Often scientists think of food as an assembly of calories and nutrients that have some specific interactions with human biology. If one follows that line of thinking, food found in Nature would be indistinguishable from food made in industrial factories. But nature doesn’t work like a factory.
Industrial food reflects roughly two hundred years of human innovation and research into nutrition, manufacturing, and optimization for human consumption. Natural foods, by contrast, reflect thousands of years of evolution and adaptation for life on the planet. When you put a blueberry in your mouth, for example, you benefit from all the effort (and thousands of years of trial and error) that the blueberry bush has placed not only into growing the berries, but also into protecting the future of the species, dormant in the seeds.
Instead of risking the seeds’ survival on their own, the berries use their own defense system, which is composed of several chemical substances we humans refer to as nutrients – those very nutrients we work so hard to industrially decant into pills and capsules. Some of these nutrients are vitamins to prevent the seeds from getting spoiled. Others are minerals to give them strength. Others still are sugars to give them energy.
Additionally, plants produce a vast array of powerful compounds called phytonutrients (i.e., plant nutrients), such as the anthocyanins and pterostilbene, that have propelled blueberries into the news. Phytonutrients serve the important purpose of fighting oxidative stress and inflammation, thereby increasing the life of the seeds. They are also responsible for the berries’ color, smell, and flavor. One reason those berries taste so good is that they are doing their best to attract the birds that eat them. That is because it is through the combination of the bird’s digestion, flight, and excretion that the plant can spread its seeds far beyond its own territory, further safeguarding its survival on the planet.
Biologically Active Foods
In the end, by making berries, the plant sets out to ensure life. By eating berries, we receive all the benefits of that effort. There is a magic to this. Without anything like intention or thought, without advertising, laboratories, or a business plan, berries have made themselves nutritious and delicious. But far from being “supernatural,” this is simply the magic of ordinary Nature.
In neuro-nutrition, there is an endless range of examples in which the nutritional whole (in its effects) is literally greater than the simple sum of its parts.
In spite of what our minds might tell us when presented with a brownie, what our brains actually crave is the multitude of nutrients present in natural, biologically active foods. When the right nutrients combine in the right way, the same magic that builds the healthy berries comes to build a healthy brain.
By Dr. Lisa Mosconi, PhD, INHC
Dr. Mosconi is the associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC)/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where she was recruited as an associate professor of Neuroscience in Neurology. Her new book, Brain Food, explores the science of eating for cognitive power. Find her online at lisamosconi.com.