Can you believe I still have not visited Machu Pichu, even though I have visited Peru more than a dozen times? Despite multiple visits to South America, I haven’t visited the Manaus Opera house (similar to the Sydney Opera house in Australia) either. So why bother traveling if I’m not seeing such incredible sights? Well, I am looking for the bounties of nature not represented in man-made architecture, cool and amazing as they are. I see myself more as an etnocryptobotanist superfood hunter (try to put that one in your scrabble board). Translation? I seek plants revered for their medicinal and nutritious benefits that have been forgotten or are yet to be discovered by Westerners. Only 5-15% of the 250,000 to 750,000 known (emphasis on known, how many more are out there that we still don’t know) plants have been systematically screened for bioactive compounds.
Think of the possibilities!
A great holistic nutritionist once said, “We have discovered vitamin A, B, C, D etc. and eventually down the road we will discover vitamin J, L, X, W, Z.” These crypto-nutrients are what drives me to get out of my comfortable Malibu life and continuously go back into the field and look at what most people consider uninteresting and unimportant plants. Some may call them “weeds,” but do you know what I see? I see a biological complex living lab working away at creating thousands upon thousands of chemical compounds. (10) When I see these plants, fruits, nuts, and seeds I think to myself, “We can conduct hundreds of clinical tests to screen for nutrients and bioactive compounds, yet we don’t even know 5% of what is really going on inside this plant, and even less of what goes on when we eat it.” But I can’t wait to find out.
The plant world has evolved, complex systems of biochemistry. Here’s proof. The human genome project ran a test to see how many genes the average human contains. They were expecting more than 100,000 or more. After all we are the most advanced, complex, top-of-the-food-chain creatures on earth, so it only makes sense we have hundreds of thousands of genes right? Wrong.
It turns out we only carry roughly 24,000,(2) while the humble rice grain carries around 55,000 and 27,000 of them have yet to be deciphered.(1)
A lowly grain of rice is genetically more abundant and possibly complex than a human being? Talk about a humbling experience.
So what are all those extra thousands of genes doing? Well most probably depending on different situations adapting, evolving, and just going about what genes do. While we now have evolved to using iPhones and flat screen TVs, cars, and houses, in the same way, plants also have biochemistry that evolves and they know how to use it very, very well. What this means is over thousands of years plants have developed means to use biological chemicals to their advantage, creating pigmentations, physical appearances, toxins, nutrients, aromas and so forth.
Even the most basic and common of world foods such as a grain of rice is still a mystery on a genetic-biochemical level.
What about those foods that have been revered and praised for their medicinal and nutritional value? The ones I call superfoods, we know even less about them.
From the late 1800’s onward we dedicated ourselves to deciphering what are the molecules and compounds in foods that benefit us or harm us. Protein was studied starting in the 1830s, vitamin C in the 1930s (though it had been correlated to curing scurvy since the 1800s) and so forth. They started discovering so many vitamin Bs that eventually they just started to number them. We are still in the process of better understanding and discovering new nutrients and non-nutrients and new vitamins that still benefit us when we consume them.
Michael Pollan stated, “There is no placebo broccoli,” so we can’t really monitor how food in its myriad of variety and combinations works within us. Science still can’t unveil the exact reasons why certain foods will create positive healing and effects in our bodies. Depending on the food, is it the fiber, the antioxidants, or the omega-3? Is it the beta carotene, the vitamins, minerals, or a combination? If so what combinations and why? I think we should expect to be blown away the more we understand.
The Short Version :
Today we know 5% of the plant in this planet, 95% we are still in the dark. Foods we have known for decades, we are beginning to get our mind around how they influence in a positive way our health. Just think about how much there is to still discover and learn? New vitamins and nutrients await! I am not going to sit back and wait for someone else to do it; I am grabbing my backpack, my Shakeology, a couple bags of nuts and seeds, my plane ticket, and all my curiosity to find out.
1. Chaoyang Hu Jianxin Shi Sheng Quan Bo Cui Sabrina Kleessen Zoran Nikoloski Takayuki Tohge Danny Alexander Lining Guo Hong Lin Jing Wang Xiao Cui Jun Rao Qian Luo Xiangxiang Zhao Alisdair R. Fernie Dabing Zhang. Metabolic variation between japonica and indica rice cultivars as revealed by non-targeted metabolomics. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5067 doi:10.1038/srep05067, Received 30 September 2013 Accepted 08 May 2014 Published 27 May 2014
3. Flannery, Kent; Puleston, Dennis E. (1982), “The Role of Ramon in Maya Subsistence”, Maya Subsistence: Studies in Memory of Dennis E. Puleston, Academic Press, pp. 353-366
4. Harrison, Peter D.; Turner, B. L.; Puleston, Dennis E. (1978), “Terracing, Raised Fields, and Tree Cropping in the Maya Lowlands: A New Perspective on the Geography of Power”, Pre-Hispanic Maya Agriculture, University of New Mexico Press, pp. 225-245
5. Katie Cottingham, Ph.D. The precise reason for the health benefits of dark chocolate: mystery solved. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2014/march/the-precise-reason-for-the-health-benefits-of-dark-chocolate-mystery-solved.html
6. Soejarto DD1, Gyllenhaal C, Kadushin MR, Southavong B, Sydara K, Bouamanivong S, Xaiveu M, Zhang HJ, Franzblau SG, Tan GT, Pezzuto JM, Riley MC, Elkington BG, Waller DP. An ethnobotanical survey of medicinal plants of Laos toward the discovery of bioactive compounds as potential candidates for pharmaceutical development. Pharm Biol. 2012 Jan;50(1):42-60. doi: 10.3109/13880209.2011.619700. Epub 2011 Dec 2.
7. Ntie-Kang F1, Lifongo LL, Mbaze LM, Ekwelle N, Owono Owono LC, Megnassan E, Judson PN, Sippl W, Efange SM. Cameroonian medicinal plants: a bioactivity versus ethnobotanical survey and chemotaxonomic classification. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 Jun 26;13:147. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-13-147.
8. Sheng-ping Yang1 and Jian-min Yue, Discovery of structurally diverse and bioactive compounds from plant resources in China, Acta Pharmacologica Sinica (2012) 33: 1147–1158; doi: 10.1038/aps.2012.105; published online 3 Sep 2012
9. Tene V, Malagon O, Finzi PV, Vidari G, Armijos C, Zaragoza T. An ethnobotanical survey of medicinal plants used in Loja and Zamora-Chinchipe, Ecuador. Journal of ethnopharmacology. Apr 20 2007;111(1):63-81.
10. K.G. Ramawat, S. Dass and Meeta Mathur, The Chemical Diversity of Bioactive Molecules and Therapeutic Potential of Medicinal Plants, Chapter 2, Herbal Drugs: Ethnomedicine to Modern Medicine ISBN 978-3-540-79116-4