American consumption of this bittersweet, leafy vegetable jumped by a third during the 1930s. Spinach growers of the time credited this hike to Popeye, the cartoon character who was supposed to get his legendary strength from consuming cans of it.
Although the powers of spinach were highly overstated by Popeye, this tender vegetable does contain many important nutrients. It is particularly high in vitamins A, C and K, folate (B vitamin) and contains iron. A relative of beets, chard and quinoa, spinach is fast growing and suited to cooler climates where it can be cultivated all year round.
According to Assyrian legend, when the gods met to create the world, they drank wine made from sesame seeds. Cultivated for millennia and highly resilient, the plants produce pods that burst open when mature to reveal their tiny golden seeds. This is where the phrase “open sesame” comes from.
These seeds have a high oil content and are considered an excellent source of copper and magnesium. They can be eaten raw, toasted and as a paste called tahini. They add crunch and a nice nutty flavour to sushi, salads, soups, noodles and rice dishes. They're commonly found in crackers and baked goods, such as the Middle Eastern dessert, halva.
Amongst the vast range of sweet potatoes in the world, one of the most sought after is the Cilembu sweet potato, a variety native to Indonesia. Although the Cilembu sweet potato has been documented since 1914, its unique qualities have only been widely understood since the early 2000s. Sweet potatoes are commonly consumed in a variety of countries, but this type is highly sought after for its flavour and nutritional value.
It is an important commodity in Cilembu and the surrounding villages of Western Java. It is exported to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. When baked, Cilembu sweet potatoes have a very distinctive aroma and delicious, sweet taste with a sugary, honey-like glaze.
Possibly the oldest tree food known to humans, records report walnut consumption dating back 10,000 years. Containing more omega 3 fatty acids than many other nuts, the kernel itself resembles the two halves of a brain, justifying their nickname of ‘brain food’.
Walnuts contain various vitamins and minerals and have been claimed to be one of the most nutritious nuts. Slightly bittersweet with an oily texture, they may be pickled when young or 'wet’. However, they are more commonly eaten dried, either raw or cooked in both sweet and
savoury dishes such as cakes, muesli, stews, sauces and dressings. Dry-frying or roasting
turns them a lovely gold and really brings out their flavour
Known as winter mushrooms or golden needles, these long, thin, delicate mushrooms grow all year round in wild clusters. Eaten commonly in East Asian countries such as China, Japan and Vietnam, from where they originate, they can be found on Chinese hackberry trees as well as mulberry, persimmon and ash trees.
Enoki mushrooms were one of the first mushrooms studied for cancer prevention (effect not proven to date) and are widely used in soups and salads. To keep their texture and enhance their lovely umami flavour, they need to be cooked quickly, either flash fried, briefly pan roasted or bathed in the residual heat of stews or stir-fries.
This hefty, layered fungi can grow to more than 45 kilograms (99 pounds) giving them the title ‘the king of mushrooms’. They can be found sitting at the base of oak, elm and maple trees in China, Japan and parts of the US. It has been eaten and used for its (not proven) medicinal properties for many years in China and Japan, where its name means ‘dancing mushroom’.
Like other varieties of mushrooms, maitake are noted for their B vitamin content and for being a non-animal source of vitamin D. In contrast to their delicate, feathery texture, they have a strong, earthy taste and can significantly enrich the flavours of other foods in various types of dishes. They are delicious cooked with olive oil, or as a featured ingredient in omelettes, hot pots, stir-fries, stews and sauces.
In Russia, where mushroom picking, cooking and eating is a big part of the culture, tourists may find themselves being offered saffron milk cap tasting as an activity. In Siberia, saffron milk caps are used for treating a wide variety of conditions, such as asthma, jaundice and food poisoning. However, these benefits have not been scientifically proven. Milk caps grow in pine forests in Europe and North America and are picked between August and October.
Their name comes from their beautiful saffron colour and the orange milky liquid they ooze from their gills when cut. They are a good source of fibre with a nutty, woody taste that has hints of umami and a meaty texture. They can be fried in olive oil with garlic, parsley, cream or red wine. They can also be marinated, salted or pickled, or added to stews and soups. They feature in risottos and pasta dishes served in various restaurants across Europe and North America.
These powerhouses of the legume family are regularly listed as ‘superfoods’ due to their high protein and fibre content. Particularly popular in Latin American cooking, black beans are small and shiny with a subtly sweet, mushroom-like flavour. Their dense, meaty texture makes them perfect for stews and curries, or as a substitute for ground beef in any dish.
They are often combined with grains like brown rice or quinoa, seasoned with onions, garlic and spices and served as a side dish, or topped with vegetables for a full meal. Whether bought canned or dried, the water used to store or cook the beans can be added to dishes for extra earthy flavour.
