Several years ago, when blogger Matt Hickman wrote about food foraging, he offered some special advice for beginners: Be totally neurotic about what you pick. Matt wasn't trying to discourage foraging; he was advocating using an abundance of caution when doing so.

As he pointed out, plants found in urban areas are "more likely to have come in contact with pollutants, chemical pesticides and herbicides and other unsavories." I would agree that's a concern. Pollution from vehicles or hazardous materials that end up in the ground from construction, chemicals used to keep the plants looking good, and even animal and pet waste would all be potential problems.

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In Boston, researchers wanted to find out if the wild edibles in the city were more contaminated than foods grown specifically for consumption. Researchers at Wellesley College worked with Boston’s League of Urban Canners, a group that frequently forages for fruit in the Boston area, according to Civil Eats. High levels of lead had been found in one of the member's blood. Because soil and water can be contaminated with lead in urban areas, one possible reason could have been the foraged food.

Members from the League of Urban Canners provided researchers with foraged foods, and when the tests were run, the results held some positive surprises.

  • All of the 166 varieties of fruits and herbs tested "showed relatively low levels of lead and arsenic."
  • There was no difference in the amount of heavy metals on fruits that were peeled versus fruits that were unpeeled "as a result of soil, dust, and air pollution."
  • Apples and peaches contained more than "2.5 times the calcium of their conventional counterparts."
  • The urban fruit also "contained a wider range of micronutrients" than the fruit from most grocery stores.

This is just one study, and it doesn't mean that all wild edibles in all urban areas would produce the same results. Anyone foraging anywhere should still proceed with caution, particularly when giving wild edibles to children, who are more susceptible to possible contaminants, especially lead.

More studies need to be done in various cities not only to test the safety of the food, but also to define "the safest ways to practice urban foraging and to plan intentional urban orchards and gardens," according to Dan Brabander, a geoscience professor at Wellesley College.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.