Eating on the Wild Side

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. This statement speaks beyond the potential health benefits of an apple. It tells us that food can be medicine, that certain fruits and vegetables have enhanced health benefits, and that fresh produce is an essential part of our daily diet. However, these thoughts live largely in abstraction and rarely go beyond providing us with a general understanding about the food we eat. We are content to place a ripe tomato in our shopping basket along with a bundle of greens, a few carrots, and an onion and, as we gaze down at our basket with self-satisfaction, we assure ourselves that “Yes, I am a healthy eater”.

Jo Robinson grew up in the wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington, and was taught to appreciate the benefits of wild plant foraging, hunting, and fishing to provide sustenance and health. Raising awareness around the food we eat is part of the Robinson family heritage; her grandmother was a staunch food activist in the early 1900’s, joining women’s groups that lobbied against the sale of Coca Cola in 1910 and the USDA position that white flour was easier to digest than whole grain flour. This awareness is what has drawn her time and time again to investigate how food can be reclaimed and rediscovered for medicine and optimum wellness.

Jo Robinson’s bestselling book, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, challenges the perception of what is healthy and nutritious and prescribes a fruits and vegetables selection to optimize the health benefits of our daily diet. It lifts the veil of fog we tend to shop in, pushing us to be conscientious shoppers and gives us history, depth, and consequence of what we are putting into our shopping baskets.

The premise of the book centers on the drastic alteration of native plants that has taken place in order to make fruits and vegetables highly productive, easier to harvest, and more palatable. Robinson details how the radical changes to native plants has produced foods that are lower in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. Many of these redesigned varieties of common fruits and vegetables have lost the essential phytonutrients that we rely on to guard against inflammation, cancerous cell formation, damage to eyesight, diabetes, and weight gain. The choice to “walk away from our native diet” in favour of engineered foods that are tenderer, less bitter, higher in sugar and starch, and rich in oil has essentially created the food supply of our dreams, but has also bred out the medicinal benefits that we used to rely on in our available foods.

In a recent interview with EAT Magazine, Robinson asserts that “…going back three or four thousand years, food as medicine was…central to people’s lives…it was, perhaps, the introduction of patent medicine that made people think that food was just a way to get calories and prescription medicine was a way to get healthy and cure diseases.” What Robinson has done in Eating on the Wild Side is reignite the conversation on food as medicine by highlighting the vegetables and fruits that are the key to regaining a degree of control over our personal health.

Robinson’s book sets the stage by providing the reader with a simple, yet detailed, description of why and how our fruits and vegetables have changed over the millennia and how we can begin to reclaim our wild foods. Eating on the Wild Side is designed to be a comfortable and enlightening read that can also be an essential reference before you head out to do your shopping.

The book is divided into two parts: Vegetables and Fruits. Within the two parts, the chapters feature a single produce item or a family of fruits or vegetables and contain information on how the plant has changed over time, potential health benefits, how to select the right variety for optimal benefit, and how to store and cook them in order to maintain or enhance their nutritional properties. The information in the book is a wonderful balance of grounded scientific research, enchanting historical anecdotes, and easy reference and tips that will guide you towards a conscious approach to selecting your food (you will also find some delightful recipes to accompany your new grocery list).

Robinson has managed to elevate and enrich historical and scientific research in order to tell the story, and sometimes even the mythology, of our food and how native plants were colonized and altered to suit modern palates. You will find reference to Ancient Egypt, Mesoamerican, Native American cultures, and Chinese and Indian Spice routes that will take you through our collective experience with food and how these foods came to be under the neon lights of your local supermarket. After reading this book, you may indeed set aside some of your distaste for Alexander the Great’s warmongering ways in favour of his contribution to the peaches and apples we so cherish in the summer and fall months.

For many of us, the fruits and vegetables covered in Eating on the Wild Side are readily available from your local grocery store or farmers market and are likely among the items you regularly drop into your basket. What the book really uncovers for the reader is a heightened sense of awareness around the varieties of the plants we choose to consume and how we can capitalize on their nutritional value. For example, cooking or canning cultivated blueberries increases their antioxidant levels, and as many berry varieties respond in a similar fashion, it is a good excuse to make pies, tarts and cobblers (it says so right in the book!). Like the berry, steaming, roasting or baking sweet potatoes can double their antioxidant value, but keep that skin on to retain the highest nutritional value—a recommendation repeated throughout the book for many varieties of fruits and vegetables.

One of the appealing aspects of Eating on the Wild Side is that it does not demand a drastic change in diet, or budget for that matter. Many of us in Victoria are fortunate enough to have both the means and access to acquire fresh fruits and vegetables. However, in our interview with Robinson, she spoke of how even those in what has been called nutrition deserts (generally low-income areas that have limited access to fresh produce) can capitalize on available foodstuffs.

“There are some really inexpensive common foods that are rich in phytonutrients that people don’t know about…for example, almost all (dried) beans are excellent for people’s health, black beans being the best of all…Canned tomatoes and tomato paste are the best source of lycopene…and Concord grape juice, one of the cheapest juices on the market, is really rich in anthocyanins and has been shown in clinical studies to have some really important health affects”.

Robinson told EAT that one of the major challenges in ensuring this information gets out and really creates a shift in thinking around the foods we eat is that “half the population simply isn’t interested in the conversation. Unfortunately, we are in a food environment that is really seductive and it feeds in to the basic human programing to have a high calorie, high fat, high carbohydrate diet”. Eating on the Wild Side presents scientifically based information in a very simple, straightforward, and engaging manner that aims to educate the wider population on how to reclaim and rediscover the value of the foods they are already eating.

We asked Robinson to leave our readers with three vital takeaways from her book and here is what she says are the fundamentals to creating that shift in thinking about our food.

“The variety of the specific fruit or vegetable is far more important that selecting a kind of fruit or vegetable; eat the full spectrum of nutritious plant varieties at your disposal—don’t just hone in on one (we’re looking at you, kale); and it is entirely possible to double or triple you phytonutrient intake by making more informed choices in the supermarket”.

Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health is an indispensable guide to knowing your food better and starting a meaningful and more engaged relationship with our available plants. This is an easy, educational and, most importantly, enjoyable read that will remain on readers’ bookshelves as an essential reference for years to come.

Book Review: Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health

Author: Jo Robinson

Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY (2013)

Jo Robinson will be speaking at the upcoming Health, Wellness & Sustainability Festival in Victoria. Robinson’s featured talk is scheduled for 7 – 9:30 p.m. Saturday, February 27 after the day’s festival. Tickets for the talk are $22 ($15 for early bird tickets from the web site before February 12), and $15 for students and seniors.

For more information and to purchase tickets visit the website.



An Evening with author and food activist Jo Robinson at Nourish in the Harbour

Friday February 26th, 7pm

Nourish in the Harbour will be hosting a special evening with Robinson in advance of her public talk on February 27th. There will be lovely little bites from Nourish and a chance to sit down and chat with this renowned food activist. If you have a home garden, shop at a farmers market, or take care in selecting your fruits and vegetables then this is an event not to be missed.

Tickets are $35 and highly limited (approximately 30 will be available). Available at:


















lentil soup

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