When in bloom, the sweet-scented flowers of the broad bean plant call to honeybees – the vital pollinators responsible for one in three mouthfuls of food. Broad beans also function as a cover crop, grown between harvests to protect the land. Cover crops help supress weeds, enrich the soil and control pests. These hardy and adaptable plants can grow in most soils and climates. The beautiful green beans have a sweet, grassy taste and buttery texture. They are protected by a pod that can be eaten raw when the plant is young.
As the plant ages, the pod hardens and is not commonly consumed due to its texture and bitter flavour. They make a nice protein and fibre-packed addition to risottos, soups and stews. They are also great as a side dish seasoned with rosemary, thyme and pepper.
There are many types of cowpeas; some are more commonly eaten than others. Catjang cowpeas are a less common variety. They are native to Africa but now grow in warm regions around the world, including Latin America, Southeast Asia and the southern part of the United States. Commonly cultivated for their nutty taste and high nutritional value, the seeds are little energy powerhouses packed with minerals and vitamins, including folate and magnesium.
Protein-packed cowpeas are a quickgrowing cover crop and are drought hardy and heat-tolerant. They are also a strong nitrogen-fixer, capable of thriving in poor soils and self-seeding. Cowpeas are also able to withstand grazing pressures from livestock.
Cowpeas make a hearty, thick soup while their leaves can be enjoyed in the same ways as other leafy greens. The pods can also be eaten when young and are used in stews. With their outer coating removed, the seeds can also be ground into flour and used to make deep-fried or steamed patties. In Senegal, Ghana and Benin, the flour is used in crackers and other baked goods.
Originally from North Africa and Asia, this cousin of the pea was one of the world’s first cultivated crops. Requiring little water to grow, lentils have a carbon footprint 43 times lower than that of beef.
There are dozens of varieties, all with slightly different earthy, peppery or sweet flavours. Lentils are packed with protein, fibre and carbohydrates. Puy lentils keep their shape and texture after cooking and are often served with fish or roasted vegetables. Red and yellow lentils dissolve into a rich purée and are delicious mixed into stews, curries and soups. They are also used to make veggie burgers.
All lentils are simple to cook; pre-soak if necessary, then boil in water or stock/broth (three to one ratio of water to lentils) for 15 to 20 minutes for whole lentils and five to seven minutes for split lentils.
Soy (soya) is a pivotal part of the world’s food system. High in protein, soy has transcended its Asian origins to become the most widely grown legume across the globe. Cultivated for well over 9,000 years, soy was regarded by the ancient Chinese as a necessity for life. It was eaten as a source of protein and crushed for its oil, which now accounts for a large proportion of global vegetable oil consumption.
Soy’s nutritional value makes it an undoubtedly powerful food. Raw soy beans contain 38 grams of protein per 100 grams, which is similar to pork and three times more than an egg. In fact, soy – which delivers more protein per hectare than any other crop – also contains vitamin K and B in addition to significant amounts of iron, manganese, phosphorus, copper, potassium, magnesium, zinc, selenium and calcium. Nutrient-packed soy comes in a variety of products and formats including Tofu, soy milk, miso, tempeh and edamame.
Despite its versatility and nutritional value, three-quarters of all soy produced is not for human consumption, but rather for animal feed. It takes a high volume of soy as animal feed to produce only a small amount of meat, which highlights the inefficiency in the food system. Poultry is the number one livestock sector that consumes soy beans followed by pork, dairy and beef.
The current and predicted steady increase in meat consumption poses major challenges to sustainable soy production. Cultivation of soy may drive deforestation, damaging natural ecosystems such as the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco – home to spectacular wildlife like jaguars, giant anteaters and armadillos.Progress is being made. The negative impact of soy production has been slowed by collaborative market initiatives like the Amazon Soy Moratorium, reducing soy-driven deforestation levels in the Amazon rainforest to almost zero.
Unilever, Knorr’s parent company, is actively working with other industries and NGO stakeholders to call for a halt in conversion of the Cerrado. Unilever is leading by example by buying sustainably certified soy oil for their products, such as Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and by actively promoting sustainable sourcing standards. Ultimately, lowering the demand for soy as animal feed is a critical lever for reducing the deforestation caused by soy production. Shifting to more plant-based foods, including soy, will help to reduce the demand for soy as animal feed, taking pressure off fragile ecosystems.
Amaranth is grown for both its seeds and leaves. The fibre-rich grain is prepared in boiling water, like rice, or popped like corn. Its leaves are a staple food in Asia and Africa and are eaten in the same ways as other leafy green vegetables. The plant that the amaranth seed comes from can be grown at any elevation without needing a lot of water, making it an ideal crop in areas where water is scarce.
Believed to have been first cultivated in Mexico, amaranth is one of the oldest crops, beloved by the Aztecs and Incas for its suspected supernatural properties.
