Loving a plant-powered diet? There’s scope to supercharge your meals further, says Anna Blewett. How? Eat your weeds!
This summer Britain’s restaurant scene has been abuzz with wild foods, from deep-fried elderflowers and foraged gin botanicals, to citrussy fresh pine shoots and umami seaweeds. But wild plants bring more than unexpected flavours to a dish; they can pack a serious punch when it comes to nutrition.
“Foraged plants will be devoid of fertilisers and pesticides,” says nutritionist Lily Soutter (lilysoutternutrition.com), “and some suggest that they come with higher antioxidant content. Preliminary studies suggest that wild garlic may have a greater effect on blood pressure in comparison to regular shop-bought garlic; wild berries tend to have a higher antioxidant content in comparison to their farm-raised counterparts. Purselane has been shown to provide a rich source of beta-carotene, vitamin C and surprisingly, even as a vegan source of omega 3 fats.”
So is eating wild – a diet enjoyed by our ancestors – really viable for you? “At every time of year there are seasonal ingredients to be found,” says forager James Woods, whose company (totallywild.co.uk) supplies Abel & Cole with foraged chickweed, wild sorrel and jack-by-the-hedge. “The mineral content is through the roof.” Take dock, the common weed you may reach for when stung by nettles. Not only is it easy to identify, it’s also simple to find with its broad, rust-tinged leaves bursting up in all kinds of habitats. “The leaves are exactly like spinach and you can use them the same way,” says forager Liz Knight (fineforagedfoods.co.uk).” They wilt quickly but they’re so full of antioxidants; the stems taste like rhubarb and they’ll stay fresh for days. And it’s so good for you! The tap roots on dock go down into the subsoils and bring up minerals; commercially-grown spinach has the tiniest roots that go into neutralised compost. It’s really just green, plus water.”
Green lettuce, a summer staple for most of us, performs pretty poorly when compared with young and tender wild dandelion leaves, which pack around 40 percent more vitamin A, four times more vitamin K, five times more calcium and three times more iron. “The leaves are also rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, which are also located in the root, stem and even flowers,” points out Lily. Measure a salad of dressed dandelion leaves against the nutritionally-bereft iceberg lettuce and choosing wild is a no-brainer.
And while nutritional data on ‘weeds’ is hard to come by, a large body of research is testament to the power of the untamed plants. Elderberries, which grow wild on many untended urban and rural areas in the UK, are proven to inhibit the flu virus and boost our immune systems. Extract of rosehip has been shown to reduce the spread of a certain breast cancer, while sea buckthorn has been demonstrated to lower cholesterol.
But before we start scrambling across ditches for wonderberries to cure what ails us, it’s worth considering that it’s as food, not medicine, that wild plants could make the most significant contribution to our health. “I often tell people that yes, things like nettles might be high in bioavailable calcium and so on, but in terms of nutrition it’s best not to get too fixated on particular nutrients,” says renowned forager and wild food educator Fergus Drennan (fergustheforager.co.uk). “Rather, eat a range of wild foods and you will receive an excellent supply of vitamins.”
“Most wild plants are higher in vitamins, micronutrients and heath-promoting phytochemicals such as antioxidants compared to cultivated plants,” continues Fergus. “This is especially noticeable in comparison of a wild plant with its nearest cultivated equivalent. So, for example, sea beet, nettles and fat hen as compared to any variety of cultivated spinach, or dandelion or smooth sow-thistle leaves compared to lettuce. Having said that, soil type and quality, stage of growth, and other factors can influence the nutritional profile of wild plants. For this reason, there is a huge variance in the recorded nutritional values for wild plants.”
It’s a reminder of the benefits we might reap from taking control of the provenance of our food. Take samphire, which Lily says is “very low in calories and mineral-dense, providing high amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and even some iron.” Samphire from the fish counter in your local supermarket may taste good, but it will invariably be cultivated, not foraged, and plumped with saline solution rather than the mineral-rich seawater that flows around the wild plants.
The microbial diversity of the soils our food grows in may be another reason to choose wild plants. As TED talker Sunny Savage pointed out in a presentation on the benefits of supplementing conventional foods with foraged ingredients, “diets lacking in diversity are linked with major health issues.” According to British charity Plants for A Future, there are more than 20,000 species of edible plants in the world, yet fewer than 20 account for 90 percent of our diet. From a gut health perspective alone, this is seriously suboptimal; experts recommend we eat at least 30 different food a week to maximise the microbial diversity of our small intestine.
Supplementing our diet with a few wild plants could even support the ecosystem beyond our bodies. “Wild food is the way to feed the planet,” enthuses Liz. “Even if we all picked one thing from the back garden rather than buying, that’s a massive impact. I do understand why these plants aren’t used much: some plants have to be cooked to make them safe and we get worried. One of the benefits of eating farmed foods is it means creating monocultures that allow us to make sure everything from any given field is safe. But equally, it’s one of the reasons the insect populations are dying out.”
Should pollen-rich thistles, bright blooming dandelions and hedgerow berries our ancestors ate be back on the menu? Valuing and protecting our weed – so often sprayed, strimmed or hoed into submission – could help our internal and external ecosystems thrive. What’s not to like?!
This month’s cream of the (wild) crop
Blackberries High in manganese, they’re also a good source of dietary fibre, folate, vitamin E and vitamin C. They also have more than six times the antioxidant power of kiwis.
Dandelion Abundant throughout summer, this easily-identified weed provides nutrient-packed salad leaves. Opt for the young, tender leaves for the mildest flavour.
Elderberries Rich in anthocyanins, a flavonoid with powerful antioxidant properties, elderberries outstrip blueberries and cranberries in their benefit to the immune system. Always cook before consumption.
Hazelnuts Plump hazelnuts serve up protein, dietary fibre, vitamin E, and plant sterols, with Heart UK suggesting a handful a day can lower cholesterol by five percent.
Rosehips This bright berry is most often made into syrup, which retains its high levels of vitamin C, but not the fine internal hairs which irritate the throat.
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