God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the Earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They are yours for food.” ~ Genesis 1:29, The Bible
A seed is the reproductive embryo of a plant. Many seeds come from fruits that naturally free themselves from their shell. Other seeds stay attached to the fruit. Such seeds are designed to withstand digestion and pass out of an herbivore’s system with a dollop of fertilizer.
A nut is defined botanically as a fruit with a hard shell and seed. Culinary usage is less restrictive: a nut is any edible kernel in a shell. While almonds, Brazil nuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts are not nuts under the botanical definition, they are generally considered so.
Seeds have been on the menu since apes headed down the hominid path. Yet, oddly, nuts remain among the most common food allergen.
Seeds – especially nuts – are satisfying for their healthy fat content. They are also rich in proteins and vitamins; everything a plant needs to start life.
While seeds of all sorts comprise the bulk of most human diets, an even healthier regime is higher in fruits and vegetables: more carbohydrates and less protein and fats.
Grains are the seeds from grass plants. Edible grains are called cereal.
A caryopsis is a dry fruit attached to a seed. Wheat, rice, and corn are caryopses.
Grains were among the first plants cultivated, some 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.
Legumes are a family of flowering plants with numerous edible seeds, commonly called beans, peas, and lentils. Legumes are botanically notable for their symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
The term pulse is used for legumes that are harvested for their dry seed. Dried beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts are pulses.
Complete & Complementary Proteins
Organisms are chock full of proteins, which are complex macromolecules made up of amino acids. The human body uses 20 different amino acids to construct its proteins, though not every protein uses all 20 amino acids.
As a seed is an embryonic organism, seeds are protein rich. Not all seed proteins offer all of the 20 amino acids that humans need. From a nutritional standpoint, that is unimportant. The necessary amino acids to construct a protein need not be freshly consumed.
With notable exception, the human body or microbiome can convert most amino acids from one type to another. There are 9 essential amino acids that the body cannot synthesize de novo. These must be supplied in the diet.
Eating a variety of natural foods guarantees that adequate protein building blocks are available. Yet there is a dietary technique that makes getting the right amino acids in proportion easy; one that has been appreciated since prehistoric times. A complete protein is a food that that contains all 9 essential amino acids in a proportion that the body readily appreciates.
As flesh feeds flesh, animal foods often offer complete protein, albeit at the cost of being generally bad for one’s health.
Though a few vegan foods, such as quinoa, have complete protein, the amino acid contents of plant foods tend to be unbalanced from the perspective of human nutrition needs. This imbalance is easily overcome. Caryopses and pulses eaten together offer a complete protein. The combination of two such foods is called complementary proteins.
As the body naturally craves what it lacks, traditional cuisines are rife with complementary proteins. The classic version of this is rice and beans; the Mexican version is maize and beans.
Alfalfa is native to Iran. Alfalfa was introduced to Europe as part of the Persian invasion of Greece in 491 bce. Alfalfa made its way to China by the 2nd century bce.
Historically, alfalfa was eaten during times of hardship and shortage, such as the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). It has in recent decades become popular salad fare, where it makes a nutritious lettuce substitute. Alfalfa is often mixed with other, spicier sprouts – radish, mustard, garlic, or broccoli – to produce a more pungent mix.
Alfalfa sprouts are highly nutritious: rich in vitamins A and K, and minerals.
Alfalfa has diuretic properties, and so is used to treat urinary tract infections. Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines employ alfalfa sprouts for digestive difficulties, ulcers, and arthritis. As all raw legume sprouts contain anti-herbivore toxins, eating them raw in moderation, or cooking them first, is advised.
The almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home. ~ Ecclesiastes 12:5, The Bible
The almond tree is native to the Mediterranean climate of the Middle East, extending to India. This deciduous tree is a subgenus of the peach.
As a fruit, almond is a drupe. But most often almonds are shelled, and only the seed is eaten.
