What are non-conventional edible plants - interview with Eliza Altvater-Conn

Nonconventional Plant Foods - interview with Eliza Altvater-Conn

Photo of non-convetional leafy vegetable, ora-pro-nobis, and Dietitian & Food Scientist Eliza Altvater-Conn


Last week, we spoke to Eliza Altvater-Conn, Food Scientist and Dietitian, about why organic produce is more expensive and whether there is a real benefit to the higher price-point.

This week, we're excited to learn from her about non-conventional edible plants!

You're a great champion of non-conventional edible plants. Can you tell us what these are and why they are important to our global food system?

Unconventional food plants (UFPs) are definitely one of my favorite subjects! There are literally thousands of edible plants out there with their culinary use documented from long ago, and yet, most of us only rely on 30 different species as a food source. This always intrigued me and the more I learn, the more interesting it gets.

I first learned about UFPs when I was an undergrad student in Brazil, through the work of three researchers who are big references on the subject: Biologist Dr. Valdely Kinupp, Agricultural Engineer Dr. Nuno Madeira, and Nutritionist Irany Arteche. Brazil’s biodiversity is recognized worldwide and many studies investigate the potential of UFPs as a source of nutrients, bioactive compounds, new active principles for medicines, and much more. These foods are underutilized and have great potential, especially in high yield capability and nutrient content. 

Ora pro nobis, for example, is a leafy green with ten times the amount of magnesium, three times as much phosphorus, and twice as much calcium, iron, manganese, and zinc compared to kale. So why aren’t we introduced to these plants? Why do we only eat a fraction of the edible plants available on Earth? Mostly, those same economic interests also support the development of monocultures (soy, wheat, rice, corn, etc), which in turn leads to a negative environmental impact. 

With the monopoly of big agribusiness, cultural knowledge about other edible plants is being lost, and along with that, agrobiodiversity is suffering a huge impact. On the other hand, the UFPs are food sources that develop in natural environments without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. There’s no need for deforestation to layout new crop areas because UFPs already grow naturally. Most of these plants are also in areas managed by small farmers, which becomes a fundamental strategy for strengthening the sovereignty of many families. 

Next week we round out our conversation with Eliza by asking her our signature question about her thoughts on "superfoods".