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Wild foods study exemplifies world’s unlocked botanical potential, expert says

Article-Wild foods study exemplifies world’s unlocked botanical potential, expert says

pakistan image.jpg
A study of wild plants in Pakistan exemplifies the world's untapped botanical potential.

A new study has been published that categorizes the nutritional characteristics of commonly used wild foods in a remote mountain region of Pakistan. The research demonstrates how much of the world’s botanical potential is yet to be explored, an expert said.

The new research was published in the journal Heliyon. It was the work of researchers associated with the University of Peshawar in Pakistan.

The researchers noted that while Pakistan is well developed in many ways, it still suffers from significant food insecurity. This is especially true in parts of the country bordering Afghanistan, where conflict and geographical inaccessibility together have stymied development.

Wild foods still on menu in remote area

The researchers focused on one such area, the Lotkuh Valley, which is about 150 miles north as the crow flies from Peshawar, the closest major city. Despite that proximity, reaching the area takes a whole day’s drive over a narrow, poorly surfaced mountain road with several long tunnels.

The region has valley floors lying at more than 5,000 feet in elevation, with the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range soaring to more than 20,000 feet. It has a combination of a cool, short growing season and a semi-arid climate that makes conventional crop production difficult.

Thus, as an adjunct to the diet, the area’s residents have long made daily use of the wild foodstuffs growing in the region. The practice is so entrenched that there is a lively trade in the plants in the region’s markets, the researchers said.

Samples of 16 plants analyzed

The researchers collected samples of 16 botanicals used in the region. The plants are used both for nutritional and medicinal purposes.

The plants ranged from berry or fruit bearing, woody shrubs, to small wild fruit trees, such as a variety of persimmon, to a conifer species from which pine nuts are harvested.

Among the herbaceous plants, varieties of mint, sorrel, rhubarb and lilies are used, among others.

The researchers collected voucher samples for identification, as well as samples for use in the chemical analysis of the plants’ nutritional characteristics.

That analysis was fairly rudimentary, in that it assessed protein, lipid, carbohydrate, vitamin C and fiber content. The researchers also characterized the plants’ calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese and zinc content.

There was no attempt to characterize the bioactives of the botanicals used in medicinal preparations.

The researchers concluded that the plants make up an important part of the residents’ diet and supply crucial nutrients. The welfare of these wild plant communities should be taken into account in any future development efforts for the area, they maintained.

“The WFPs [wild plant foods] studied in the current study have sufficient mineral nutrition to be included in the human diet. They are inexpensive and can be harvested seasonally. Finally, it is recommended to conserve, propagate and sustainably use these plants. Future research should focus on the medicinal and pharmacological effects of these plants,” they concluded.

ABC exec: Addition to world botanical knowledge welcomed

For Stefan Gafner, Ph.D., chief science officer of the American Botanical Council (ABC), the main point of interest in the study was not what was found, but that such an effort was undertaken at all. Gafner and other botanical experts recently weighed in on the subject of the world’s vanishing heritage of botanical plant knowledge, and he welcomed any addition to that understanding.

“What I like about this paper is that it is from an area of the world where access (especially by people from developed countries) is still limited, in part due to the topography, and that the data on the plants of this area of Pakistan has been published by local researchers,” he said.

“First and foremost, there are many areas of the world where use of wild-harvested plants for food or medicine is still an integral part of life and very much alive,” he added.

“Secondly, while some of the listed plants, e.g., red raspberry or sea buckthorn, are well known food plants, there are several other species of which I have never heard before, and for which data on composition may be scarce. This also shows that many plant species are still under-investigated and that there is much more to uncover with regard to the composition and health benefits of plants,” Gafner concluded.

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