We have the data on superfoods – now what?

Jeremy tackles superfood in his latest newsletter. Do subscribe.

The ultimate expression of food as medicine is the search for active ingredients. Why go to the bother of eating broccoli or Brussels sprouts if you can swallow a pill of glucosinolates and get all that cancer-fighting power directly? I’ve even seen arguments that beneficial phytochemicals be purified from wild plants and somehow incorporated into the batter for chicken nuggets. So I’ve long been skeptical of an effort launched a while ago to compile a periodic table of food, described as an initiative “for generating biomolecular knowledge of edible diversity”. I didn’t link to the original paper because it was behind a paywall but now that two of the 56 authors have written a kind of press release I’m happier to do so.

Superfood – Unveiling the “Dark Matter” of Food, Diets and Biodiversity explains how little we know about the molecular composition of the vast majority of edible plants, and that to learn more will take “a united scientific movement, larger than the human genome project”. Such a movement, in turn, calls for standardised tools, data and training to ensure that results are comparable.

What have we learned from the tools, data and training, so far? As an example, the authors offer

Broccoli, which achieved “superfood” status several years ago for its antioxidants and its connections to gut health, has over 900 biomolecules not found in other green vegetables.

And? Does that mean the broccoli pill will need more than glucosinolates, which are also present in many other brassicas? What does it mean, other than that we need more research?

There are larger goals. One, I think, is to somehow reverse the current trend for people in the West to fall upon the latest superfood with a cry of glee until the next one comes along, without giving anything back to the indigenous cultures that discovered and preserved the superfood. Calling for capacity-strengthening, the authors say “it is time to start opening the black box of food and create more nourishing food systems for everyone”. M’kay.

Another goal, I think, is to ensure that government dietary guidelines are based on more complete knowledge, despite the fact that even now it is more or less impossible to get people to follow those guidelines. Will having more molecular data help?

Full disclosure: I used to work for one of the organisations behind the Periodic Table of Food Initiative and I count many of the researchers as friends. I still don’t see the point, but please check out the gorgeous PTFI website for yourself and let me know why I am wrong.

Nibbles: SPAM2020, Pullman genebank, Svalbard, Olive plague, Rice diversity, Vanilla threat, Gum rockrose, VACS demand, AI double, Food & climate change

  1. The latest version of the SPAM global crop area distribution model is out. You can play with it here.
  2. Some bullet points on the USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System outpost in Pullman.
  3. Yes, the above references Svalbard, as does this piece on Spanish tomatoes.
  4. Pity we can’t put olives in Svalbard, but there’s a another way to protect olive diversity.
  5. A breakdown of rice colour diversity. A lot of this stuff will be in Svalbard, with any luck.
  6. Vanilla will also need attention.
  7. But gum rockrose seems to be taken care of, at least in Bulgaria. It’s what you make Holy Chrism with.
  8. So there’s bound to be demand for it, at least in some quarters. Unlike for other opportunity/orphan/neglected crops, but GAIN is on it.
  9. And if all else fails there’s always AI, be it to fight pests and diseases or find cool plants out in the jungle.
  10. Why does all this matter? Because of the climate F-word.

Brainfood: Biodiversity nexus, Nutrition interventions, European land suitability, Beyond yield, Cover crops, CWR breeding, Rice gaps, Banana info system

Nibbles: Seed info, Potato 101, Coffee 101, Rice repatriation, Iraq genebank, Use or lose, Teff breeding, Micronutrients, Agrobiodiversity, Plant a Seed Kit, WorldVeg to Svalbard, Seed Health Units

  1. Eastern and Southern Africa Small-scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF) launches SEED GIST, a quarterly repository of seed literature.
  2. A fun romp through potato history.
  3. A fun romp through coffee history.
  4. Hong Kong gets some rice seeds back from the IRRI genebank.
  5. No doubt Iraq will get some seeds back from the ICARDA genebank soon.
  6. Genebanks are only the beginning though.
  7. Breeding teff in, wait for it, South Africa.
  8. The possible tradeoffs of an environmentally friendly diet.
  9. IIED on the value of agrobiodiversity. Includes an environmentally-friendly and/or nutritious diet.
  10. Slow Food’s Plant a Seed Kit is all about agrobiodiversity and healthy diets. What, though, no teff?
  11. WorldVeg knows all about seed kits, and safety duplication.
  12. Gotta make sure those seeds are healthy, though. Here’s how CGIAR does it.

Brainfood: Food shift, Food footprint, Periodic Table of Food, Nutritious food, Diverse food, Food seed kits, Food meta-metrics