Wild almonds are bitter and toxic, owing to cyanide. Domestication rendered this poisonous fruit edible: hence sweet almonds.
Almonds are a superfood. ~ English biologist and nutritionist Helen Griffiths
Almond is nutritionally dense: a rich source vitamins B and E, dietary fiber, healthy fats, and essential minerals, including calcium, potassium, copper, magnesium, and manganese. Almonds help cardiovascular health.
Barley was one of the early domesticated grains: cultivated in the Levant over 10,000 years ago. Barley was a staple for ancient Egyptians, who also brewed it into a beer, thus starting an enduring tradition. As a widely adaptable crop, barley readily spread around the world via trade routes.
In medieval Europe, barley and rye breads were peasant fodder. The upper crust ate wheat. In Eastern Europe, potatoes largely replaced barley in the 19th century as the serf food of choice.
Barley’s low status owed to its low level of gluten compared to wheat. Barley bread is much denser, coarser, and darker. As wheat cultivation improved, barley fell from favor.
The Japanese drink barley tea (mugicha) that, mixed with green tea leaves, hails a hearty taste.
The Italians make a coffee of barley (caffè d’orzo), which was especially popular during the Fascist era and World War II, when coffee was not readily available. The early 21st century saw its revival there as a substitute for caffeinated beverages.
Barley is highly digestible. It does a wondrous job of regulating blood sugar level.
Barley has 8 of the 9 essential amino acids, and otherwise provides B vitamins, iron, manganese, selenium, copper, and phosphorus.
When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile. ~ American writer Regina Brett
Chocolate is a concoction based upon the sizable pod seeds of the tropical cacao tree, native to the low foothills of the Andes mountains. The cocoa tree requires a humid climate, regular rainfall, and good soil.
A cocoa pod is typically 15–25 cm long, and 7.5–10 cm in diameter. Inside are oval beans: ~2.5–3 cm long, varying in color from white to purple.
Each cocoa seed brims with fat: 40% to 50% as cocoa butter. The most noted active ingredient in the cacao seed is the alkaloid theobromine (C7H8N4O2), a compound like caffeine (C8H10N4O2).
While chocolate is a pleasant buzz to humans, it is poison to dogs and cats, with its considerable toxicity disguised by an agreeable taste.
Chocolate has been cultivated for at least 5 millennia. Its earliest and most abiding form was, and is, as a drink.
Now, roughly 2/3rds of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, with Côte d’Ivoire the largest single producer.
Chocolate is easily one of the most popular flavors in the world. Sweet chocolate predominates. Bittersweet chocolate, with less sugar, is commonly used in baking. Unsweetened chocolate is quite bitter.
Dark chocolate unadulterated by milk products is the healthiest palatable form. The cacao within is a source of antioxidants that reduce the formation of free radicals which promote aging. Chocolate also acts as an anti-inflammatory and helps regulate insulin levels.
Chocolate is good for us partly because it is not easily digestible. Gut bacteria feast on the indigestible part of cocoa, fermenting it in wholesome anti-inflammatory compounds which our bodies absorb.
The healthiest dark chocolate has a high cocoa content. Chocolate is laden with sugar, so lower content cocoa, common in sweet chocolates, cannot be considered a healthy food, at least not physically. But then, the pleasure of dark chocolate cannot be denied. Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food and has benefit as a stress reducer.
Milk chocolate is just that: chocolate contaminated with dairy, and so considerably less healthy than dark chocolate.
White chocolate is the least nutritious, having had the cocoa solids removed. Without its active ingredients, white chocolate can be consumed by animals other than humans without ill effect.
Maize is known in North America as corn. The leafy stalks of this large grass produce ears filled with seeds called kernels. Though a grain, corn is generally considered a vegetable.
Maize has been a domestic crop since prehistoric times, perhaps as early as 8000 bce. It was first grown in south-central Mexico. By 5000 bce, the crop was grown throughout much of Mesoamerica and northern South America.
