Food is more than fuel

Good food really is good medicine. In fact, good food has great medicine grown into it naturally. I’m not talking about the protein, vitamins, or minerals, but actually the natural medicine that plants make for themselves.

What you eat can help you navigate most of the health hazards of a long, full life, or it can point you toward a health breakdown. Unfortunately, what’s in the fresh produce section of your local supermarket, while much better than the canned or frozen processed stuff in the aisles, isn’t likely to be truly “best of class” good food. It looks great; it’s big, consistent, blemish-free, and pretty, and it can hold up to being picked early and unripe, stacked high, and shipped thousands of miles without bruising and rotting. But compared to its counterparts that grow in the wild, or are cultivated organically, conventionally grown food can have less than half of the usual complement of secondary metabolites. Some have zero.

Never heard of secondary metabolites? No shame in that; it’s only recently that researchers have been looking into the health effects of these compounds.

Primary metabolites are the building blocks every plant needs in order to breathe and grow; the basic components of nutrition: sugars, fats, and amino acids. Essentially, it’s what every cell needs to survive.

Secondary metabolites, on the other hand, are used by the entire plant to survive the trials of life.

(I’ll give you some examples in a moment.) When consumed, they literally endow us with the same power to protect and persevere. Plants are subject to all manner of attacks, from land, water, and air. They can’t get up and run away from predators or competitors, and they can’t wander around looking for a mate, so over the eons they’ve developed their own mechanisms to thrive. Some are physical, such as bark and thorns for defence. Most, however, are chemical — to make the plant safe and secure in its surroundings, taste terrible to pests, squash competing plants, poison pathogens, kill viruses and beat back bacteria on their roots, or even attract a pollinating bird, bat, or bug. This is all very interesting from a botanical point of view, but what does it have to do with you and your health?

Well, it used to be believed that secondary metabolites were irrelevant in the human diet, but now we know that they have a huge impact on your health. Many can save your life. Kill pain. Cure cancer.

Lift your mood. Lower blood pressure. Fight free radicals. Heal your liver. Lower your cholesterol. Allay allergies.

As you can imagine, pharmaceutical companies love to exploit this resource to make drugs and market them so you believe you can’t live without them — aspirin is a prime example. But you don’t need some fancy new drug to reap the health benefits of secondary metabolites; all you have to do is eat the foods that contain them. It is how the food is grown that creates or diminishes these natural health superstars. In fact, the method used to produce food is so important that agriculture should be considered an essential element of public health.

We need these compounds, too

The one and only goal of plants is to complete their life cycle and reproduce so their species can continue on. Plants don’t create secondary metabolites to help us; they do it to protect themselves against environmental stressors: poor soils, trampling, grazing animals, insects, birds, microbial infection, drought, flooding, and so forth. Under tough growing conditions, they’re forced to grow slower, and therefore they’re exposed longer to all the environmental pressures that threaten their survival. Even when times are tough, they expend precious energy to produce secondary metabolites to fend off and neutralize the ill effects of those stressors. So, certain plants develop certain secondary metabolites, in response to certain conditions, at certain times during their development, to help them succeed in carrying on their genetic line.

Mass-produced food is a disaster in this area, whether the plants come from genetically modified seed or they’re simply a hybrid designed to withstand cross-country shipping. Modern food producers know that it’s easier to make a profit with these, but even a tiny alteration in a plant’s genetic makeup can completely shut down its production of secondary metabolites — without altering the way the produce looks from the outside. Having a coddled existence also reduces the level of secondary metabolites in a plant. Protection from birds and insects, from drought, and from disease all mean that the plant isn’t prompted to produce the protection it’s capable of. Because secondary metabolites have such a profound impact on your health, and because modern food is grown without any thought whatsoever to preserving them, it’s increasingly imperative to find foods that are good sources. So here’s my advice.

Get the most from your food

Ordering a salad in a restaurant is a fine idea. But what about that hard, tasteless, orange-ish slice they call a “tomato”? Compare it to a juicy, succulent, bright red real tomato, and you’ll get a good idea of their relative nutritional value as well. The same goes for those gigantic hybrid strawberries with the white shoulders, and for peaches or apples picked right from the tree. Truly naturally grown food tastes better because it’s loaded with those secondary metabolites — which means it not only tastes better, it just plain is better. Shop for food that looks and tastes like the food you had when you were a kid. The following tips will help.

•  Insist on organic, non-GMO food. It has to fight more for its survival because it’s not pumped with antibiotics and the ground isn’t sterilized by chemicals to protect it from the environment. More fight means more flavour. More stress means more intensity of pathogen-punching, immune-modulating secondary metabolites. And, non-hybridized organic food is more honest. That’s because secondary metabolites start deteriorating almost immediately after harvest. Plants are bred to have a longer shelf life and look fresher longer, even after their secondary metabolites have broken down. Organic food is naturally and normally perishable, so the food itself breaks down at about the same rate as its secondary metabolites. So if it’s labelled organic and it looks fresh, you can trust that it has more of the secondary metabolites it had when it was picked.

•  Consider growing some of your own organic fruits and vegetables, and/or join a farmer’s co-op that specializes in organic and non-hybridized produce. As I said above, organic produce simply doesn’t travel as well as the conventional variety, so buying local when you can means you’re getting the freshest, most potent food possible. If the growing season is short in your neck of the woods, buy heirloom seeds and start them indoors to extend your season. Stay away from the faster-growing hybrid seeds.

•  When you’re buying an herbal supplement, be sure to get one that contains the right amount of the active ingredient — which is so often a secondary metabolite! If the plant was grown under improper conditions, harvested at the wrong time, or processed incorrectly, it’ll lack those secondary metabolite characteristics and won’t give you the health benefits you were looking for. The cheaper, off-brand products are likely to be made from these less-than-harvest-perfect suspects. Unless the supplement is standardized or laboratory certified, you really have no idea whether you’re getting what you need. When I make recommendations for you, I give you the brand names that meet my standards for content and potency. Pay the price to get the results.

The bottom line is eat organic when you can; small changes in the way a plant grows have enormous effects on the secondary metabolites it produces. In turn, the secondary metabolites have enormous effects on what that plant offers you. When the conditions that made secondary metabolites necessary are no longer present, the ability to create those compounds disappears. From the outside you’ll notice nothing different about that food. But oh, man, from the standpoint of smell, taste, color, medicinal qualities, and your health, they are really worlds apart.

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The content and opinions expressed in this article are the professional and/or personal view or opinion of the author only. Opinions expressed should not be construed as medical advice, and the article’s content is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional medical care and diagnosis. Individuals should always consult with their health care provider before beginning or changing any treatment program.