J.I. Rodale, the man who founded Rodale Publishing, launched the organic farming movement in America. A strong believer in the power of food to heal, he knew long before organic went mainstream that producing the healthiest food meant growing it in the healthiest soil — soil enriched naturally with organic matter, not synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers that can rob it of vital nutrients and minerals. In a 1947 issue of Rodale's first magazine, Organic Gardening, J.I. Rodale outlined "The Rodale Diet," a simple recommendation of easily accessible healthy foods, grown without the use of toxic chemicals that, if followed 20 to 30 percent of the time would "give disease a smart punch in the solar plexus." And 65 years of nutrition science have proved him right. All of the foods he recommended back in the '40s, studies are finding, contain the highest amounts of disease-fighting antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and other vital nutrients that are deficient in the modern American diet. If you want to follow "The Rodale Diet," here's what you need to get started.
J.I.'s take: "Here is an animal that, unlike cattle, does not eat food raised with chemical fertilizers. It feeds in waters rich with minerals, prominent among which is the most valuable element, iodine."
Why it's healthy: Saltwater fish, to which Rodale was referring, are the most commonly consumed, and one of the healthiest, sources of protein consumed worldwide. Even today, saltwater fish still don't eat food raised with chemical fertilizers, but the problem is, they're becoming harder and harder to find. Overfishing has ballooned since J.I. Rodale's day, and the list of saltwater fish that have managed to continue to exist in healthy amounts is getting shorter by the day.
How to get it: Go with the safest fish to eat, namely wild fish living in sustainably managed fisheries, such as wild Alaskan salmon and wild-caught Pacific sardines. There are a number of farmed fish that are raised without damage to their surrounding environment, but some, such as farmed tilapia and catfish, are fed corn that may be have been genetically modified and grown with pesticides.
J.I.'s take: "Kelp is rich in potassium. It is believed that the reason there is a complete absence of hay-fever cases in the Orient is the fact that the Japanese and Chinese eat liberally of this product."
Why it's healthy: An edible form of brown algae, kelp contains more than just potassium. It's rich in iodine, protein, magnesium, and other minerals at levels higher than most land vegetables. It's also rich in the omega-3 fatty acid EPA.
How to get it: "Overall, kelp harvesting is a sustainable practice that can have low impact on the marine environment if done right," says Matthew Huelsenbeck, marine scientist with the conservation organization Oceana. However, he adds, some kelp farmers have started introducing genetically modified varieties, which can escape and contaminate the surrounding environment, and kelp grown in waters near polluting industries could be contaminated with heavy metals. "About 80 to 90 percent of kelp on the market comes from China — a species called Japanese kelp," he adds. Because the name is confusing, it can be hard to know where your kelp is coming from. So stick with domestically raised kelp: Maine Coast Sea Vegetables sells kelp raised in the Gulf of Maine.
J.I.'s take: Grown in beds of rich organic matter, mushrooms were grown without the use of any pesticides, he said, "because it would kill out the very spores which are needed to develop into mushrooms." Not only that, but they're rich in iron and protein.
Why they're healthy: Mushrooms are not just healthy, they're vital in boosting your immune system and preventing infections, and they're becoming increasingly valuable tools in medicine, where research is finding that mushroom compounds can fight diseases such as breast cancer. But nowadays, commercial mushroom producers do use heavy amounts of insecticides, says Thomas Wiandt, an organic mushroom farmer in Ohio and owner of Killbuck Valley Mushrooms. "Common practice is to grow them in caves, or cavelike structures," he says. Those areas provide optimal breeding grounds for insects, so the crops are often misted with insecticides (which are different types of pesticides than fungicides, which aren't used because they would kill of the spores mushroom need to grow). U.S. Department of Agriculture tests have detected 14 insecticide residues on mushroom crops. "Not only that, a mushroom has a highly absorbent surface," Wiandt says.
How to get them: Get the health benefits without the toxic chemicals — go organic.
J.I.'s take: "A good source of fats and carbohydrates," coconuts also "provide excellent exercise for the teeth." Coconut palms also didn't require heavy doses of synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers.
Why it's healthy: Though high in saturated fat, coconut products, particularly coconut oil, are proving to be exceptionally healthy. Studies on populations that consume high quantities of coconut oil have found lower rates of heart disease, and coconut oil is one of very few sources of lauric acid, which helps your immune system fight bacterial and viral infections.
How to get it: Every part of the coconut is valuable — even the shells are being used as water filters in some areas. In J.I. Rodale's day, coconuts were probably harvested wild, but now, coconut palm plantations have taken over Southeast Asia, where most of the world's coconuts are grown. Plantations deplete the soil of nutrients and increase pest problems — increasing the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But it might be hard to find certified-organic whole coconuts, so opt instead for organic coconut products, such as Dr. Bronner's certified-organic and Fair Trade coconut oil or Body Ecology organic Coconut Water.
J.I.'s take: "Watercress is never grown with chemical fertilizers. It grows along brooks and other running waters and ... it contains more iron than spinach."
Why it's healthy: It's not just an iron powerhouse. Scientists have also found that the antioxidants in watercress can battle breast and lung cancers, and a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating just three ounces a day boosts your levels of certain antioxidants by 100 percent.
How to get it: You probably won't find much wild watercress in grocery stores, but hydroponic watercress (grown directly in water) is the most commonly available type. The benefit: Few pesticides are needed in hydroponic operations, and the plants are still grown without synthetic fertilizers.
