All that heirloom produce in stores and farmers markets is just Johnny-come-lately for Jo Robinson.
When the health and environmental writer and New York Times best-selling author goes looking for ancestral produce, she goes further than Grandma’s garden.
Robinson goes paleolithic.
The 67-year-old Tacoma native is the author of “Eating on the Wild Side,” a book that argues that human civilization has been selectively breeding fruits and vegetables to be more appealing — at the expense of nutrition.
Robinson practices what she preaches. She gardens on a half-acre plot on the south end of Maury Island with an expansive view of Tacoma. There, she mixes ornamentals with varieties of rarely seen but nutritious edibles. It’s one of five gardens on this weekend’s Vashon Island Garden Tour.
Jo Robinson will be speaking at her garden at noon on Saturday and Sunday.
This reporter caught up with Robinson after she spent an afternoon working in her island garden.
Q: Did you actually read 6,000 scholarly articles while researching your book?
A: I did. It took me 10 years. … I’m the first person to go into the research literature and collate it all and make sense of it and write it for the public.
Q: What does the typical Harriet Homemaker or Harry Househusband bring home from the grocery store?
A: The most popular fruit is the banana, which is very sweet and low in phytonutrients. The most popular apple is the Golden Delicious, which is very sweet and low in phytonutrients. The most popular vegetable is the white potato, which is very starchy and low in phytonutrients. The favorite grape is the Thompson Seedless, which is very low in phytonutruients.
Iceberg lettuce is the favorite lettuce, and it’s nothing more than water and crunch. You could eat 30 fruits and vegetables a day and not get many health benefits.
Q: I’m seeing a pattern here. Tell me more about phytonutrients.
A: They’re compounds that plants produce to protect themselves from diseases and insects and predators and UV light from the sun. They can’t run and hide from things that threaten them, so they manufacture these compounds to protect themselves.
UV light is most intense at noon, so these plants have more phytonutrients at that time than they do at morning or night. We didn’t know until the end of the 20th century that those compounds also protect us from our most deadly diseases. And we also didn’t know we have … been breeding phytonutrients out of our crops for 400 generations.
You can’t go back to great-grandma’s garden and expect to find food that’s better for us. We need to go way back.
Q: How far back?
A: The wild food we ate as hunter-gatherers before we were gardeners — 12,000 years ago — is far better than what we have now. I have found varieties (of fruits and vegetables) that are closer to wild plants in terms of health benefits. My book is full of varieties that people can get at the farmers market or supermarket or in their garden that are phytonutrient-rich and almost as good as wild plants. But they taste better.
I have free lists that people can download at eatwild.com.
Q: So, it’s about decision-making?
A: If you pick a Hass avocado over one of the Mexican green ones, you have four times as many antioxidants. It doesn’t cost any more. You just need to know which one to pick.
Q: What are some other examples?
A: Our most popular onion is the sweet onion. With a more robust onion, like a yellow, you can get eight times more antioxidants. But if you cook these more intensely flavored ones, in 10 minutes they’re sweet and mild. And they still have their health benefits. So the only time I recommend people get the sweet ones is if they’re going to eat them raw.
In terms of apples, some of the most nutritious in the store are Honeycrisp, Fuji, the old favorite Red Delicious — which isn’t so favorite anymore — and Granny Smith is the best one.
Q: Is it as simple as picking the more colorful or darker produce?
A: There’s no blanket rules in nature. In general, things that are more intensely colored are more healthful. Especially the things that are black, blue, red or purple. Those colors are full of anthocyanins. Those are proving to have more health benefits than most of the other phytonutrients. If it’s purple, buy it.
Q: I don’t admit this often, but purple is my favorite color.
A: We used to have a lot more purple food. Think of Indian corn. We got rid of all that and in doing so we got rid of anthocyanin. What we have now — our favorite corn — is super sweet white corn. That raises our blood sugar as much as eating two cake doughnuts.
And it has so few phytonutrients that it hardly registers on the scale.
Q: I like growing Indian corn because it’s so fantastic to look at and makes great gifts and decorations. But, I’ve never eaten it.
