The word "wild" conjures up many thoughts: Tarzan, 5-year-olds, tigers, late nights in your 20s and maybe that book by Cheryl Strayed. But what if I told you that "wild" should really make the words sustainable, powerful, real, indigenous and healthy come to mind? It's true.
Truly wild foods are quite different from their cultivated or farmed counterparts. A wild blueberry, for example, is much smaller and possesses a more intense and complex flavor than what you'd find in a typical supermarket blueberry. Similarly, wild salmon is generally leaner than farmed salmon; the wild form has half of the total fat and about 30 percent fewer calories per serving.
What makes wild foods so different than conventional ones? It's all in how they're grown or harvested. Consider these three foods as examples:
1. Wild Blueberries
Wild blueberries are indigenous to eastern Maine, where you might find 1,000 different varieties in the same field. These fields of wild blueberries -- which possess berries of all shades of blue mingled together -- could never have been planted by a person because achieving that range of diversity would be too painstaking. A cultivated blueberry field, by contrast, might only host about six different varieties.
So, what does all that diversity bring you besides a pretty field? Complex flavors and great nutrition. Wild blueberries have not been hybridized or genetically modified to resist pests or produce bigger, sweeter berries. The berry plants grow in glacial soil that is thin and acidic, and they survive through frigid, unforgiving Maine winters. Growing in such conditions naturally reduces the number of insects that can damage the fields, and it also boosts the amount and variety of phytochemicals -- health-boosting plant compounds -- that the berries possess to help them survive in such harsh conditions.
[See: The Best Berries for Your Health.]
Wild blueberries also naturally contain 30 percent less sugar than cultivated berries (just 10 grams per cup versus almost 15) and eight times the manganese, which is necessary for the body to regulate blood sugar, maintain strong bones and keep skin healthy. And because wild berries are so small, they have a higher skin-to-pulp ratio, which means more anti-aging, antioxidant-rich plant pigments, and a bigger sweet-tart flavor. More skin also means 72 percent more fiber per serving than regular blueberries. Look for them in the frozen fruit aisle at your local grocery store.
2. Wild Salmon
If you've ever seen a video of wild salmon on their journey back to fresh water, you've no doubt been impressed by the way they expertly navigate over rocks and jump through the air, all the while swimming against the current. Toward the end of their trip home, they stop eating and the pigment that colors their flesh moves into their skin, turning it from silver to reddish-orange. After female salmon lay their eggs (up to 3,000 per fish), they lie on the bottom of the riverbed and die, as do their mates. Their bodies provide nourishment for the soon-to-hatch eggs.
Farmed salmon, on the other hand, are grown in large netted pens, which have been blamed for various issues like water contamination. These salmon don't make the trek from the ocean to freshwater to spawn, and this may be why they have a higher fat content than their wild counterparts. Farmed salmon also have about 20 percent more saturated fat and less zinc, iron, calcium and potassium than wild salmon.
Yes, wild salmon is generally more expensive than farmed salmon, but it's likely worth the added health benefits. (And, you can get canned wild salmon that's relatively inexpensive.) Of course, farmed seafood is better than no seafood, but if you're trying to minimize your impact on the environment, try choosing wild seafood at least half the time.
3. Wild Rice
True wild rice, which is actually an aquatic grass, is one of the oldest foods native to North America. It still grows in a long stretch of grasses in the Great Plains of Minnesota, and is hand-gathered and harvested by canoe. Once harvested, wild rice is air dried, or cured, for a few days, and then parched, or roasted, in a pot. This process dries the rice out completely and gives it a wonderful smoky flavor. Interestingly, wild rice that is grown and harvested in this traditional way is lighter in color and takes less time to cook than cultivated wild rice. However, today, about 85 percent of the "wild" rice you'll find for sale is actually cultivated.
To find "real" wild rice, your best bet is to search online. Otherwise, don't feel bad about purchasing cultivated wild rice; all wild rice is a good source of fiber, protein, niacin, magnesium zinc and manganese.
Should you go wild?
Truly wild foods are produced in a sustainable way and are affected by the environments in which they grow. For example, the riverbed that wild rice grows in and the barrens that wild blueberries flourish in affect the flavor of the final product. Wild foods also tend to be more genetically diverse, which means that each handful of berries or rice will be different from the next.
So what? In addition to the nutritional benefits that wild foods can provide, they can also help us reconnect with where and how food is grown, and under what conditions. Thinking about the natural life cycles of the food on your plate can help you be more mindful of the food you eat, which may help you slow down and savor it more. This appreciation can only help you on your path to overall wellness. And, if you're lucky enough to get the chance, check out the barrens of Maine, the lakes of Minnesota and the rivers of Alaska. They are true cultural treasures.
Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.