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We know what's healthy, right?

June 02, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

We are entering a time (or maybe we’ve always been here) where everything we thought we knew about health is being called into question.

Everyone believed margarine was healthier than butter until it turned out it wasn’t. Medications that were once thought to be so beneficial that they were routinely popped by healthy people as a pre-emptive strike against high cholesterol or heart attack have mild to serious side effects that are causing more harm than the ill they were purported to prevent.

In the mid-1800s, a Northeastern wilderness guide named “Old Mountain” Phelps grumbled that “soap is a thing I hain’t no kinder use for,” and complained in no uncertain terms about his clients’ “eternal sozzlin.” While he might have taken it to the opposite extreme, it’s becoming clear that our addiction to hand sanitizer and our ubiquitous war on germs (a phobia fueled, of course, by the makers of disinfectants) is killing off good bacteria in our systems that is necessary for a healthy, allergy-free life.

But certainly fruits and vegetables, the holy grail of those who watch their diets like terriers watch rabbits, are bulletproof. Everyone from Johns Hopkins to John Basedow agrees that they are the fundamental building block of good health.

Well, maybe not as much as you would think.

In the upcoming book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” Jo Robinson argues that our plant matter is being summarily cleansed of its nutrition in our never-ending quest to develop foodstuffs that are sweeter, milder and easier to chew.

Mark Twain said he never read health literature because he feared he might die of a misprint. The point is well-taken, and most of us are obsessed with food to an unhealthy degree (I might be more riled up about it myself, if I didn’t know a number of people who have made it well into their 80s subsisting on a diet primarily consisting of Jell-O).

Still, Robinson, writing in a New York Times op-ed, makes an interesting case. She says modern varieties have been increasingly stripped of phytonutrients, the compounds that fight cancer, heart disease, dementia and diabetes.

Spinach, if Popeye is to be believed, elevates us to superhero status. But dandelion greens, Robinson writes, have seven times the disease-fighting compounds as its more civilized cousin. And iceberg lettuce? Don’t ask.

Corn is another good example. Most children love sweet corn, because it’s been bred to be a form of buttered candy. But when our South American ancestors began collecting it centuries ago, today’s kids wouldn’t have touched it. More of a shrub, it had maybe a dozen tooth-shattering kernels on a seed pod. It was all starch and little sugar, and had 10 times the protein of modern sweet corn.

No one’s quite sure how that corn morphed into this corn, but for once we can’t blame Monsanto. Nature herself mutated it into a recognizable form of colorful and healthy Indian corn, which, Robinson writes, served tables well until raiding American soldiers busying themselves by torching Iroquois crops discovered a freak field of sweet, all-yellow corn.

Even this pale imitation was too colorful for a New England farmer who bred an all-white variety that cured corn’s “disadvantage of being yellow.” Man has always been more than willing to do nature one better.

Unfortunately, the washed-out corn had only a fraction of the anthocyanins found in colorful Indian corn. Robinson says that “anthocyanins have the potential to fight cancer, calm inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, protect the aging brain, and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

In fact, color is a pretty good indicator of nutrition and healthful properties. The gnarled, purple potatoes of Peru are far richer in disease-fighting properties than the bland, white russet that we all know and love (yellow Yukon Gold’s are slightly better than russets).

Surrounded by all this great, wild food, why didn’t our ancestors live past the age of, like 30? The diseases we fight so hard against today didn’t kill them, but accidents and infections did. It was rough out there.

But, Robinson says, we can reclaim some of the properties of ancient foods. Blue corn meal is a good alternative when making pancakes. Herbs — valued for their strong, aromatic characteristics — have escaped the “flavor makeover” of mainstream foods. Arugula is good, as are green onions, which aren’t much different from their wild cousins. The catch is to eat the green part, not just the white.

Of course, nutritional information is like the legendary weather in Maine. If you don’t like what you hear, stick around, because it’s bound to change.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.



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