It’s no secret: wild plants, on average, contain more vitamins and minerals than their domesticated counterparts (wild lettuce vs. iceberg lettuce, wild blueberries vs. cultivated blueberries, etc.). This is one of the many reasons why I strongly encourage others to adopt a wild food diet, even if that means consuming only one wild species per day.
Let’s take a look at vitamin C, conventionally known as L-ascorbic acid.
If you ask the average person which foods are high in vitamin C, you will almost always receive the same answers: orange, orange juice, and other citrus fruits – sometimes red pepper. (Go ahead, try it. Ask someone which foods are high in vitamin C, and I’d be surprised if the answers differ.)
These responses are not entirely incorrect. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin C is 90 mg and 75 mg for adult men and women respectively. A medium sized orange contains approximately 70 mg of vitamin C.
While humans cannot manufacture their own vitamin C, it is relatively easy to acquire through diet. Vitamin C plays an essential role in the body, combating free radical damage and aiding in the synthesis of collagen, carnitine, and catecholamines. Deficiencies are rare, though prolonged inadequate intake can lead to subcutaneous bleeding and poor wound healing. The end result is scurvy.
Foods from the supermarket can certainly provide enough vitamin C to meet the recommended RDA, though it’s actually much easier to do so from fresher sources. You see, vitamin C is a delicate molecule, and its content in food decreases significantly during storage.
For example, potatoes lose 50% of their vitamin C within 5 months of storage, and 65% within 8 months. During winter storage, apples can lose up to 50% of their vitamin C, and cabbage up to 45% (Combs, 2012). The mechanism at play here is oxidation, where ascorbic acid is oxidized into dehydroascorbic acid.
Where, then, do we find fresher sources of vitamin C?
Well, how about the wild?
When harvesting food from the wild, one has more control over storage methods. Sure, some foods can still be stored for quite some time (dried aerial parts, nuts, seeds, roots), but most edibles will be consumed within the same week of gathering, at least in my experiences.
In addition to minimizing the loss of vitamin C due to storage, there is another important benefit in seeking the wild sources: inherently, wild plants generally contain much more vitamin C than the plants found in the grocery store.
Let’s take a look at a few wild sources of vitamin C from plants available in my habitat (Southwestern Pennsylvania). For reference, the orange – at 100 grams – contains approximately 53 mg of vitamin C.
Species (100 g), parts of plant, vitamin C content (1, 2, 3)
•Dog rose (Rosa canina), fruit, 1252 mg
•Balsam fir (Abies balsamea), leaves, 270 mg
•Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), bark and leaves, 200 mg and 32 mg respectively
•Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), aerial parts, 190 mg
•Red spruce (Picea rubens), leaves, 169 mg
•Wild garlic (Allium vineale), leaves, 130 mg
•Garden yellow-rocket (Barbarea vulgaris), basal leaves, 130 mg
•Common blue violet (Viola sororia), basal leaves, 130 mg
•Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), whole young plants, 130 mg
•Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), fruit, 116 mg
•Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), basal leaves of first year plants, 91 mg
•Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), leaves, 80 mg
•Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), fruit, 80 mg
•Mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica), leaves, 79 mg
•Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), flowers, 69 mg
•Mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), fruit, 68 mg
•Common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta), leaves, 59 mg
•Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), leaves, 45 mg
Looking at this list, it’s quite evident that vitamin C is ubiquitous in nature. And it’s not just found in plants. One can acquire vitamin C by consuming animals; the heart, liver, and adrenals are all good sources of vitamin C.
This list also hints at another important implication: our hunter and gatherer ancestors surely were ingesting vitamin C in levels greater than what is recommended today. After all, the average indigenous diet was far more diverse than the modern dietary amalgamation of corn, wheat, and soy; this traditional heterogeneity ensured that vitamin C was easily acquired. Additionally, research has shown that animal organs, rich in vitamin C, were favored over muscle meats in traditional diets.
Today, the RDA for vitamin C is based off of a different way of eating – primarily, the agricultural diet. The RDA may prevent scurvy, and it may be enough for the body to function at an adequate level, but is the RDA for vitamin C high enough for humans to perform at optimal levels?
I’d dare to say “No, not really.” If two cultivated oranges can supply the RDA for vitamin C, imagine what a meal supplemented with garlic mustard, rose hips, and white pine bark would provide.
If you are interested in approximating a diet with vitamin C levels in tune with your natural biology, consider ingesting an impressive array of wild foods on a daily basis. And think of the 75-90 mg target as “just enough” to function adequately.
We certainly deserve more!
Combs, G. F. (2012). The vitamins: Fundamental aspects in nutrition and health. Burlington, MA: Academic Press.