J.I.'s take: Wild fruit trees grow without chemical help, and even cultivated cranberries and other berries, in Rodale's day, were rarely treated with pesticides.
Why they're healthy: Wild berries, wild blueberries in particular, have higher levels of antioxidants than their cultivated counterparts. One Canadian study found that wild blueberries can counteract inflammation and insulin sensitivity, two factors that, when abnormal, can contribute to arthritis and diabetes. Rodale was particularly fond of mulberries, huckleberries and blackberries, all of which have a higher antioxidant content than cultivated berries.
How to get them: Wild blueberries can be found in the freezer section of your grocery store (the season for fresh wild blueberries is very short), but for other wild berries, you'll have to go out foraging during spring and summer.
J.I.'s take: Rodale seemed fascinated by this wild grass that grew in swamps and wanted his readers to send in more information about its cultural significance.
Why it's healthy: Native to the Great Lakes regions of Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and parts of Canada, wild rice has been hand-harvested in canoes by Native American tribes that live in those areas for over a thousand years. Not technically a grain but a grass, wild rice is rich in protein, fiber and B vitamins. Since it grows wild, there is no need for toxic pesticides or water-polluting fertilizers, and it's harvested in the least environmentally damaging way possible.
How to get it: Most "wild rice" on store shelves isn't wild at all but a hybrid product cultivated in paddies. Keep an eye out for wild rice that's actually wild, sold by companies like Eden Foods and Native Harvest.
J.I.'s take: Rodale liked wild game because it was "free of the taint of chemical fertilizers" since the animals forage for food in the wild. But he was first turned on to it as a healthy superfood by a physician who was prescribing diets of wild game to patients with high blood pressure.
Why it's healthy: Wild animals aren't just free of the taint of chemical fertilizers; they're also free of hormones, antibiotics and even the antibiotic-resistant bacteria so common in factory-farmed animals, according to a study published last year in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Meat from deer, elk, wild boar and other feral creatures also has fewer calories, less saturated and total fat, and even lower levels of cholesterol. The primary concern with wild game is lead contamination; hunters use leaded bullets, fragments of which can get introduced into the meat.
How to get it: J.I.'s advice? "Go to the hunting regions during the proper season. Many of the resorts serve venison and other game meats." But you don't really have to travel that far in this day and age. A number of online retailers sell wild game meats. Just be sure to ask about whether the retailer tests for lead.
J.I.'s take: "I strongly recommend that white sugar be dispensed with entirely and that maple syrup be substituted," Rodale wrote.
Why it's healthy: Overrefined and nutritionally void, white sugar comes from chemically intensive sugar cane and sugar beets — Rodale's reasoning for eliminating it from his diet. Now, sugar beets aren't just pesticide-heavy, they're also being genetically modified to grow faster so Americans can have access to more cheap sugar we don't need. You need just a small amount of maple syrup to sweeten your coffee, baked goods, or oatmeal, and it's actually good for you. Scientists recently discovered more than 50 compounds in maple syrup known to battle cancer and heart disease.
How to get it: Find organic maple syrup at any grocery store or visit your farmers market to get the good local stuff. Don't fall for "pancake syrup" that's mostly high-fructose corn syrup dyed brown with "maple flavoring" added.
J.I.'s take: "Natural honey is full of living hormone-like qualities, which makes it a valuable adjunct to the diet."
Why it's healthy: Honey is rich in antioxidants and is often used as an antiseptic treatment on wounds. As Rodale said, it also contains phytoestrogens, and studies on Greek honey have found that those phytoestrogens can blunt the growth of breast, prostate and endometrial cancers. Honey also has a low glycemic index, so using it to sweeten tea or coffee won't lead to energy-busting blood sugar drops later in the day.
How to get it: The best honey is raw, local honey from a nearby farmer. A recent test by Food Safety News revealed that more than 75 percent of the honey sold in the U.S. is so heavily processed and filtered, a process that removes all of the pollen in honey, that it would flunk quality standards set by most of the world's food agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration.
J.I.'s take: J.I. valued nuts — particularly walnuts, pecans, filberts and pine nuts — because the trees on which they grew lived in soils rich in organic matter that had built up for centuries. That soil enriched nuts with minerals and protein.
Why they're healthy: Today, nuts are grown on trees raised in plantations that, unless certified organic, have resorted to heavy doses of chemical fertilizers. But find a certified-organic nut supplier, and you'll get all the protein and minerals that J.I. valued without the extra dose of pesticides. In addition, walnuts and pine nuts are good sources for essential fatty acids that protect your brain, heart and bones.
How to get them: If you're having a hard time finding organic nuts at the store, take a walk. Though pecan and pinyon (pine nut) trees grow wild only in certain areas, walnut trees exist pretty much everywhere. Just keep an eye out for trees bearing large green shells that resemble green apples. Crack one open and the nut is resting inside a soft casing that will dye your hands brown.
Related on MNN:
- 8 poisonous foods we commonly eat
- What is a superfood?
- Why does food safety testing matter? Consider this pizza
Click for photo credits
Mushrooms: kathryn in stereo/Flickr
Wild berries: OakleyOriginals/Flickr
Wild rice: whitneyinchicago/Flickr
Wild game: banspy/Flickr
Maple syrup: FotoosVanRobin/Flickr
Honey: Carly & Art/Flickr
Nuts: The Travelling Bum/Flickr