Preserving our invaluable heritage of food and agricultural biodiversity is not only good for the environment and ecosystems but also good for us and represents a way of taking care of ourselves.
Food biodiversity, in other words, the diversity of plants, animals, and other organisms that we eat, contributes to a healthy, varied diet.
Today we will see how.
Studies on food composition show that micro-and macronutrient levels can vary greatly from species to species and even between cultivars within the same species. In particular, wild varieties tend to be more nutritious than those that have been domesticated.1
A closer look at food composition can often reveal surprising differences, differences that can have significant implications for our nutrition, for example allowing vulnerable groups to meet their nutritional needs.2
Why choose native varieties
To start with, indigenous species are better adapted to the local environmental conditions and therefore require fewer external inputs, like water and plant protection products that do nothing for our health and certainly not for that of the farmers.
What’s more, to defend themselves from environmental stresses like high temperatures, drought, and frost that cause the production of DNA-damaging free radicals, plants use resistance mechanisms that activate the production of molecules with antioxidant properties.
Polyphenols, the elixir of long life
Consuming native plant species that have developed defenses against environmental conditions and external agents means boosting the level of protective substances in our diet: terpenes, vital molecules like carotenoids and vitamin E, phenolic compounds like flavonoids, alkaloids, and compounds based on nitrogen and sulfur, which have been shown to have a highly effective antioxidant action.3
The prolonged consumption of polyphenols can contribute to reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases, protecting the body from the damage that free radicals can cause to our DNA.4 the same goes not just for plants but also for foods of animal origin, with nutritional values again varying significantly from species to species. Some types of indigenous fish are an important source of protein and contain more vitamins and minerals, like iron and zinc, than commercial species.5
Especially in developing countries, eating more wild foods means the population can have a more varied and balanced diet and improves food security, responding to the ongoing food crisis and loss of food sovereignty.
The Slow Food Presidia: Good, clean, fair, and healthy!
Slow Food protects food biodiversity through projects like the Ark of Taste and the Presidia. As well as measuring the economic, environmental, social and cultural repercussions of these projects, over the last few years, Slow Food has been seeking to quantify the effects that eating Presidium products can have on consumers’ health, collaborating with universities and specialized labs on nutritional analyses of plant and animal foods.
Comparing products from the Ark of Taste and Slow Food Presidia with commercial varieties has shown significant differences in terms of nutrition, for both plant and animal species.
For example, the Spanish black corn variety Millo Corvo has a very high level of anthocyanins, and plant pigments with notable antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities. Similarly, Polignano carrots, a traditional multi-colored variety from the Italian province of Bari, in Puglia, are lower in sugar than commercial carrots. In contrast, the purple Polignano carrots in particular have four times their antioxidant content.
Eating 100 grams of purple Polignano carrots gives the same benefits as eating 400 grams of the carrots commonly sold in the supermarket.
The Swabian Alb lentil, a Slow Food Presidium, has exceptional sensory and nutritional characteristics, thanks to a happy combination of soil, climate, and local farming skill. Compared to international varieties, this local lentil has 15 to 20% more protein and more than twice as much fiber.
The same goes for animal foods. The French Gascony chicken is raised on a pasture-based diet, and due to this and the specific characteristics of the traditional breed, its meat is almost three times less fatty, with more protein and less cholesterol, than the average supermarket chicken.
These results show how protecting biodiversity and consuming local varieties and breeds can help protect the environment and preserve local cultural traditions and boost food security and improve the health of the whole population.
“Our Food, Our Health: Nourishing Biodiversity to Heal Ourselves and the Planet” is Slow Food’s position paper, looking at the current state of our global food systems and how Slow Food is working to promote healthy diets.