3 Critically Endangered Foods & How They Can Affect Your Nutrition Goals
Our diets are not as nutritionally diverse as they once were—quite the understatement, according to award-winning food journalist Dan Saladino. In fact, in his new book Eating to Extinction: The World's Rarest Foods and Why We Need To Save Them, he notes that over time, humans have eaten over 6,000 different species of plants. Today? We mainly eat nine. This lack of diversity has much to do with our modern agricultural practices that focus on churning out a few domesticated staples (namely: wheat, rice, and maize). As a result, we lose more of those nourishing, vulnerable crops that depend on a thriving ecosystem—and our nutritional load may suffer.
"We need a greater awareness of the environment in which we exist and the food and farming stories that surround us," Saladino says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "We have so fundamentally changed our relationship with food that we are paying a huge price in terms of our health and the health of the planet as well."
Here, Saladino discusses a few nutritious yet rare foods and how their absence could affect your health:
"I went to a village in Eastern Turkey where a really small number of farmers had kept hold of an emmer," says Saladino. Emmer is one of the earliest domesticated types of wheat in the world, feeding ancient Roman and Egyptian communities for thousands of years. "It's the wheat that the people who erected Stonehenge were consuming," notes Saladino. "It was such an important type of grain."
Some regions still cultivate this type of wheat, but it's not nearly as widespread as it once was. Think less "endangered," more "fell out of favor" with the rise of modern, mass-produced wheat in the 20th century. "People who are growing it today love these landraces not only for their resilience but because they have these deep root systems as well," says Saladino. "The argument is that they can reach nutrients in the soil that modern wheat—which doesn't have that root system—can't."
There is limited data comparing the nutritional differences between emmer and modern bread wheat, but studies have shown that emmer contains a higher protein content1 than common wheat, as well as resistant starch, fiber, and carotenoids. "We do know that the mineral content of those grains is higher," says Saladino.
Murnong, a nutty, potato-like tuber native to Australia, is also not quite considered endangered—but it is vulnerable. Like emmer wheat, this crop has fed communities for thousands of years: "This food that can exist underground for a very long time was the go-to energy source for the Indigenous people of Australia," says Saladino, until Europeans arrived around the 18th century and introduced sheep and cattle to the ecosystem. "They spread through the landscape and pretty much wiped out this [root vegetable]," Saladino notes.
While murnong does still grow in some regions of Australia, it is quite rare—and so research on its nutrition content is limited. However, Australian historians and agriculturalists have claimed murnong is eight times as nutritious as the standard potato. "Surely a food that sustained Aboriginal people in Australia for thousands of years has value that for some reason in the 21st century, we have either forgotten, neglected, or ignored," says Saladino.
Perhaps you know the story of wild Atlantic salmon: "Fewer and fewer of the fish are returning to the rivers, and in many parts of the North Atlantic, it is becoming an extremely rare fish," says Saladino. "It's extremely worrying what might unfold in the future when it comes to its potential extinction." Of course, there are multiple factors at play—pollution, shifting river networks through damming, climate change, etc., and we could dedicate a whole article to discussing the extent and implications of the issue.
For now, we'll just emphasize how crucial it is to protect this fish species, not only for your own health but for the health of the environment at large. See, wild salmon is abundant in omega-3s, astaxanthin, and other essential vitamins and minerals that can support whole-body health. Omega-3s, for example, fuel a slurry of important processes in the body, including heart health, brain health, and vision.*
But there are cultural implications, too: "Wild Atlantic salmon is such a powerful story and also weaves in cultures around the world—people for thousands of years have been dependent on this fish," says Saladino. "Too often we are putting food into silos, whereas these are extremely complex systems. You remove one part of an ecosystem, and you disrupt the whole system."
Of course, these foods are not entirely wiped out—they just exist on a relatively small scale, whereas they were once widespread. "The beauty of these foods is not only what they have become adapted to—climate, environment, and the altitude of that specific part of the world—but they have co-evolved with the people in that part of the world for over thousands of years," Saladino adds. So they are not only nutritious but also carry cultural and environmental weight—isn't that the true definition of a whole, balanced meal?