I’m staring at the most beautiful basket of just-rinsed strawberries fresh from the farm. Their deep red glistening forms, so perfectly topped with the little leaflets and traces of a stem, are irresistible. I pop the whole thing in my mouth, noticing the mildness of the greens in contrast to the tart sweetness and I wonder, “Why have I never eaten strawberry leaves before?” I’m used to nibbling the fruit down to the green and setting it aside for compost, or carefully slicing the tiny fruit and setting aside the stem. Isn’t that a waste? Strawberries offer a good example of eating whole: You can reduce waste and improve nutrition by eating more of what plants have to offer.
Strawberry Leaves & Watermelon Seeds
Strawberry leaves are not at all harmful, and they are packed with great nutrients our bodies need, such as vitamin C, antioxidants and flavonoids. Herbalists have used strawberry leaves and raspberry leaves for spring tonics, to ease aches and pains, and as a partus preparator or “delivery preparer” for pregnant women. Commercially available diarrhea medications include extracts from strawberry leaves, and a tea made from the leaves is a good sore throat gargle.
When I get to know food better, and I get to know my own body better, I can sense what is good for it. Such as watermelon seeds. One hot summer day while enjoying a cold, sliced watermelon, I chewed up the seeds, just to see how they tasted. Not bad, kind of nutty, mildly bitter. I found that the earthy crunchiness balances the watery juice of the melon, especially if you like a little salt sprinkled on it.
Wiser foodies recommend not to eat the raw watermelon seeds the way I like to, suggesting instead that the seeds are best either roasted or sprouted. Soaking any type of seed, bean or nut removes inhibiting layers and activates enzymes that make them more digestible. They pack a protein punch, with 10 grams of protein per ounce, more than sunflower seeds or almonds. Eating protein with a sweet is an easy way to keep the blood sugar in check, and here you have both.
It’s partially our cultural conditioning that teaches us to separate certain parts of our foods. Like cutting the crust off a sandwich, we learn to dislike certain foods from an early age. It’s also a biological and survival strategy that has involved our taste buds for millennia. We have co-evolved with plants. It’s only natural that we eat fruits because they are sweet while we spit out bitter things, such as seeds and leaves. Plants create fruits so they’ll be eaten. While certain plant parts that come with the package are inedible (apple seeds contain cyanide, but you would need to finely chew about 200 to die of poisoning), those smart plants want us dumb mammals to disperse their seeds for them. The plant doesn’t want us to destroy its photosynthesizing parts, and the seeds are meant to pass through our systems, rather than be digested. However, some of our habitual, cultural practices rob us of great nutrients that nature packaged in a way to feed us what we need.
Outsmart The Plants
Nutritional researchers, like every parent ever, have tried to get kids to like vegetables. They conclude that the trick is early exposure to whole foods and all the flavors that come with them, such as bitter, which classifies many leafy greens. Bitter is better before baby is born (say that five times fast). Pregnant women who eat leafy greens transfer some of the flavor profile through amniotic fluid, and nursing mothers do the same through their breast milk. This might help bridge the sensory experience for young children later on, when solid food in the form of vegetables is introduced.
Food waste is about more than watching produce rot on store shelves. It’s a mindset that we carry into the garden as well as the kitchen when we prepare a plate of food. Wild foods encroach, and we call them weeds, poison them, pull them and mow them. Shifting our mentality to recognize the abundance of nutrition surrounding us also reminds us that we are naturally designed to be part of nature. At times, separating elements and distilling them into a medicine makes good sense, yet our modern, quick-fix culture has taken this isolation solution to extremes. As ethnobotanist and herbalist Dawn Combs points out on her website, “When we use plants in their whole form, we are taking the system as it was working directly into our body. Nothing inappropriate is amplified, and it is just possible that some of the things we believe are dangerous on their own have a benefit when left amid both the chemicals we understand and those we do not yet.”
There can be danger in isolating one chemical or certain constituent that makes up an entire medicinal plant. Such is the case for isolating one plant in a forest, one animal in a food web or one so-called “pest” in a garden. Even though we don’t understand how all the parts work together, sometimes they are better together than apart. This might be the philosophy your great-grandmother used: growing, cooking and eating with very little waste, an approach that author Michael Pollan has pointedly boiled down to the mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I would tweak that a little to include, “Eat most of the plant, too.”