Bitter is better, eating wilder foods

In modern times technology has played a major role in the growing, processing and cooking of our food. During growing many of the seeds we use are now genetically modified organisms, during processing we add chemicals that are meant to improve taste and lengthen storage time, and during cooking we put our frozen boxed food into microwaves that warm the food in minutes. Over the past few years I’ve been coming to the conclusion that technology is not going to bring us a healthier diet, in fact it appears that technology is ruining our health. Traditional diets show great potential for restoring our health to where it should be. A few examples of traditional diets are the Ayurvedic and the Paleolithic diets. Ayurveda is a healing system focused on diet and digestion that has been practiced in India for thousands of years. The Paleolithic diet is a diet that attempts to mimic the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors that lived prior to the advent of agriculture. When I saw that the guest of a recent Science Friday podcast was Jo Robinson, author of the book “Eating on the Wild Side”, it definitely caught my attention. For those of us who might think that there is no way our primitive ancient ancestors, lacking in the advanced science and technology that we have today, could ever eat a diet better than what we have today, this podcast may influence your thinking.

The general idea for Robinson’s book is that as we transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian society we began breeding wild plants. Initially, many of these plants were either difficult to grow, tasted bad, or produced very little food. What science is now revealing is that as we bred these plants to be more to our liking, we also unknowingly bred them to be less nutritious. For example, we have an instinctual aversion to the bitter and astringent tasting plants because in nature those tastes are an indicator of poison. If you read my post about sugar, then you know that during times of scarcity we sought sweet fruits, but learned to survive on small amounts. So naturally, our ancestors began breeding our plants to be sweeter and less bitter. Who could blame them? The problem with that, as scientists are now learning, is that the bitter taste is often associated with beneficial phytonutrients, and as a result we may now be deficient in these nutrients. One of the most widely understood phytonutrients is called anthocyanin, which is thought to have disease prevention qualities. Anthocyanin is often found in fruits and vegetables that are red, blue, purple, and black. I found this very interesting because in Ayurveda bitter and astringent are two of the six tastes that are considered to be a necessary part of a proper diet. Without going into too much detail, you should be eating meals with all six tastes throughout your day. Compare that to the mainstream American diet that is dominant in the sweet and salty tastes, and therefore deficient in the others. If I had to guess then I would say the tastes chosen most often in order from most to least preferred are sweet, salty, pungent, sour, bitter and astringent. Essentially what we have here is science supporting, though indirectly, the dietary guidance given by Indians who lived 5000 years ago.

What should I do with this information you ask? As I mentioned, eat plants that taste sweet, salty, AND pungent, sour, bitter, and astringent. Choose the less common heirloom varieties at the farmer’s market, or in the seed catalog, as these older breeds may have more beneficial qualities. Purple carrots were once more common than orange carrots, and they can still be found if you know where to look. An interesting note about garlic preparation, after crushing or slicing garlic, it needs to sit for at least 10 minutes prior to cooking. If you don’t wait then all you get is the taste and not the medicinal effects. Another piece of advice from the podcast, eat more cruciferous plants from the brassicaceae family. Examples of these include kale, brussels sprout, broccoli, and rutabaga. If those vegetables don’t sound like much fun to you, it is amazing how much some Himalayan pink salt, crushed black pepper, and melted ghee can improve a meal. Finally, one of the most useful pieces of advice is the recommendation not to peel your fruits and vegetables since the outer layer is where a majority of the phytonutrients are found. Of course exceptions to this rule include excessively fibrous or bitter skins, but in the case of apples, carrots and potatoes just leave the skin on and give it a good rinse. If you are eating organically you shouldn’t have to worry about pesticide residue. I know there seems to be too many rules to follow, but that is because we are now disconnected from our food more than ever before. Simply put, we have collectively forgotten as a society how to grow, cook and eat. The corporations do everything for us now, and their motivation is to make money, not to improve your health. I guarantee the more time you spend in the garden, kitchen, and market, the better you will understand how to eat for optimal health.