Corn is a decent source of dietary fiber. It also offers antioxidants and phytonutrients that help keep aging eyes healthy. While corn is good for you, it is also a reminder to eat a variety of foods. A diet in which maize predominates often results in pellagra (niacin-deficiency disease).
Culinary inspiration has metamorphosed maize into numerous edible forms. Most popular is popcorn: certain maize varieties whose dried seeds explode when heated. Popcorn is often lavished with butter and salted, turning it into a nutritional hazard.
Dried corn soaked in an alkaline solution and hulled before cooking – nixtamalization – turns maize into hominy. In the southeastern US, coarsely ground hominy becomes the side dish grits; handed down from native Americans, who put hominy in a stew called sagamite.
The Brazilian dessert canjica is made by boiling maize in sweetened milk.
A cooked ear of fresh maize – corn on the cob – is popular in North America, parts of South America, the United Kingdom, Cyprus, and the Balkans, but unheard-of in several European countries.
Millet is an agronomic, but not taxonomic, group of small seed grasses. Pearl millet is the most widely grown.
While millets are indigenous to many areas of the world, tropical west Africa is the likely point of origin, as this region has the most numerous varieties. Millet was domesticated in east Asia 10,000 years ago.
The protein content of millet is comparable to wheat. But millet has no gluten.
Millets are rich in iron and phosphorus. They offer ample B vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and dietary fiber.
The drawback to millet is that it is not very digestible, and so its nutrients are not readily assimilable. And other cereal grains are tastier.
The ancestor of oats originated in the Fertile Crescent. Oat domestication was relatively late, and far from its native soil: in Bronze Age western Europe, where oat was a weed mixed with barley.
The popularity of oats for human consumption in North America gained its impetus from German American entrepreneur Ferdinand Schumacher, who developed quick-cooking rolled oats in the late 19th century, and to American businessman Henry Parsons Crowell, who successfully branded the innovation as “Quaker Oats.”
Oatmeal (porridge) and other oat products are popular in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Avena is a cold, sweet drink of milk and ground oats that is a beloved beverage throughout Latin America.
The peanut plant is an annual herb that grows 30–50 cm high. It was domesticated in central South America over 8,000 years ago. Peanuts are now one of the world’s leading food crops.
The peanut is a concentrated food: per-weight richer in proteins, minerals, and vitamins than beef liver; more fat than heavy cream, and more caloric food energy than sugar; but by far more nutritiously healthy that such competition.
Peanuts are a good source of vitamins B and E, dietary fiber, antioxidants, magnesium, and phosphorus.
The peanut maven of all time was American botanist George Washington Carver (1864–1943), who devised 105 recipes using peanuts in the early 20th century. He also developed and promoted 100 peanut-based products.
Carver’s peanut work was inspired by a desire to help wean the Reconstruction-era South from its dependence on the cotton monoculture that was depleting soil while the boll weevil destroyed much of the cotton crop.
Quinoa (pronounced: ki:nwa) is not a true grain. It is instead closely related to beets, spinach, and tumbleweeds.
Quinoa arose in the Andes. It was domesticated 4,000 years ago, after a few thousand years of being used for pastoral herding. Someone figured that what was good for the alpacas might be good eating.
Quinoa has a complete protein content, and is high in protein, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus, as well as offering a goodly portion of calcium.
Rice is the edible seed of a plant in the Oryza genus. Rice cultivation began in China 11–13 tya.
In southeast Asia, south China and Japan, rice became the predominant grain. Its labor-intensive cultivation required cooperation at times of planting and harvest, engendering a communal culture that endured for millennia in those societies.
In contrast, cultures which relied upon crops that could be independently grown led to a sense of individualism. The wheat-growing peoples of the Fertile Crescent are exemplary.
Whole grain (aka brown) rice is greatly preferable to white rice, as processing strips most of the nutritional value. White rice is commonly artificially “enriched” with vitamins in an unsatisfactory attempt to restore what was stripped away by milling and polishing the grains. The nutrient content of rice varies widely by variety, and by the quality of soil in which the plant is grown.
