Only three crops provide half of all our planet’s food. Another six comprise another 25 per cent, with the remaining quarter made up of another 110 cultivars, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) data shows. If that sounds like a lot, consider that more than 30,000 plants are edible, and humanity has relied on close to 7,000 over its history. In China, for example, there were nearly 10,000 varieties of wheat being cultivated and eaten in 1949 – by the 1970s, only 1,000 remained. This increasing focus on producing fewer crops in greater numbers threatens agricultural biodiversity and puts food security at risk, the FAO says.
To improve agricultural biodiversity and combat malnutrition, the FAO launched World Food Day 75 years ago. This year’s event, observed on Friday, October 16, takes as its theme, ‘Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together.’ The aim is to encourage awareness of sustainable agricultural practices, celebrate those who work to provide food for the world and ensure adequate access to nutritious food for all despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, research has consistently shown that the more variety in your diet, the healthier you are. Incorporating five of the six food groups is directly co-related with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, asthma, food allergies, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis and depression, Canadian researchers pointed out recently, summarising a clutch of studies for an article in The Conversation.
“Eating a wide variety of foods is the key to a well-balanced diet,” says Farheen Dhinda, Clinical Dietitian at Dubai Health Authority (DHA), who says it’s important to eat across the different food groups. “Eating from a variety of options under each food groups helps us obtain all the necessary nutrients essential for optimum health.”
What does this mean for regular people? Simply that you can do your bit for the planet and contribute to food security while improving your health.
One way to make a difference as a consumer is to purchase and eat a wider variety of foods. Bring back staples from your parents’ generation – or perhaps even the foods you grew up eating – to add more variety and diversity to your diet. Or simply buy unusual vegetables and fruits from a different section of the supermarket.
“Different foods provide different types of macro and micronutrients. For a healthy lifestyle, a diet with diverse foods ensure nutrient adequacy,” says Dubai-based Clinical Dietitian, Sushma Ghag, Sushma Ghag, Clinical Dietitian, Diet & Nutrition Department, Aster Hospital, Mankhool, Dubai. “A lot of food items are rich in bioactive compounds, which are an essential part of diet to control disorders related to metabolism.”
Here are seven nutritionist-approved foods to help widen your palate now.
A cereal grain that is a low-glycaemic source of complex carbs, protein and calcium. Dhinda suggests trying finger millet, also called ragi, which is its Indian name. Grown across Asia and Africa, it is high in polyphenols and fibre, and offers bioavailable sources of vitamin D and iron. “Ragi is gluten-free and can be a good alternative for wheat to make flat breads. Traditionally, in some regions, millets are sprouted to provide maximum nutrient benefits,” she says.
A durum wheat that has been a staple in North African and Levantine cuisines since the time of the ancients (the Lebanese Freekeh Djaj is a classic chicken recipe), freekeh has fallen out of favour in recent times. Although it is a popular variety of wheat, freekeh is threshed, dried and broken into pieces that are cooked and eaten whole, offering all the benefits of whole grains. It’s a source of B vitamins, as well as magnesium, potassium, manganese and phosphorous, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin – two important carotenoids for healthy aging. “Freekeh is low in fat and high in fibre and proteins and is a good wheat option for diabetic people. It also has antioxidants. Freekah can be eaten like porridge with added dates and dry fruits,” Ghag says.
This ancient wheat cultivar is also called Khorasan wheat, taking its name from the historical central Asian region, parts of which are in modern-day Afghanistan. With grains twice the size of modern-day wheat kernels, it is often milled into flour and has a smooth texture and nutty, buttery flavour. “Kamut is nutrient dense and high in fibre and may be beneficial for reducing blood sugar levels and heart disease risk factors such as LDL cholesterol,” Ghag says. “It is an excellent addition to soups, stews, casseroles and salads. A popular way of preparing Kamut is by making a pilaf which involves boiling it for 30-35 minutes until tender, draining the excess water and adding onions, vegetables, pumpkin seeds and lemon juice to the mix.” It is advisable to avoid it though if you have celiac disease or wheat allergies.
Nothing to do with wheat, buckwheat is actually related to the rhubarb and sorrel plants. Buckwheat noodles were common in China and Tibet, while groats are often still used in the stuffing for cabbage rolls in Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine. The Dutch make pancakes from buckwheat flour. “It is gluten-free, a good source of fibre, and rich in minerals and various plant compounds. As a result, buckwheat consumption is linked to several health benefits, including improved blood sugar control and heart health. It can be steamed or boiled and eaten like rice,” Dhinda says.
If you’ve ever eaten the sour, fermented Injera bread from Ethiopia, you’ve tried this iron- and folate-rich seed – although it’s mistakenly considered a grain. Ghag suggests using it for making soups and porridges or gluten-free baked goods.
This guava-like fruit is actually closer to cross between a squash and a potato, and made it to Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries from South America. Packed with calcium and folate, it’s also rich in vitamin C – but it’s mild and delicate flavour is a far cry from the tart citrus notes more commonly associated with the immunity boosting vitamin. When tender, add the chayote to salads and salsas, stir fry it with cumin and garlic for a quick, hearty side, or add it to a soup as they do in the Philippines.
They may be better known for their pretty floral clocks, but from a health perspective, it’s dandelion greens you should be looking at. Once prized for their medicinal value, they’re packed with Vitamins A, B2, C and K, and contain more iron than spinach. They’re thought to help battle cancer, fight inflammation and strengthen the immune system. They’re sometimes used in the Lebanese dish hindbeh, although nutritionally-similar chicory is more common. Sauté with onions, garlic and olive oil.