Variety, the superspice of life

Variety, we are told in the popular expression, is the spice of life. However, we are missing something today and I’d like to rewrite that old saying. I would argue that variety is the very essence of life! One shocking fact about the ‘modern diet’ is that nowadays, over 50% of the world’s daily calorie intake comes from just 3 species of plant – corn, rice and wheat. 80% comes from just 12 species. Why shocking? Well not so long ago, the average community ate somewhere between 250 to 350 species (on average) of plants across the year. In parts of China, 600 species have been used in one documented village. 

Recently, I’ve been reading about centenarians. Specifically people living not just until 100 but up to 150, studied by a gerontological doctor from UCL in the 1970s (Davies, 1975). The groups that were studied lived in different parts of the world from Ecuador to Russia. Their diet doesn’t seem anything special. Heritage varieties of corn, potatoes served with simple cottage-type or goat cheeses, meat around twice a week (sometimes three or four), but with lots of green leafy vegetables and fruits, and plenty of manual work and exercise. So far, what is significantly different? The book tried to find a theme. Calorie restriction, quantity of meat eaten, altitude… reaching no conclusions. But what struck me, that all the communities had in common, was that they all regularly consumed at least 200 species of local plants as culinary and medicinal herbs. 

It is a well-known fact, in mainstream thinking now, that plants are a lot more sophisticated than commonly thought. However, published, peer-reviewed journals commonly start along the lines of “nature is a generous source of a number of compounds with potential application for the treatment of several diseases including the infectious diseases, which is of utmost concern for the modern medicine due to the observed striding antimicrobial resistance. A number of sources of natural compounds with valuable and clinical antimicrobial activity can be listed, comprising medicinal plants, marine and terrestrial organisms, which includes fungi and bacteria. Nevertheless, there is still a vast fauna and ora that, once systematically explored, could provide additional antimicrobial leads and drugs.” (Hayashi, Bizerra & Da Silva, 2013). 

The recurring theme is that Nature is regarded as a vast treasure trove to provide ideas for drugs. Nowhere, does anyone ever mention, that perhaps the answer to living a long and healthy life, free from degenerative illnesses and dementia, is not just to increase the amount of vegetables you eat from 5 a day to 10 a day, but to dramatically increase the variety of species that you eat. 

Without this immense variety we are missing out on a completely unquantified amount of plant nutrients. Yes, we all know we need Vitamins A, B, C, D, E etc and a handful of minerals but what about the thousands of other compounds – the immense variety of antioxidants, flavonoids, hormones, trace elements – that have disappeared from our diet? This has happened gradually since the dawn of carbohydrate farming, at the onset of the Neolithic era, and very dramatically over the last 50 years, since the advent of industrial farming. 

At this point, usually someone comments that our life expectancy is greater than ever, and that modern medicine has extended our lives.  I would argue, not necessarily. Firstly, longevity statistics are usually skewed by child mortality and accidental death. Secondly, the study of remaining hunter-gatherer tribes such as the Hadza, !Kung and Ache who still lived as our Paleolithic ancestors but pushed to the margins of the environment, had a life expectancy into their mid-seventies (Hill & Hurtado, 1989). Thirdly, there is substantial evidence that even in the Victorian times of city squalor and bad plumbing, with the right diet – organic, as it was before the advent of chemicals – we were better off then than now. For example, a paper by Clayton & Rowbottham, 2009, starts “Analysis of the mid-Victorian period in the U.K. reveals that life expectancy at age 5 was as good or better than exists today, and the incidence of degenerative disease was 10% of ours. Their levels of physical activity and hence calorific intakes were approximately twice ours. They had relatively little access to alcohol and tobacco; and due to their correspondingly high intake of fruits, whole grains, oily fish and vegetables, they consumed levels of micro-and phytonutrients at approximately ten times the levels considered normal today.” The modern myth that nobody lived long enough to get degenerative illnesses just doesn’t convince me. It may suit the drug companies but I believe that the answer is not in medication, it is with the plants. And, not only do we need to eat more portions, but we need to eat more of them.

We know from laboratory analysis that the weeds are superfoods. Dandelion leaf – triple the vitamin A of spinach; Wild violet leaves – 10 times the vitamin C of an orange; sea buckthorn berry – almost the same ORAC value as acai; seaweed – not just a source of essential iodine and B vitamins (including vegan B9 & B12) but also Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine, Alanine, Arganine, Aspartic acid, Cysteine, Glutamic acid, Glycine, Proline, Serine, Tyrosine… and that’s just the amino acids. I haven’t even started on the rest of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements that we found in the Napiers Organic Hebridean Kelp. So for the communities that eat hundreds of species, we can’t even start to guess at the true nutritional profile of their diet, and the impact is has on their health. 

The theme of variety keeps cropping up. The microbiome, a well-kept secret for 50 years despite the efforts of visionaries like Rene Dubos, is now out of the closet. Our gut needs a colony of happy beneficial bacteria to keep us healthy – mentally as well as physically. But it’s not just one of two species added to a probiotic yoghurt capsule, it is many. Very many. In fact there’s over a trillion other species coinhabiting our bodies with us. It’s a documented fact that humans living today, leading a western lifestyle, have only a third of the bacterial variety in their gut that a traditional hunter-gather or a Japanese fisherman had. Perhaps this isn’t entirely to do with antibiotic use. After all the bacteria are winning the antibiotic war at the moment. Perhaps it’s because we eat such a limited range of plant species. After all, the root microbiome is not that dissimilar to our own and it may be that gut bacterial diversity is completely intertwined with plant species diversity, and our diet should reflect that.

Foraging is one natural way to increase the amount of species we eat. This salad, that I picked a few weeks ago, from an area no more than an acre, contains 32 species of plants. Often, there are 40. On just one of the walks that I teach, I can introduce people to 82 species of useful culinary and medicinal plants in an hour – although it takes me 4 hours to talk about them all! I can’t even begin to imagine the micronutrients in this salad. And compared to iceberg lettuce? 

No doubt, as research continues, someone – with a research budget – will start to think the way I do. In the meantime, I urge you to take up foraging. It’s absorbing, relaxing, gives you exercise, fresh air and time switched off from the digital world. Above all, knowing even a hundred species may well just be the key to your health too! 

Clayton, P., & Rowbotham, J. (2009). How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 6(3), 1235–1253.

Davies, D. (1975). The Centenarians of the Andes. Barrie and Jenkins: London, United Kingdom. 

Hayashi, M, Bizerra, F, Da Silva Jr, PI. (2013). Antimicrobial compounds from natural sources. Frontiers in Microbiology, 4, 195. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2013.00195

Hill, K., and M. Hurtado (1989). “Hunter-Gatherers of the New World.” American Scientist, 77, 436-443.

To find a foraging teacher in your area or country, visit the Association of Foragers.

For a supply of over 200 herbs, visit Napiers the Herbalists

What do you think?