Rice contains arsenic, for which there no safe level. American rice is especially high in the carcinogen, thanks to historic pesticide usage. As always, organic is best.
Rinsing rice before cooking removes its starchy coating. If you want starchy rice, don’t rinse it.
Rice needs to be soaked before cooking, usually overnight. Japanese short-grain rice, once rinsed and drained for 10–15 minutes, is best soaked for 30 minutes before heating it.
Besides dietary fiber and protein, brown rice offers antioxidants, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, copper, and magnesium.
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye…. ~ English nursery rhyme
Rye is closely related to barley and wheat. Though long known, rye was long dismissed as inferior to wheat.
Rye gained ground in central and eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. Rye grows well in much poorer soils than other cereal grains and withstands cold weather better.
Because it is difficult to separate the germ and bran from the endosperm of rye, rye flour is often more nutritious than wheat, which is typically refined.
Rye is roughly as nutritious as other caryopses. Rye is notably high in manganese, phosphorus, copper, and magnesium.
Have a mouth as sharp as a dagger, but a heart as soft as tofu. ~ Chinese proverb
Soy is native to east Asia. Myth has the fabled Emperor Shénnóng of China proclaim in ~2800 bce that 5 plants were sacred: soybeans, rice, wheat, barley, and millet.
Becoming a treasured bean takes time. Soybeans were domesticated in China 5000–3500 bce.
Soy is among the richest foods in phytoestrogens: plant compounds which mimic estrogenic effects in animals. Plants employ phytoestrogens to fight fungi and other nuisances.
Phytoestrogens present a health hazard to humans, particularly infants and youngsters. They can reduce fertility and may raise the risk of cancer.
Fermentation greatly reduces the level of phytoestrogens in soy. The fermentation process is essential to unlocking the nutrition potential of soy and defusing its health hazards. Fermented soy is healthy in moderation: providing protein, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, and phytonutrients.
Tofu is not a fermented soy food; but miso, nattō, and tempeh are.
The soy to positively avoid is that found in processed foods, made with soy protein isolate and preservatives. These products are commonly marketed as vegan substitutes for meat and dairy products but are not healthy.
The need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal. ~ French poet Victor Hugo
Like barley, wheat was one of the first domesticated crops; cultivated in the Fertile Crescent over 9,000 years ago. Wheat played a seminal role in Western civilization, as it could easily be cultivated on a large scale, is easily digested, and stores well.
Wheat is mostly consumed in bread; an ancient Egyptian innovation. The processing this involves can lessen its nutritional value.
Wheat is a dicey food nutritionally. Its health benefits depend entirely on the form in which it is eaten: the more processed, the less nutritious. Whole grain wheat has vitamins, minerals, and proteins, while refined grain is starchier.
As with related grains, whole wheat is high in dietary fiber, some B vitamins, phosphorus, copper, manganese, selenium, zinc, and antioxidants. For all that, wheat is not the best of grains for all people. What made wheat so popular is precisely the problem: gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye, though wheat generally has a higher concentration. Bread flour is especially rich in gluten, as gluten is essential to fluffy bread, which is one of the reasons wheat rose to historical prominence. Pastry flour has a lower gluten content.
Rice and oats are gluten-free. The term glutinous rice refers to its doughy texture, not its gluten content.
A small percentage of humans (< 1%) are intolerant of or allergic to the gluten in wheat. Even for those with tolerance, wheat can cause bloating, congestion, flatulence, and other flagrant reactions.
In the 6th century, Chinese noodle makers discovered that gluten proteins in wheat flour could be isolated by kneading the dough in water until the starch washed away, and only the chewy gluten mass remained. This plant-based protein became part of the staple diet of monastery Buddhists, as monks were required to follow a strict vegan diet. That nutritionally ersatz tradition continues to this day, though tofu makes for a healthier fake meat than gluten.