When it’s time to prepare a meal, most of us open up our fridge and pantry and get to work, or we make a trip to the grocery store to purchase what we need. For much of human history, though, we’ve reached for our sustenance by foraging as hunter-gatherers. Wild foods grow all over the world in their natural glory, and you may be fortunate enough to encounter them close to where you live. In fact, you may have strolled by delicious and special wild foods without even realizing it!
There’s no question that modern agriculture has made fresh ingredients more readily available (and in some cases, safer), and foraging for wild foods isn’t always practical for all communities. Yet wild foods, if you can access them ethically and sustainably, are a wonderful addition to one’s dietary rotation.
What Are Wild Foods?
Wild foods are things that grow spontaneously and instinctively in nature, with no intervention or control by people. Wild foods can include:
- nuts and seeds
- fish, meat and game
Health Benefits of Wild Foods
As wild foods grow unbidden and must endure harsh conditions such as inclement weather, animals, pests and insects, and other challenges in their natural habitat (including humans!), they are typically hardy and strong in the face of these threats.
Wild foods are usually:
- Rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which serve as protective measures for the plant and for us when we consume them
- Rich in overall nutrients
- Great for biodiversity and the environment, as they play a natural role in their surrounding ecosystem
- Are free from the pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used in conventionally farmed produce or meat
If you can find them in your neighbourhood or nearby parks, another huge benefit is that wild foods can be free! More about the individual health benefits of some of our favourite wild foods below.
Foraging for Wild Foods Safely and Responsibly
Just because a berry springs up on the side of the road, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat it!
If you are new to wild foods and foraging, it’s best to seek out a written guide or go on a foraging trip with a guide who can help you learn how to recognize what is safe to eat. Many wild foods can be poisonous, and safe foods and unsafe foods may look alike. We highly, highly recommend drawing on the expertise of an experienced forager.
When looking for wild foods, always ensure you are taking what is yours to take. Don’t forage on private property, and make certain that you are not defying any local gathering, hunting or fishing laws in public spaces.
As wild foods are part of a unique ecosystem, taking too much, taking at the wrong time of the year, or taking from the wrong part of the plant can have devastating consequences. Always harvest wild foods responsibly and sustainably; otherwise, there will be none left for anyone to enjoy.
Remember, you don’t have to go foraging yourself to enjoy wild foods! There are experts that harvest wild foods to sell at farmers’ markets or small businesses. Check out your local markets to explore wild foods you can purchase.
Indigenous Food Rights and Food Sovereignty
The Academy of Culinary Nutrition is headquartered in Canada, where Indigenous Peoples have been foraging, hunting and fishing for centuries until about 400 years ago when colonizers began to appropriate their land and implement laws and restrictions prohibiting their food systems.
Indigenous food sovereignty has been severely compromised throughout North America and around the world, too. It wasn’t until colonizers began stripping the natural environment of its plant and animal foods that many wild foods became endangered; up until then, Indigenous communities foraged, hunted, fished and trapped responsibly and with great care for sustaining the world around them.
For more information and to advocate for Indigenous food rights, connect with Indigenous groups and non-profits in your local area.
Our 10 Favourite Wild Foods
Wild foods will vary greatly depending on where you live; since 2013 we have learned a great deal about wild foods from around the world from our global community of Culinary Nutrition Experts. It’s exciting to enjoy and appreciate what is around us!
These are some of our favourites, and why we love them.
Key Health Benefits: We love medicinal mushrooms because they contain anti-cancer properties and immune-supportive polysaccharides called beta glucans. They are also rich in minerals like iron and copper, as well as B vitamins and Vitamin D. Some of the common wild mushroom varieties close to our headquarters are chaga and reishi, which we adore.
Key Health Benefits: In our neck of the woods, wild leeks are one of the first spring vegetables. As a member of the onion family, wild leeks are rich in sulfurous compounds that help us detoxify and offer us anti-inflammatory properties. They also contain high levels of quercetin, an antioxidant that acts as an anti-histamine, protecting us from allergies, hay fever and asthma.
Learn More: Best Wild Leek Recipes
Photo by Uliana Kopanytsia on Unsplash
Key Health Benefits: Common wild berries are blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. Wild berries are especially rich in antioxidants. All berries are high in fibre and Vitamin C and have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
Learn More: The Health Benefits of Berries
Key Health Benefits: Edible flowers have a large swath of benefits depending on which ones you choose (see below). Some help to calm you, others stimulate and support digestion, many are rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants, while some have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. We like using edible flowers in teas and tinctures!
Learn More: How to Cook With Edible Flowers
Key Health Benefits: Seaweeds are incredibly nutrient-dense. They are high in iodine for the thyroid and hormonal health, chlorophyll for nourishing and cleansing our red blood cells, and iron and B vitamins for energy levels. Seaweed also contains protein, anti-cancer compounds, and is naturally salty without the excess sodium.
Learn More: Guide to Seaweeds and Sea Vegetable Recipes
Key Health Benefits: Often considered a pesky lawn weed, dandelions are nutrient-rich and should receive more appreciation! Dandelions contain anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic compounds, are high in the antioxidant beta-carotene, have the prebiotic carbohydrate inulin, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. They are often used to support digestion and the liver. Another bonus: you can use the root, stem, leaves and flowers of dandelion, so nothing is wasted!
Learn More: How to Cook With Edible Flowers
Photo: Isabelle Boucher
Key Health Benefits: Fiddleheads are the coiled ends of the ostrich fern, and get their name because they look like the end of a fiddle or violin. They are a spring vegetable high in fibre, antioxidants, omega-3 fats, and omega-6 fats. Fiddleheads must be cleaned, stored and cooked properly (don’t eat them raw); otherwise, they may cause extreme digestive upset.
Key Health Benefits: Maple water (which is boiled to become maple syrup) predominantly comes from maple trees in colder climates, such as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, as well as the Northeastern United States. Some people are lucky enough to live on properties where they can tap their own maple water, which is extremely hydrating and is rich in antioxidants.
Key Health Benefits: Also known as stinging nettles, nettles are packed with chlorophyll (the ‘blood’ of plants), iron, magnesium, nutritious fats, a range of vitamins (A, C, D, E and K), and have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Nettles sting your skin when you touch them – eliminate the sting by cooking them or steeping them in a tea. Be sure to use tongs and a strainer/colander when washing and handling them in your kitchen!
Learn More: Stinging Nettle Chips
Photo: Caroline Attwood on Unsplash
Key Health Benefits: Wild salmon (and many other varieties of wild fish) are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, protein, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12. Salmon can help us build resilience, boost our mood and support brain health, maintain hormone balance and assist digestion.
These are some of the wild foods that are available to us. We encourage you to explore the special array of wild foods in your area – and to do so responsibly and safely!