Relative to other grains, amaranth’s sandy yellow seed is high in magnesium and protein. It has a mild, slightly nutty taste and gelatinous texture making it ideal for soups, side dishes and risottos.
Buckwheat is one of the healthiest, nuttiest and most versatile grains. It is a short season crop, maturing in just eight to twelve weeks, and grows well in both acidic and under-fertilised soils. It can also be used as a ‘cover crop’ or ‘smother crop’ to help keep weeds down and reduce soil erosion while fields rest during crop rotation.
Contrary to its name, buckwheat is not related to wheat and is gluten-free. It is an ideal higher protein swap for flour in pastas and breads. It can also be a great alternative to rice, is ideal cooked in a broth or stock, and can be used in salads or stuffing. It is popular in Russia and eastern European countries and is commonly eaten in stews, such as goulash, with potatoes, vegetables and meat.
Finger millet is a cereal that has been cultivated for thousands of years since it was first domesticated from the wild subspecies in the highlands that range from Uganda to Ethiopia.
A member of the grass family, it is now farmed more widely in the arid regions of Africa and South Asia as a staple cereal. Although the diverse group of crops known as millets is among one of the most consumed, finger millet is often overlooked by the world at large as it only makes up around ten percent of global millet production.
As a crop, it has many benefits. It can thrive in soils of low fertility and can be intercropped with maize, sorghum and legumes. It has a higher natural resistance to insects than similar crops, leading to higher yields with less dependence on pesticide use. Of all major cereals, millet is one of the most nutritious. It is a good source of fibre and vitamin B1 and is rich in minerals.
Quinoa has long been a staple food in South America but has been gaining popularity in Europe and the US since the early 2000s, marketed as a healthier, tastier replacement for rice. The sudden surge in demand for one type of quinoa forced farmers to take measures to rapidly increase yield, to the detriment of land, trees, soil and water use. Quinoa, like any food, can and should be grown following sustainable practices and, compared with similar crops, doesn’t require any more resources.
There are over 3,000 varieties of quinoa. However, the demand to date has been for only a few types, which has caused the farmers to stop growing many others. This has resulted in environmental degradation and damaged soil, because the land was not left to fallow (rest between harvests). There are now incentives in place for farmers to grow less common types of quinoa and programmes to encourage their consumption in schools and restaurants. This popularity has opened global trade opportunities for farmers and benefitted local economies enormously.
The quinoa case stresses the importance of growing and eating a wide variety of grains and cereals to help decrease the reliance on any one specific type. Botanically, quinoa is not a cereal but is a relative of spinach, beets and chard. It is a hardy plant that can tolerate frosts, droughts and high winds, and requires little fertilisation. This means it can grow in diverse climates and terrains, including areas with minimal irrigation or as little as three to four inches of annual rainfall.
Quinoa is a complete protein as it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. It is gluten-free and contains an exceptional balance of protein, fat, minerals and vitamins. It can replace rice in many dishes, such as pilafs, stuffings, salads and even veggie burgers, giving a nutty flavour and enhancing texture.
An ancient form of wheat, spelt is a hybrid of emmer wheat and goat grass. Due to its high carbohydrate content, the Romans called it the ‘marching grain’. It has a thick outer husk that helps to protect it from disease and pests, making it easier for farmers to grow without the need for fertilisers or pesticides. Compared to similar types of wheat, it contains more fibre, as well as higher concentrations of minerals, including magnesium, iron and zinc.
Spelt is often one of the components of farro, which is a mix of various types of wheat and is becoming more popular in some parts of Europe and North America. Whole or pearled, spelt should be boiled until tender. The mellow, nutty flavour makes it popular to use in place of rice in pilaf, risotto and side dishes. In Germany and Austria, using spelt flour to make breads and cakes is common and often preferred over other types of wheat.
This so-called ‘rice’ isn’t a rice at all. Wild rice is the seed of a semi-aquatic grass that grows wild in North American lakes and rivers. Long and thin, the seeds are covered in green, brown or black husks. After harvesting, the husk is dried then hulled. Often mixed with brown and white rice, wild rice is not commercially grown and, therefore, supply is scarce in many parts of the world.
Deliciously nutty, toasty and earthy with a chewy texture, wild rice is easy to digest and is a source of a variety of valuable minerals. Compared with white rice, wild rice contains more protein, zinc and iron Like rice, it is boiled in water or stock. It can also be popped like corn for a colourful and more nutritious version of popcorn, is great mixed with other grains, added to salads, soups and mixed with other grains and vegetables to make vegetarian burgers.
Well suited to resist changes in climate, okra is among the most heat- and drought-resistant vegetables in the world. It contains antioxidants, including beta-carotene, xeaxanthine, and lutein.
