Are your herbs and superfoods actually working for you?
Are your herbs and superfoods actually working for you?

Certain fresh-harvested ingredients require very little in the way of pre-preparation before we consume them. A juicy mango, a young tender hawthorn leaf, a glass of spring birch sap, a teaspoon of raw honey, a ripe avocado, a warm suckle of mother’s milk (to name a short few) are all unmistakably “good to go”, just as nature serves them. However, ripe fruits, young leaves and “secretions” aside, most food varieties, especially those that would be eligible for use as energy-rich staples, are not “designed” to be eaten in their crude state, at least from the perspective of optimal nutrition. Indeed, to be “fed by our food”, humanoid lineages have had to use a sizeable dollop or two of good ole fashioned ingenuity.

And so it is. At the hands of our forbears, across great eons of time, a rich culinary library of preparatory practices have accumulated. Many of these food “treatments” were truly practical, aimed at enhancing the palatability, nutritiousness, and in the context of medicinal plants, the effectiveness, of a given wild-harvested food. To our ancestors much of nature’s bounty was seen as food in theory or potential. Though in many cases these unadulterated foodstuffs could be eaten in their raw state without pronounced malady, they were not (as yet) sufficiently brimming with their own liberated nutrient reserves to be sustaining. Relevant strategies for food enhancement have been able to address this natural limitation, and many disparate cultures have been able to unlock natures’s hidden nutrient rewards, enabling them to become vibrant, resilient and fruitful. But are we doing it right these days, or has modern "civilisation" got in the way?

Nowadays it can seem that we have the whole culinary world at our fingertips, with foods and medicines (and the often blurry line between them) widely available from six continents. We stockpile our kitchens with a cornucopia of herbs, mushrooms and powdered plants for comfort and protection, but are we actually getting the most from them, are we making the most of their hidden potential? Absolutely not! We may not even be using them in the right way. Please, let me explain.

Medicinal mushrooms comprise an especially pertinent category to begin our foray, particularly because most medicinal mushrooms need to undergo an extraction process to relinquish their bioactive goodies. Taking pure mushroom powder in capsules or by the teaspoon in smoothies etc, is generally speaking, a waste of both money and nutrition, and is unlikely to confer any noticeable benefits. You see, the cells of mushrooms are comprised of chitin (ki-tin), one of the hardest organic materials in nature, and the same natural polymer sported in the tough shells of crabs, lobsters and all manner of insects. Now as mentioned in a previous article, over time we become more suited to the digestion of specific foods when they become regulars in our diet. And in this context mushrooms would be no different. However, in most cases, chitin breakdown within humans is relatively low anyway, so a straight ingestion, especially of low-water “woody” varieties like chaga, reishi and turkey’s tail, would be pretty fruitless.

Traditionally many medicinal mushrooms were simmered in water for somewhere between 1 hour and 2 days. Slow hot water extractions like this dissolve the chitin defences, making a host of those all important water-soluble polysaccharides (bitter sugars) available to us. In addition the slow to dissolve steroidal bio-actives are also captured into the decoction over a longer simmer. As a result, a fuller, more medicinal tea is created. An excellent, highly recommended refinement to the standard process of simmering your decoctions on the low setting of a hob (unless you have a low-heat hob setting) is to start making mushroom, bark or root teas in a slow cooker (ideally a glass one). With the slow cooker method you can “stew” your herbs at 70°C for many hours, or overnight (even longer if you top up the water occasionally) so as to minimise the loss of sensitive and volatile components, thereby producing even richer levels of aqueous nourishment.

Water is a true heroine when it comes to the extraction of hidden nutrient/medicinal compounds within many fresh and dry plants. But in other instances, water extraction by itself is not very effective because the acclaimed or “active” chemicals of certain plants are, for all intensive purposes, not water-soluble. That is to say, water as a solvent will not readily pick up and dissolve the healthful constituents of interest into a tea or decoction, etc. Ginkgo biloba, milk thistle, saw palmetto, gums like myrrh and frankincense, even cayenne powder, are but a few examples. In numerous other cases, such as Echinacea and Goldenseal, both with a long history of use in teas and decoctions, water infusions will extract certain beneficial chemicals, but will leave many others behind, so the full repertoire of effects is never experienced. This remaining chemistry is predominantly fat soluble and alcohol is often utilised in a myriad of different ways - think the age-old tincturing process, to extract this wider fan of molecules. Because it is way beyond the scope of this article to go into specific details, my advice is as follows: look into the solubility situation with every medicinal herb you use, especially the ones you use on a regular basis. Perhaps, you will discover that a longer, slow simmering or slow pot stewing is best. Or that a pure alcohol, or alcohol and water tincture, best captures the plants healing essence. Experiment, try both!!

