Book Review: Eating on the Wild Side
Eating on the Wild Side charts a healthier course for all those resisting the Sirens’ call of the standard American diet. Yet, to the untutored, safe passage on a course to a natural whole foods diet is fraught with peril. Jo Robinson’s thorough research and clear treatment of a complex subject delivers welcome guidance for all those navigating the confusing sea of nutritional opinion.
Robinson aptly dedicates her work to those who are engaged in improving the nutritional quality of our diet so that we “ . . . can begin to reclaim a wealth of nutrients that we, unwittingly, removed from our diet over a period of ten thousand years.”
The average foodie will employ Eating on the Wild Side as more of a reference to assist in the selection and preparation of a particular fruit or vegetable. The depth of research by Robinson reminds us of another authoritative 400 page food tome entitled “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, London 2003). But that’s subject for another day. Make no mistake; through an evident process of analysis and synthesis, Jo Robinson makes a fine contribution in the realm of popular nutrition commentary.
Suffice it to say, Eating on the Wild Side will find a welcome place amongst our reference books in Byrd House Paleo library.
At its core, Eating on the Wild Side methodically documents the shocking purge of nutrients found in our fruits and vegetables resulting from modern food processing and years of misguided plant breeding. Yet, in make this stunning revelation, Robinson is not suggesting a revolution against Big Agriculture, but a societal change lead by informed consumers making food choices informed by correct nutritional science.
The arrangement of content is straightforward and methodical being composed of two major sections – one for vegetables and the other for fruit. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular sub-grouping of fruits or vegetables. Within each chapter Robinson describes in abundant detail the origin of the species and how each plant has been altered over time to arrive at its current grocery store state, not to mention adding some memorable plan trivia to boot. We found many of Robinson’s pearls of wisdom to be counterintuitive and not easily memorable which is remedied by a succinct summary with charts detailing the characteristics of specific varieties and places to look for each fruit or vegetables discussed.
In each chapter, Robinson is quick to tout alternatives to the grocery store produce section, such as natural-food stores and farmers’ markets, and she encourages growing your own fruits and vegetables.
For those of us mere mortals who do not have many options other than which grocery chain produce section to shop, Robinson points our how to identify and choose nutritious fruits and vegetables wherever you shop. The book excels at teaching the reader the correct way to select, store, prepare, and cook each fruit or vegetable to extract maximum flavor and nutrition.
On the science side, the well-researched discussions of various phytonutrients and antioxidants available in each plant certainly contribute to the legitimacy of the treatise. Robinson translates this esoteric science into a meaningful explanation of why one, for example, looks for lettuce varieties with darker and more compact leaves. Most importantly, Robinson relates how each phytochemical has promise in the fight against cancer, dementia, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
There are many invaluable ‘tips’ spread throughout the chapters, such as why and how tearing lettuce leaves prior to storing stimulates a beneficial release of phytonutrients. Another sure tip is that crushing and mincing, but preferably pressing, garlic at least ten minutes before heating is necessary to allow important phytonutrients to be released and combined that would otherwise be destroyed if not allowed time to finish the chemical reaction. Or, another tip is that the smaller the onion the more nutrients. So, two small are better than one large onion.
In addition to the plant science, Robinson explains how modern produce has been propagated to meet our preference for sweet rather than bitter tasting foods in everything from apples to beer. There is a good discussion of the psychological and physiological basis for the proverbial ‘sweet tooth’ including an excellent overview of how metabolic syndrome and other disorders result from excess consumption of refined sugar and carbohydrates with a high glycemic index.
And, that’s not all. If need be, there are ample research references to take you to even greater depths of understanding of Robinson’s research.
One chapter drew our attention right away. Having owned a blueberry farm at one time, we were particularly interested in what Robinson had to say about our favorite fruit. And, the chapter on blueberries and blackberries was captivating in its depth and detail.
Historically, wild berries were a staple in the diet of native North Americans. These wild berries had an antioxidant content that far exceeded the content of even the most nutritious berries available today. Until 100 years ago Americans continued to pick and eat wild berries, but in the early Twentieth Century things began to change. As the U.S. population migrated to larger cities where access to wild blueberries was rare or non-existent, commercial propagation of new and ‘improved’ varieties of blueberries evolved rapidly to supply this urban demand for berries.
As domestication of blueberries began in earnest, an all too familiar story was repeated. In the quest to make blueberries more tasty, larger and easier to pick, breeding swiftly diminished the presence of critical phytonutrients, including flavonoids such as anthocyanin. But all is not lost. The good news is that Robinson’s research confirms that today’s berries are still “nutritional superstars” because berries available today “ . . . have four times more antioxidant activity than the majority of other fruits, ten times more than most vegetables, and forty times more than some cereals. We need to eat more of them.”
Researchers have found that blueberries hold promise in addressing the diseases so common in today’s society, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and systemic inflammation. The most exciting studies show that the nutrients found in blueberries may slow the effects of aging, specifically cognitive decline resulting from Alzheimer’s disease.
Storing blueberries is easy. They are just as nutritious frozen as fresh. Strangely enough, frozen berries thawed in the microwave are more nutritious than those left to thaw at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
Also, contrary to what one would think, cooking blueberries does not destroy, but enhances, the antioxidant levels to higher levels than fresh berries. Heating makes the blueberry’s phytonutrient content more bioavailable. and also makes them more bioavailable. On the other hand, dried blueberries are not as nutritious as fresh, frozen or cooked berries.
So, Mother was right to make those marvelous blueberry cobblers!
Obviously, blueberries are a plant that you can grow yourself. So, we immediately ordered a couple of plants. Robinson gives a great tip that the variety called Rubel is the one to buy. The Rubel is one of the original varieties that has not had the nutrients bred out of it. We ordered ours from Gurneys.com.
Jo Robinson has adroitly introduced her readers to the ‘superstars’ of each fruit and vegetable plant group. This is information to act on. It’s not just one writer’s opinion, but opinion informed by real science.
At the end of the voyage through Eating on the Wild Side any foodie worth their salt should be excited and equipped to take the helm in his or her phytonutrient odyssey.
Well, I’m off to find some purple carrots!