Jo Robinson’s revelations about food weren’t secrets, but they weren’t exactly common knowledge either: Purple carrots are more nutritious than orange ones. Tomatoes are better for you cooked than raw — and blueberries are, too. Dandelions, “the plague of urban lawns,” have eight times more antioxidants in their leaves than spinach.
Robinson, a Vashon Island resident, shares hundreds of such practical tidbits in “Eating on the Wild Side,” her well-received and highly readable new book on selecting and preparing the healthiest foods possible. Arguing that agriculture – not just in recent years, but over human history – has stripped many modern plants of their nutrients, she’s distilled information from sources as varied as the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the 1935 California Avocado Association Yearbook, and a long-classified 1951 government report on the effects of an atomic bomb explosion on corn seeds.
Robinson, who previously founded the Eat Wild national guide to finding grass-fed meat and dairy products, grew up in Tacoma and “imprinted” on Puget Sound. At home, she now oversees “the most beautiful garden plot I’ve ever had” – planted, naturally, with many of the varieties of vegetables and fruits she’s found to be the best-tasting and the best for our bodies. (The book includes recommended varieties for gardeners and farmers-market shoppers, from the historic Ozette potato to new Wild Treasure thornless blackberry.) She will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 17, at Town Hall (Cost: $5). Check out her high-profile New York Times piece summarizing her research over here. Here’s an edited, condensed version of our phone conversation from earlier in her tour:
Q: I think of you as the person behind Eat Wild, which is such a useful resource for animal-based foods. What got you started on fruits and vegetables?
A: “I’ve been researching this for 10 years, and I haven’t been sharing it at all, because I wanted to come out all at once. It’s a continuation of my (earlier) research. I had an interest in what we ate as hunter-gatherers…I stayed with (meat) 10 years, and meanwhile I was researching fruits and vegetables because I wanted to move on to other foods on the plate. I wanted to cover everything we eat and compare it to wild foods.”
Q: A lot of this information seems surprising and new. What were you trying to research and how did you go about your research?
A: “I read over 6000 scientific journals. The reason the information in the book is new is, I got it all from the original sources, from the studies themselves. I was specifically looking for information that had not been brought out to the public that I thought was important and that we should be able to use right now. The main thing I found with our fruits and vegetables was that we have bred out (nutrients), especially the antioxidants — not just in the last 50 or 100 years, but in the entire history of agriculture, which is 10,000 years. So when we compare wild plants to what’s in the supermarket, the ones in the supermarket are dramatically lower in these antioxidants that are proving to be so protective for our health.”
Q: It’s been hard enough to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, period. Do you worry that people will throw up their hands at the idea of selecting particular ones and particular varieties for better health; that they’ll think they have to grow their own broccoli instead of going to the supermarket?
A: “I have information on all levels, (but) I have really geared it toward what you can find in the supermarket and the farmers markets…It’s pretty simple. Like, tomatoes, pick the smallest tomatoes you see because the smaller the tomato, the more lycopene that’s in it. There are very simple rules with lettuce. Leafy greens are the most nutritious and ones that are red tinged or brown tinged are best of all.”
Q: How did you screen out bad or inconclusive studies?
A: “These were all from peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that hurdle was crossed… but I had my own criteria, which was, ‘Is this something the public can use right now?’ ..I found this study about garlic that said if you take garlic and slice it or dice it, press it, and then immediately put it in hot oil, you have destroyed its cancer-fighting ability. I thought, the public needs to know this. We’ve been told that garlic is great for our health, but we didn’t know we had to press it, chop it, slice it, and then keep it away from heat for 10 minutes and then cook with it.”
Q: Were there any big questions that you hoped to answer but couldn’t?
A: “The research into the nutritional differences between varieties of the same fruits or vegetables is pretty spotty. It’s just now being done. I would have liked to be able to give people many more specific varieties than I was able to — I have hundreds in the book, but I keep searching for more data, and I am finding it. Weekly, I’ll find something new and important.”
Q: Are there any specific varieties you recommend for Northwest gardeners?
A: “For apple growers, I highly recommend an apple that people haven’t heard about much, it’s called the Liberty Apple...it’s not that super-sweet, plain kind of apple that fills the supermarkets. It’s sweet and tart, so it’s extremely refreshing, and it’s five times more nutritious than what’s in the supermarket. But the really cool thing about it is, it’s incredibly disease resistant. It doesn’t get black spot and apple scab, which are what makes it so difficult to grow apples here.”