Eating on The Wild Side

“The New World of Phytonutrient Farming: Good for Our Health and the Environment”

Wild Blueberries score HIGH on the Phytonutrient Scale
Wild Blueberries score HIGH on the Phytonutrient Scale

Last spring, I read Jo Robinson’s book, “Eating on the Wild Side”. I was attracted to this book for the science of how plants provide our bodies with chemicals that can help us fight off many diseases that bombard us with increasing frequency. In my second year of cancer survival, this book has had a special significance for me.

This November, Jo Robinson spoke at the Quivera Conference my students and I attended in Albuquerque. Her talk reminded me to keep seeking out all those purple and dark green veggies and fruits that will help me keep my good health.

(Source: USDA)
(Source: USDA)

Here is some of what I learned from Jo’s presentation and book:

What are phytonutrients? Phytonutrients are compounds that plants produce for self-protection against drought, predators, fungus, UV rays, disease, and insects.

How do I know if a plant has high phytonutrient content? Color of the plant is a good indicator of high phytonutrient presence. Generally, though not always, the darker the color, the more purple, red or green, the higher the phytonutrient content.


To preserve energy, plants only make these chemicals when they are needed. For example, plants will produce a chemical sunscreen against UV radiation, but this chemical will be not produced in the morning, and only ramped up towards high noon, when the sun’s rays are most harmful to the plant. In addition, fruits on the upper branches and outside perimeter of a tree have a higher phytonutrient content than those found on the inner branches. These fruits are much darker red. The common iceberg lettuce found in the grocery store, presented to the consumer with its outer protective leaves (much darker in color) stripped away, are pale and low in phytonutrient content.

How many of these chemicals have plants manufactured? Scientists have identified over 8 thousand phytonutrients including lycopene (tomato), anthocyanins (purple), lutein, allicin (garlic), quercetin ( onion) and revesterol ( wine, chocolate).

Why the heck should we care? Eating a diet rich in phytochemicals can reduce the risk of all kinds of human disease. Phytochemicals protect our bodies from from free radicals – which cause damage to cells. These chemicals are antioxidants which provide an extra electron to the free radical, so that the free radical does not need to rob our cells of their electrons.

Science is finding that phytochemicals can calm inflammation, lower high blood pressure, reduce LDL and boost HDL cholesterol, reduce the risk of blood clots, improve memory, reduce the prevalence of obesity and diabetes, improve liver function, strengthen the immune system, improve the appearance of aging skin, and even increase athletic performance (drink beet juice instead of gatoraid). Scientists have found that drinking concord grape juice (1.5 cups per day) actually stabilizes blood sugar. A study showed that people who consumed diets high in phytochemicals live 30 % longer.

When and why did we strip phytochemicals from our diet? Four Hundred generations ago, we stopped being hunters and gatherers and began planting our first gardens – we cherry picked the wild plants to grow in our gardens,. We chose the plants we liked the most, ones that would provide as much energy as possible – sugary and starchy plants – and we avoided the bitter plants because they usually had toxins.

See a cool graphic that shows the nutritional differences in food:

How can we bring back plants with higher phytonutrient content back into our diet? Choosing the right varieties of vegetables and fruits is key. There can be a 1000 fold difference in phytochemical content between different varieties. A searchable database for this information can be found on the web. Any fruit, vegetable or root with a purple color is best. Try the purple purvian potato. Consider a purple carrot instead of an orange one, the purple one has a 17 fold increase in phytochemical content.

Why does growing phytonutrient rich plants make farming more sustainable for our land? Phytonutrient content of the veggie depends on the soil. The healthier the soil, the higher the phytonutrients found in the plants. French fingerling potaotoes which are high in phytonutrients were found to have no insect damage compared to nearby potatoes that had little phytonutrients and therefore did not need to have insecticide applications. Remember that phytonutrients are produced by plants to fend off the bugs.

What are some fruits and vegetables that have high PN content? Liberty apple, bramley apple, reined reinette, golden russet, indian blood peaches, wild treasure blackberries.

Eat the Red Ones
Eat the Red Ones

Our DOT garden team will dedicate ourselves to teaching about and growing foods that will keep our community healthy.

For more information and help finding phytonutrient rich foods, visit or

Why kale is so awesome!


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