A: There’s one to look for called Ruby Queen. It’s a sweet corn — nobody’s going to be disappointed in the flavor — but it’s a red corn. It’s a Burpee exclusive. I’m growing it for the first time, but I’ve had it, and it’s a great corn.
Q: Speaking of corn, didn’t the ancestors of native North Americans engage in selective breeding? The antecedent of today’s corn bears little resemblance to it.
A: Yes. And we wouldn’t eat it. It comes in a case you have to crack with a nutcracker. It’s 30 percent protein and only 2 percent sugar. Today, (modern corn has) 3 percent protein and 40 percent sugar.
Q: A lot of the fruit on the market today is too sweet for me. I prefer blood oranges over regular, for instance, because they’re not as surgary. Is it my imagination or is fruit getting sweeter and sweeter?
A: Exactly. And they sell. It works. Interestingly (humans) don’t have an upper limit for sugar consumption. You wouldn’t drink Puget Sound water – it’s too salty. But humans like a sugar solution up to 40 percent sugar. What food producers have discovered is that the more sugar they load into something the more people like it.
Q: Another bland-colored but very healthful food is garlic. But you discovered a very interesting fact about garlic in the scientific literature.
A: Some of the most potent anti-cancer compounds don’t have any color. Onions and garlic are way high on the list of things that will reduce your risk of cancer. But if you take garlic and immediately put it into hot oil or a hot stew or soup it doesn’t have time to produce any of the medicine — the good stuff called allicin. You get flavor but no health benefits.
What researchers discovered is that if you mince or crush that garlic and put it aside for 10 minutes, it makes all the allicin it’s ever going to make and that allicin is heat-resistant.
Q: Let’s consider the tomato. What’s the best way to purchase and eat one?
A: Tomatoes have more of their main phytonutrient, which is lycopene — linked to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke — the longer you cook them. So, that fresh one gives you a fraction of the health benefits of tomato sauce or tomato paste that you buy in a can.
Q: That raises the question: how do you negotiate raw versus cooked food?
A: Again, there’s no blanket rule. Some things are best eaten raw, like broccoli and kale. But berries, surprisingly, you cook them and they give you more phytonutrients. You absorb them better. And carrots double the amount of beta carotene you get if you cook them.
Q: Speaking of storage, I go to farmers markets and see folks selling apples and pears. Either they’re flying them up from New Zealand or they’ve been in cold storage for half a year or longer. I would think people who go to farmers markets want fresh — as in just picked — food.
A: And they’re going to be the same low-nutrient ones you see in the markets. They may be organic, but what dismays me is that they’re not finding these wonderful, high-nutrient hybrid heirlooms. That’s what they should be selling.
Q: Are you a fan of farmers markets?
A: I fully support local farmers and farmers markets. It’s so much better for us in general than what’s in the supermarket. But there are some foods you need to eat the day you pick them or the day after to have their healing properties or their natural sugars.
Broccoli is one of them. The broccoli in the market or sitting in the hot sun (at farmers markets) has lost its ability to protect us from cancer. And fresh broccoli is very sweet. Others you want to get fresh from the garden include spinach, asparagus and artichokes.
Q: What do you have growing in your garden that’s unusual?
A: I have the world’s healthiest apple growing here. Its got 100 times more phytonutrients than our golden delicious. But it doesn’t look like an apple because it’s a wild variety from Nepal. It’s about the size of your little fingernail and it’s got a stem as long as a cherry.
The species we get all of our apples from was from this one little pocket in central Asia. It spread around the world because it’s big and sweet. They raise your blood sugar and triglycerides.
We didn’t know what we were doing, but now we do. So, now we can start bringing back those nutrients, and that’s what my work is all about.
Vashon Island garden tour
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Five gardens on Vashon Island:
• Jo Robinson’s demonstration garden.
• A stumpery featuring mosses and ferns growing among gnarled, overturned stumps.
• A rustic backyard sanctuary with cobblestone paths, trellises and lush beds of native and exotic plants.
• A property that features a rose garden, lavender farm, vegetable patch, plunge pool and stream with landscaped trails leading to a beach.
• A terraced hillside garden of floral enthusiasts who grow dahlias, lilies and annuals.
Information: eatwild.com and vashonalliedarts.org/gardentour.