The right delivery system for the job is therefore crucial when it comes to getting the most from and therefore not squandering the plant/mushroom allies that have (in most cases) “given up their lives for us”. Generally speaking though, when it comes to increasing the bioavailability of our foods before we actually consume them, water truly is our first natural port of call. And plant powders, many of which we colloquially refer to as super foods (essentially flours), are encouragingly susceptible to being enhanced by waters moisture-imparting ways. Soaking baobab, spirulina, cacao, turmeric, barley grass, amla, carob and schisandra powders (to name a few random examples) in water, preferably warm/hot, is a near universal way of improving the nutrient availability of all of your favourite nutrient dense particles. Sufficient soaking achieves numerous effects:

  1. It softens plant fibres making withheld or bound nutrients more accessible.
  2. It hydrates the food matrix, thereby facilitating the solvent, or extracting properties of water to draw up nutrients, especially the water-soluble ones.
  3. It can predigest a limited proportion of carbohydrates and proteins, and to that extent, make them more soluble within our body.

Of course in stark contrast to the soaking of low-enzyme yielding nuts/seeds/grains where it is recommended that you discard the water, your superfood soak is obviously your nutritionally-activated friend, so drink it down and be merry. Just remember, that an intake of a straight oil or oil-bearing food at the same time will further strengthen the water/superfood partnership, enabling greater absorption of the fat soluble vitamins and other phytonutrients stored within the super foods.

Another related category of foods includes “bee pollen” and bee bread (I have covered these two natural foods in detail here. Now even though bee bread, is by definition a significantly enhanced bee food over the straight pollen, both the bread and the pollen can be soaked in water overnight to further increase predigestion and bio-availability within the food matrix. Finally as an addendum to this group, edible dried berries of all persuasions are similarly benefited by a nice warm bath.

This said however, it is critical to realise that some dried superfood powders just like ordinary bread flours and many a wild food, are not really "designed" to be eaten without a  more thorough pre-prep and the subsequent paragraph offers a classic case in point. Now, for those interesting and artisanal enough to make their own probiotic-rich dairy or water kefir beverages, a further opportunity exists for expanding the nutritional resource of our superfood powders. Simply soak your preferred powders in strained kefir and (in addition to points 1, 2 and 3 above) let over 100 different strains of bacteria and yeast enzymatically “tenderise” and predigest your dried plant concoction, while it becomes activated in healthful secondary metabolites and infused by the probiotics themselves. Stir and drink or incorporate into your smoothies and other recipes.

Maca is an excellent example of a raw superfood powder that would be benefitted by a fermentation like this, though that would be true of cooking it as well. You see, the traditional way that maca is prepared in its native Peru is by either boiling or roasting it (just like potatoes), or by first drying and powdering it, but then nonetheless boiling them into something porridge-like. By cooking the maca in this traditional fashion, as opposed to the recent trend of eating the crude flour straight, the long, fairly indigestible starch chains are burst open, showering us with increased caloric energy, greater digestibility of the plant’s carbohydrates generally, and so long as they are not overcooked, greater all around nutrient bio-availability. Though of course some sensitive nutrients are lost, other beneficial factors are amplified.

For the Peruvians raw maca is not yet considered a food, just like the vast majority of us would not consider raw potatoes a meal.  In fact, “gelatinised” maca powders have been on the market a little while to rectify the absorbability issues inherent to raw maca powder; the starches have been saturated and broken down via hot water and the maca in this form has a higher nutritive value, whilst being less demanding on our sensitive digestive systems. Now, going back to my original point, maca’s starches can also be adequately broken down through our aforementioned kefir fermentation, so similar results can be achieved at room temperature, thereby protecting sensitive-to-heat nutrients. Ultimately though, whether you choose to cook or ferment it, and this is an often under-appreciated tenet of nutrition: the most important thing is that you enjoy it.

Kyle Vialli (2015)

Kyle Author