For those who bother to grow their own food – a ‘radical’ act that has almost become necessary due to the GMO-laden land around us – the idea of consuming boosted plant nutrients is wildly appealing. Growing specific varieties of vegetables and fruits which are rich in phytonutrients, including anthocyanins, quercetin, lutein, and lycopene, for example, can help to prevent cancer, help us age more gracefully, and boost energy levels. Some research even states that the nutritional value of a single food we eat can be more important than the number of fruits and vegetables we consume.
One study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, even argued that older people who consumed highly nutritious fruit and vegetable varieties during a 12-year period had a 30% lower mortality rate compared to those who ate less nutritious fruits and vegetables. Getting some dirt under your nails when you garden is paramount to great health, but growing the right plants could be even more essential.
Power of the Plant – Phytonutrients
Phyto translates from Greek to mean “plant.” Put simply, plant nutrients, or phytonutrients, are those which protect the plant from various diseases and harmful bacteria and pests. These nutrients can even protect plants from drought and ultraviolet light. They are absolutely key to a plant’s well-being – but so are they to our own good health.
When we consume plants that are phytonutrient-rich, we gain the same benefits as the plant – that is, the plant’s self-defense becomes our own protection.
It used to be assumed among nutritionists (and certainly mainstream medical society) that phytonutrients were irrelevant for human health.
Fortunately, experts are now seeing the light. Rui Hai Liu, a professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, maintains that the majority of the health benefits we get from eating fruits and vegetables comes directly from their phytonutrient content – more so than vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.
And what’s interesting is that some varieties – of say, an apple, this single fruit – have more phytonutrients than others. So, if you have limited space to grow a garden, an orchard, or a small farm, wouldn’t you want to plant those things which give you the biggest health benefit? The Liberty Apple has more phytonutrients (3 to 4 times as many) as many other apple varieties. This is true of many plants.
Why are Phytonutrients so Important?
Most phytonutrients are powerful antioxidants. These help protect us from tiny particles called “free radicals.”
Too many free radicals can turn a normal cell into a cancerous cell, promote chronic inflammation, contribute to the blockage of our arteries, or destroy vital neurons in the brain.
Phytonutrients do more than fight free-radicals, though. In a 2009 test-tube study published in the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the phytonutrient quercetin, which is present in apples and onions, killed a flu virus more effectively than the prescription drug Tamiflu.
Another phytonutrient, lycopene, found in tomatoes, improves male fertility according to the International Urology and Nephrology.
Phytonutrients come in many forms – from catechins in green tea leaves to flavanols in the cacao bean from which we get dark chocolate – and they all have life-saving or life-enhancing properties.
Super Variety and Super Food
In addition to choosing “superfoods” for better health like kale, garlic, pomegranates, goji berries, and more — we should be looking for “super varieties” as well. Spinach, for example, is widely regarded as a superfood, but the variety matters.
In a study from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, half of participants were asked to eat five small servings of the ‘Spinner’ variety of spinach each week for three months. The other half consumed the same amount of the ‘Springer’ variety, which has fewer phytonutrients.
Tests showed that those who consumed the higher-phytonutrient ‘Spinner’ had a reduced risk of macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness in adults 65 years of age and older. The people who were given the low-phytonutrient variety received no such benefit.
It is hard to know which varieties to choose, and some will grow better in your particular area than others, but there is a list of 44 super-nutritious varieties, here.
4 Tips for Growing Your Own
- 1. Don’t assume heirloom fruits and vegetables are better. Sometimes, the breeding process strips plants of their important phytonutrients. Other times it makes them more nutrient-dense. A popular red-leaf lettuce variety known as ‘Lollo Rosso,’ for example, has 10 times more nutrients than green-leaf lettuce and about 600 times more than iceberg lettuce. One type of seedless grape which used to grow in the Ottoman Empire and that has become very popular in the US, the Thompson seedless grape, is actually five times less nutrient-dense than other grape varieties.
- 2. As a rule, smaller varieties, not the ‘extra-large’ or ‘gigantic’ types that have been developed by breeders, are more nutrient-dense. The huge fruits and vegetables often contain less water per ounce and their phytonutrients are mostly in their skins, not in the flesh of the fruit or vegetable.
- 3. American fruits and vegetables with ‘mild’ flavors are often less phytonutrient-rich than the more intensely flavored fruits and vegetables grown most often in other countries. Radicchio and arugula lettuces, for example – the spicier greens – have more phytonutrients than the American favored iceberg and green leaf. We’ve bred the best qualities out of much of our domestic produce at the same time that we’ve increased that produce’s sugar content. When choosing fruit and vegetable varieties for your garden, experiment with varieties that have more flavor.
- 4. Red, purple, black, and blue fruits are full of anthocyanins. Plant these whenever you can. These plants will help reduce inflammation, high blood pressure, early-onset dementia, and more. Examples are red onions, black grapes, and purple broccoli.
Christina Sarich is a humanitarian and freelance writer helping you to Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.