Wild food tastes better, discuss


Are flavours better in wild food versus cultivated food? I’m not just going to tell you I think foraged bilberries taste better than their shop-bought blueberry cousins; to be scientific, it’s probably best to convert ‘flavour’ into an actual measurement of flavour compounds.

So I’ve been delving into slightly intimidating research on polyphenol content – a class of naturally-occurring molecules which include flavonoids, lignans, stillbenes, and acids found in tea, cinnamon, coffee, cherries, plums, and others.

Measuring flavour

Collated open-access, peer-reviewed papers from 2014, in which like for like wild and cultivated fruits are compared, report: “Four wild genotypes of Citrus reticulata contained more phenolic compounds and exhibited higher anti-oxidant capabilities than the commercial cultivars Satsuma and Ponkan.” Translation – the wild fruit is more flavourful and better for you than the cultivated one.

Wild Vacillium (blueberries) extracts were 3.04 times more active than cultivated varieties when measuring antioxidant activity. Three times more antioxidants also were found in wild strawberries, and in lab tests they were better at scavenging free radicals.

Wild lime had more anti-oxidant, flavonoid and phenolic contents, wild banana more phenolics and tannins, ten varieties of crab apple more phenolics and flavonoids. Several exotic fruits from Nepal and China have also been analysed with similar results.

Only commercially produced cranberries buck the trend (with 0.05% difference, or with wild ones lower, in another study). *

These are not just stronger flavours, these are bioactive molecules, with the power to alter the chemistry inside us.  I believe, if we really look at how it should be, eating is a symbiosis. That’s why it matters what you eat.

bilberries, Islay

Fresher, more genetically diverse, more vigorous – turns out foraging for these wild foods makes perfect evolutionary sense.

What effect, freshness?

Wild foods are going to be less degraded than foods bought in a shop that have been picked and shipped and sitting on a shelf for 3, 5, or 7 days. Plants are 70 – 90% water, and they continue to respire after picking; after picking they don’t instantly “die”, but they do get dehydrated. None other than The Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, acknowledges that food transported long distances is not likely to be as nutritious as food grown and consumed locally. Similarly they have found that if fruits are picked before they are ripe, they may still change colour because of enzymatic activity, but they will not attain nutritional levels as high as fruit picked when it’s ripe.

Can wild plants get the upper hand due to where they grow?

Wild plants will only thrive in spots where all the nourishment, water, and light they need are available to them, naturally. They are self-determined, vigorous, autonomous. The individual plants that are available to me to pick are only the survivors, the best of their gene pool, the ones who have seen off other predators through their flavour compounds, which I will most likely experience as pleasantly bitter, or powerful, or as astringency.

They may vary slightly genetically from specimens a mile down the road, which will be from different seed, on different soils, growing at a different aspect, as part of a different micro-community. The greater diversity in genotypes and ecological factors of wild food adds to the education of my gut’s micro-biome, from where 80% of the immune system stems. I’m stimulating my own system to protect me better, by grazing opportunistically. If the taste of each micro-harvest is slightly different but too subtle in itself for my palate, then the experience of it is still able to make a singular impression in my brain, and my memory, through the contextual details.  My brain and senses have been exercised in finding and identifying and gathering these foodstuffs, with a tangible reward by return.

So on top of great flavour and possible nutritional benefits trapped in the compounds of the plants themselves, wild foods will make me feel I’m tasting them each time for the first time. They are stimulating, for parts like my guts and brain, in a way that supplied foods are not.

Yes it’s literally a gut-feel, but the evidence that I have managed to find only strengthens the idea. It all makes perfect sense.

Please get in touch with us on twitter @thebotanistgin if you have anything to add; would love to hear from you about what you know, or your opinion!



Further Reading

* This data from Molecular Diversity Preservation International / Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute  mdpi.com/1422-0067/17/8/1258/pdf
If you want to find out more about phenolic compounds, this is interesting:

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