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“Artichokes, asparagus, and avocados belong to three different families of vegetables. What unites them—other than the fact that they all begin with the letter a—is that they are wonderfully nutritious and deserve to play a larger role in the American diet,” says veteran organic gardener and scientific research writer Jo Robinson, “All three are rich in bionutrients and fiber, which are in short supply in our modern diet. They are also low in sugar, making them a good addition to a low-glycemic diet.”
Due to all our tremendous positive response to our March newsletter regarding the volumes of successful home gardening information in Robinson’s latest book, “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” we decided a second helping of her work is in order, with hopes that we can convince all gardeners that this is a must-have resource for your library. We have found them to be very well appreciated as gifts to our gardening friends, having ordered some 10 copies already. In case you missed our March SeedsNSuch Newsletter and blogs, now would be a good time to go back and see what this special book is all about.
“Our modern artichokes are related to wild plants called cardoons, which are native to North Africa,” says Robinson, “Cardoons have spines that look like dogs’ teeth, and their heads are the size of tangerines. People in most traditional cultures eat the leaves of the plant. Today, we eat a different part of our domesticated varieties—the leaf-like bracts of the unopened flower.
“In 2007, food researchers learned something else about cardoons: they have six times more phytonutrients than our cultivated artichokes,” she adds, “Nonetheless our modern cultivars are extraordinarily nutritious. Artichokes have a higher ORAC value than all other fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. You would have to eat 18 servings of corn or 30 servings of carrots to get the same benefits. The fact that artichokes are a drab olive color makes their nutritional content all the more surprising.”
Since Americans only consume one ounce on average per person per year, Robinson urges us to consider adding more of this superfood to our diet. “Artichokes have another virtue,” she continues, “They are high in inulin, a probiotic (beneficial organism) that nourishes the growth of ‘good’ gut bacteria that can compete with deadly strains of E. coli and other disease-causing bacteria. Finally, artichokes are an unheralded source of fiber. One medium-sized choke gives you between 8 and 10 grams of fiber, which is as much as two bowls of bran cereal with raisins. People in this country consume half of the amount of fiber recommended by the USDA and one-seventh as much as hunter-gatherers did. Eating more artichokes can help bridge the gap.”
According to Robinson, much the same story applies to asparagus, which has been harvested from the wild since ancient times. “In 2011, an Italian research team discovered that wild asparagus has almost twice as many phytonutrients and five times as much vitamin C as our domesticated varieties,” notes Robinson, “But is it truly worth stalking? Europeans think so. I talked with Adolfo Rosati, a lead investigator of the study. ‘Wild asparagus tastes stronger than cultivated asparagus,’ he told me. ‘It is also less sweet and more bitter, but pleasantly so to most Europeans. It is a very popular wild vegetable here in Italy, even among our children. But you North Americans do not like the bitter foods like chicory or wild vegetables because you have gotten used to such bland and sugary food.’”
Robinson admits, “Our modern varieties of asparagus may not measure up to their wild ancestors, but they are among the most nutritious vegetables in the grocery store nonetheless. In a nutritional analysis of 18 vegetables, asparagus was found to have more antioxidants than all but three of those tested—broccoli, green peppers, and burdock, a wild root vegetable. (Artichokes were not tested.)”
Since asparagus has such a high rate of respiration and loses its flavor and phytonutrients so rapidly, Robinson says it is best to eat it the day you get it, and avoid storage if possible. “Asparagus is one of those vegetables that is best grown in a home garden,” she adds, “When you harvest it just moments before you cook it, you get peak levels of nutrients and fabulous, fresh-picked flavor. When you grow asparagus, you can take advantage of another flavor-enhancing technique. Asparagus, that is harvested when only six or seven inches of stalk have emerged from the soil, is 10 times sweeter than that harvested when it is 10 inches above ground. (The sweetness is not a health problem; asparagus’s overall sugar content is very low.)”
Robinson describes avocados as subtropical fruits, not vegetables. In fact, like tomatoes, they are actually characterized as berries, and the wild ones, which are native to Central America, grow on up-to-80-feet tall evergreen trees—whose fruits are about half the size of a hen’s egg. “Like our modern varieties, they are between 15 and 30 per cent oil—an anomaly in the fruit world,” she says, “A major difference between wild avocados and avocados in our supermarkets is that the wild ones have such large seeds that they leave little room for the flesh.”
Avocados were known to have been cultivated as early as 6000 BC, and by the first century BC, “they were being grown in great quantity in a number of Mesoamerican cultures,” states Robinson, “In some regions, corn, beans, and avocados were the three staple crops. Together, these three foods provided a generous supply of starch, protein and fat. Generation by generation, farmers began to improve the palatability and amount of pulp in the fruit.
“Our modern varieties still have very large seeds for their size, but the seeds are now enveloped in a reasonable amount of succulent flesh,” she notes, “Even though our modern varieties are more palatable than their wild ancestors, they have retained most of their nutrients. One serving gives you more antioxidants than a serving of broccoli raab, grapes, red bell peppers, or red cabbage. Avocados are also a good source of vitamin E, folate, potassium, and magnesium.
“I was surprised to learn that avocados are an excellent source of fiber as well,” she continues, “How can something so smooth and creamy have any fiber at all? The explanation is that avocados, like most fruits, contain soluble fiber, a type of fiber that has a gel-like consistency. Half a medium-size avocado gives you six grams of soluble fiber—more than is in a bowl of oatmeal.
“What about all that fat?” she asks, “The fat in avocados is in the form of mono-unsaturated oils, the same ‘good’ fat that abounds in olive oil. In one study, women with diabetes who consumed one large avocado every day lowered their triglyceride levels, but had no increase in weight. The fat in avocados also aids in the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients. Adding sliced avocados to a salad can increase the amount of beta-carotene and lutein you absorb from the greens by as much as 1,500 per cent.”
As Robinson does in each chapter of fruits, berries and vegetables she describes, there are storage tips and cooking recommendations for artichokes, asparagus and avocados. She even gives pointers on how to shop for them in the supermarket, as well as a listing of which varieties contain the most phytonutrients. And you will certainly want to try some of her tasty and healthy recipes!