This slim, green seed pod goes by many names, including gumbo, bhindi and lady’s finger. It’s commonly used in the Caribbean and in areas of the world where Creole, Cajun and Asian cooking are popular. When cooked, the seeds produce a sticky, viscous liquid, which makes them ideal for thickening soups and stews.
Okra can be steamed, stir-fried or grilled and pairs well with strong, spicy flavours and seasonings.
Like all tomatoes, this small orange variety can be traced back to the tiny, perfectly round berries that grow wild in coastal Peru and the Galapagos Islands. That was before tomatoes were domesticated and their seeds brought back to Europe after Cortés conquered what would later be known as Mexico City in 1521. Now, red tomatoes are one of the most consumed vegetables globally.
Orange tomatoes are sweeter and less acidic than their red relatives and contain up to twice as much vitamin A and folate (B vitamin) than other varieties (red, green) and are also ‘heirloom’ – genetically unique, making them more resistant to disease and pests. They can be used in the same way as the more familiar red varieties: in soups, to make sauces or chutney, or added to casseroles and stews. They’re also delicious roasted to bring out even more sweetness and can be eaten on their own as a snack.
Kale is a brassica and belongs to the cabbage family. It is a hardy plant, able to withstand temperatures as low as -15 degrees celsius. It has lushly dark leaves that can be curly or smooth and sometimes have a blue or purple tinge. The taste, distinct and slightly bitter, is reported to become sweeter when exposed to extreme cold such as a heavy frost, but more bitter and unpleasant in hot weather.
Kale is grown throughout Europe and in the US, available year-round, and packed with vitamins A, K and C, as well as being a good source of manganese and copper.
The leaves and stems can be eaten together. The stems are tough while the leaves are soft, so may require different cooking times. Kale can be eaten raw, roasted, boiled, sautéed or even grilled. Because of its high nutritional value, kale has been dried and turned into powder to be added to soups and smoothies and made into chips eaten as a savoury snack. It can be enjoyed as a side dish or mixed with other vegetables in stews, curries, or soups.
Pak-choi (or bok-choy) is crisp with a mild, cabbagelike flavour. Like lettuce but with more crunch, it is one of the most popular vegetables in China and is grown in East Asia all year round. It has a variety of different names, among them horse’s ear, Chinese celery cabbage and white mustard cabbage. Its white or palegreen stalks and deep-green leaves are high in vitamins K and C.
Although the stalks can be eaten raw when the plant is very young, they are best blanched in boiling water, stir-fried or steamed to retain their delicate flavour and crunchy texture. Pak-choi goes well with rich, sticky sauces to complement the mild flavour and crunchy texture.
It may be called red cabbage, but this brassica has a chameleon-like quality, changing colour based on the pHvalue of the soil in which it is grown. It grows best in sunny conditions in moist, loamy soil.
Most commonly grown in the Americas, Europe and China, red cabbage has an earthy, slightly peppery taste and crisp texture. It’s not only more colourful and hardier than green cabbage, but also has ten times more vitamin A and double the amount of iron. Red cabbage can be eaten raw or cooked in salads, stir-fries, in a sandwich or burger, or cooked with onions as a side dish. When cooked, the leaves will turn blue; add vinegar or acidic fruit to help maintain their red colour.
Found across Europe, the United States, South America and Asia, but best grown in cooler climates with some sunlight, flax seeds have a multitude of uses. They are primarily used as a wellrounded, nutritious food source, but they can also be woven into strong fibres to create linen. Flax seeds are considered a highly functional food owing to the presence of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega 3 fatty acid.
Also known as linseeds, they have been widely cultivated since the early days of civilisation and can be used in place of half the flour in any baked good, including breads and muffins. Although they are commonly eaten on salads and cereals, they are now in high demand as an ingredient in vegetarian burger mixes and other plant-based dishes. Flax seed oil can be used for dressings, dips and sauces.
Hemp is fast-growing, thrives in a variety of soils and doesn’t require fertilisers or pesticides. While not currently one of the most commonly-consumed seeds, they have been a part of the diets of people in China and India for many centuries.
They are the same species as cannabis (marijuana), but hemp seeds don’t contain THC, the compound that causes the drug-like effects of marijuana. The small, crunchy seeds have a soft, buttery texture and are rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids (good fats). They also contain protein, fibre and various vitamins and minerals, which justifies the recent re-discovery of these nutty flavoured seeds. A small serving of only 30 grams provides one gram of fibre, nine grams of protein, and a good source of iron.
Hemp seeds are available in various forms: as oil, a milk substitute, flour and in many products (including dips, sauces, soups, crackers, biscuits, breads and salads). They can be eaten raw, made into hemp meal, sprouted or made into powder.
Hemp was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fibre, roughly 10,000 years ago. It goes beyond being a nutritional food source, as it can be refined into paper, renewable plastic, clothes and biofuel.