wild foods (like the wild mustards) from our diets, and instead consume only highly-domesticated species, our bodies do not receive the full spectrum of nutrition and medicine we require for optimal health. As a result, we suffer.
Generalizing this example to our apples, oranges, bananas, and most other cultivated foods found in the produce department of our grocery stores, one can begin to see why these foods may not provide all that we need for optimal health, for they themselves are lacking in their full expression of all that they could be.
This is where the hype surrounding superfoods contains some merit. Many of us understand the importance of a diversified diet built around high quality foods, and we look to species that generally contain not only vitamins and minerals, but potent medicines and phytonutrients as well. Superfoods in the marketplace help us recognize that, yes indeed… an elevated class of food does exist!
However, before ending this piece and calling it a day, there is some information regarding location that I’d like to discuss.
And we’ll start by pondering this question: Must we scour the jungles and mountains from lands far, far away to receive our superfood fix?
Superfoods – not as exotic as you’d think
To answer that question, I’d have to say “no, probably not.”
And here is where consumers tend to really get swept away by the hype.
Most species glorified as superfoods hail from far away lands – the rainforests of the Amazon, the hills of China, the mountains of Peru.
Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. Isn’t it interesting that very few superfoods are species that naturally grow within our immediate ecosystems?
I mean, it’s as if a plant must grow at least 3,000 miles from our hometown in order to qualify. Were the Shawnee natives deficient in beta-carotene because they didn’t have access to goji berries? Are the Hadza hunter-gatherers lacking chlorophyll because they’re not drinking wheatgrass?
Listen, I know that most of the “superfoods” on the market are legit. I enjoy goji berries as much as the next health-nut. I’ve had great success introducing quality Theobroma cacao into my diet. And wheatgrass… well, if you really enjoy the taste, more power to you. There are more than 8,000 species of grass (Poaceae spp.) on this planet though, and why wheatgrass is the Chosen One is anyone’s guess.
But really, most of the currently marketed items are indeed quality products – if not in their plastic containers, then at least in their native habitats. Many of the products’ claims are supported by adequate research, and most species have been consumed, in one form or another, by traditional cultures for centuries.
Surely, many people – past and present – have witnessed improvements in their lives through the consumption of these foods. I’ve seen it happen with numerous individuals, and I’ve experienced it myself.
So it’s not as if we’re being sold bags of lies and containers full of deceit. No, these products are fine.
It’s just that the inner-consumer inside of us can often be persuaded and tempted to purchase a novel product from a distant land – a must-have food that promises Health! Vitality! Longevity! – without pausing for a moment, taking a deep breath, and checking our backyard first.
And that is what I encourage you to do. Check your backyard first. Then check the nearby parks, fields, woodlands, forests, mountains, bogs, and so on. No, not for bottles of açaí juice. Not even for fields of green coffee beans. We’re talkin’ ’bout the wild species that naturally inhabit these areas!
The backyard – a treasure trove of “superfoods” (and spiders)
Remember, “superfoods” are found in all inhabitable ecosystems – not just ones characterized by 4 walls, automatic sliding doors, fluorescent light bulbs, beepin’ cash registers, and lots of manicured species on display. As I alluded to before, true superfoods comprise the wild foods that inhabit the landscapes within which we live.
Examples, Adam, examples!
Okay. Here are a few.
In the past decade or so, health professionals have been geeking out over flax and chia seeds – two good sources of α-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) – shifting purslane, a wild green that thrives in disturbed areas, into obscurity. It’s unfortunate, as purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an excellent source of α-linolenic acid, containing between 300-400 milligrams per 100 grams of fresh material. Purslane also contains impressive levels of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, while additionally providing gamma-linolenic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and α-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E).
And then there are the mushrooms. Yes, shiitake is an excellent food and medicine, and indeed it can be cultivated here in Pennsylvania. The wild maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa), however, is truly a superfood in every sense of the word. Research suggests that, in addition to providing the body ergocalciferol (vitamin D2), maitake can protect the body against various cancers. Maitake has also been shown to support the immune system, regulate healthy blood sugar levels, and provide numerous dietary antioxidants.
In addition to these 2 species, the list goes on.
Morels? Yes, they count. Nettles? Certainly.
So, we really do need superfoods, huh?
Yes, we do require superfoods for optimal health. We need species that are strong, robust, wild, and very fit for their environments – species that contain their full spectrum of nutrients and medicines.
But no, we don’t necessarily need the ones that we’re tempted to purchase. They may look flashy on the grocery store shelves, but that doesn’t mean our options are limited only to what a company can harvest, package, and sell. It’s like getting all your information from the local TV news channel and believing that there’s nothing more to reality than what it broadcasts. But if you turn off the TV and step outside, you’ll soon realize that there’s so much more to life than we’re being told. (sold?)
The same goes for superfoods…
Step outside… they’re all around you!
Well, not in a creepy kind of way. But in a “Won’t you take me home?… I’d be happy to give ya some of those missing medicines” kind of way.
To summarize, while apples, oranges, bananas, cabbages, and collards are great foods to include in our diets (hey, you know I love and eat them too), they’ll never be enough. (*Note: I believe animal products are necessary for optimal health as well, though because they’re not generally marketed as “superfoods,” I did not reference them in this article.)
We must supply our bodies with foods that not only provide macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, but also with the medicines which, once upon a fruitful time, granted our species exceptional health.
Yes, superfoods are necessary. But let’s clarify…
The packaged ones on display? Maybe.
Well, how about the ones in our ecosystem? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Yes, those wild and plentiful species are the true superfoods that our bodies desire and require.
Oh, and did I mention they’re free? Because, well… they are!
Thanks for reading, and as always… happy foraging!
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