The Double Standard (of Foods)

There is a tremendous bias against wild foods in our society (in general). It is most apparent in the warnings that we see attached to the consumption of some wild foods. These warnings, despite a high frequency of inaccurate or incomplete information and almost always being taken out of context, are followed by many health conscious people because they do not want to put their well-being at risk (and who can blame them?). However, that wild food bias, which presents as a double standard of food safety, does little more than stifle curiosity about the most nutrient-dense plant foods on the planet. Let me explain with a couple of examples.

Bracken fern is a spring-emerging wild food that has “fiddleheads” with a wonderful aroma of cherries while cooking and a flavor of green beans. This plant is commonly rumored to be the cause of cancer in Asia (specifically Japan) where its consumption is higher than here in the United States. The chemical found in bracken fern believed to be carcinogenic is called ptaquiloside (this determined through isolation and feeding to laboratory animals). This chemical can be found in the water supply of villages in regions where bracken fern is frequent. Therefore, some experts recommend spraying the local areas with herbicides to rid the area of bracken fern (herbicides which contain carcinogenic components). The interesting point: many plants contain pharmacologically active compounds that leach into the soil, including cultivated species such as canola (a mustard) and clover (a legume). Further, highly toxic compounds are now being inserted into some GMO corn varieties. If ptaquiloside is dangerous to humans, why are plants with structurally similar compounds planted and fed to people? For what it is worth, the only large study in Japan that did demonstrate an increased hazard of cancer found that bracken fern ingestion must be combined with the consumption of rice gruel tea (called chagayu) to display elevated risk.

Sheep sorrel is a sour-tasting herb that grows in open areas. It has a number of edible and medicinal uses and is part of the folk cancer remedy called Essiac. It is noted to contain oxalic acid, which can (in certain people practicing certain diets) contribute to kidney stones. Therefore, this plant frequently comes with warnings to avoid consumption as it can lead not only to kidney stones but also to digestive issues and renal failure. Interesting. Let’s look at a list of foods that are high in oxalic acid: beets, spinach, soy beans, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Concord grapes, strawberries, whole wheat, sunflower fruits, cashews, Brazil nuts, black pepper, and many, many more (oxalic acid is a common plant chemical). Even cocoa (used to make chocolate) is high in oxalic acid. Why do these plants not come with dire warnings of nutritional disorders? I don’t know, but within many circles, most of these species are considered highly nutritious foods (most of which I would agree to). By the way, there are dietary practices that can help prevent the formation of kidney stones without avoiding plant foods (see discussion under Rumex acetosella in the Ancestral Plants reference).

It appears a large segment of our population has a fear of wild, untamed things. Sometimes, without even knowing, they apply very different standards to wild vs. cultivated foods. In plants, these two types have significant differences, but also have many similarities (and do produce similar compounds in many cases). Warnings applied to one group should pertain to the other. Think about these things: do you really want to follow recommendations that have been highly influenced by industry-funded studies? Do you really want to abandon your heritage (everyone’s heritage) and forget everything that your lineage knows about wild food consumption? I encourage you to remember that all of us have indigenous blood in our ancestry, indigenous people who consumed exclusively untamed plants and animals. Don’t fear the wild—embrace it.