By Janet Colston
In 2020 we spent a lot of time reflecting on functional foods from crops that we grow in controlled environments analyzing how they benefit human health.
In a new three part series we discuss why we should boost the immune system with functional foods to prevent disease and ask ‘Why Eat This?’. In addition, we at Urban Ag News will also start to explore why eating this is not only good for the body, but also how it might be good for the farmer and for the planet.
New Year Resolutions
This time of year we traditionally turn our minds to resolutions for the year ahead and health is usually top of the list. This year is no different as postponed plans from a year of lock-downs and fear from a deadly virus give us a desire more than ever to live life to the full. However many are looking for a different North Star, that of personal health and protection from not just this virus but also mutated strains in the future. So after singling out individual plants and showing you what they can do for our health, we thought the start of 2021 would be the best time to bring it all together as part of a healthy diet and a healthy planet.
Does Nature hold the key to being disease free?
The human body needs protein made up of at least 20 amino acids for almost every single metabolic action to function properly. Our bodies are capable of making 11 of those amino acids but we cannot store them so we must supplement our diets with either animal or plant based protein daily to provide sustenance and energy. Animal proteins are considered complete amino acid sources, however there is growing evidence that a well balanced plant based diet may be superior in quality. These essential elements come from our edible plants in a form that helps rejuvenate our bodies ability to repair damage. We would not put diesel in a petrol motor so why do we still expect our bodies to function with unsaturated fats, or diets laden with additives and high in sugars? Our bodies are the most sophisticated machines on earth yet we sometimes expect miracles.
Are plant based diets the way forward?
In recent years there has been a move endorsed by celebrities towards plant based diets. You can bet those celebrities have nutritionists who help balance their diets whether it be for improved sports performance or skin routines. But how can we bring this knowledge and the health benefits to people who need it the most in an affordable accessible way?
Some argue that plants do not contain adequate levels of protein and that animal protein is essential for supplementing diets. Animal protein sources are higher in Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, omega fatty acids, heme iron and zinc. There are twenty amino acids and nine are essential amino acids, including lysine, methionine, threonine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, valine, isoleucine, leucine and histidine. Of these some are thought to be less abundant in plant based diets, such as tryptophan, methionine, lysine, threonine, and isoleucine. As we know these are reduced we can look for alternatives like quinoa and soya bean or fortified foods to supplement vegan or vegetarian diets. This is a possibility the WHO explored in third world countries with fortified cereal crops. Plant research continues at pace to resolve these issues which could also see us become less reliant on animal proteins in the future reducing carbon footprints and securing future food for billions across the globe.
Which functional foods to choose
Throughout the pandemic there was a global surge towards health, causing shortages of turmeric and ginger across some continents. When the outbreak started in Wuhan, citizens boosted their immunity with traditional remedies including garlic and ginger. These plants all display properties beneficial to human health but will not cure or prevent the virus according to the WHO. Despite this, people still widely search the internet for a natural and accessible cure. We describe plants with additional phytonutrients as functional foods and believe they have relevance to global health as we revealed in our journey around the world in 30 Berries stretching from the Artic Tundra to the sunny climate of Barbados. We have shown how these plants are grown in different climates, and can be enhanced by controlled environment agriculture to help access these plants in environments where you don’t expect to see them growing. Who would have thought Wasabi native to Japan would thrive in Scotland or that since the 1950s Iceland has been home to one of the biggest banana plantations in the northern hemisphere.
The functional foods we discuss and suggest ‘Eat This’ in our articles include berries, peppers, leafy greens, tomatoes, exotic fruits, bulbs, roots and tubers. All have similar anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and cardiovascular protection properties. Each may have a unique chemical signature but when it comes down to it they all act in very similar ways to reverse oxidative stress and neutralize free radicals thereby promoting DNA repair. It is for this reason the AHA recommends at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day to ensure a healthy diet.
A word of caution – everything in moderation
We are not advocating a plant based diet over animal protein, this is a lifestyle choice. But what we aim for is an informed choice. If you have underlying health conditions it is important to consider any contraindications. For example plants like spinach and arugula are high in vitamin K and may not be suited for people who have kidney stones or those taking blood thinners. Like most things, taking too much of a good thing can have negative consequences. Indeed a lady in Israel who mistakenly ate a full bowl of Wasabi thinking it was guacamole suffered heart arrhythmias. So understanding your own body and listening to what peer reviewed science can tell us is key to building a personal diet against disease.
As your granny used to say, everything in moderation and you won’t go wrong.
Janet Colston PhD is pharmacologist with an interest in growing ‘functional’ foods that have additional phytonutrients and display medicinal qualities that are beneficial to human health. She grows these using a range of techniques including plant tissue micropropagation and controlled environmental agriculture to ensure the highest quality control.