One of my favourite phytochemistry groups when I was studying naturopathy were the coumarins. I find it enchanting when the presence of a plant chemical can be guessed at from the taste, smell or some other observable factor, such as the soapiness of plants containing saponins. Continue reading


Paleo proponents list ‘saponins’ in legumes as one of the reasons why we shouldn’t eat them. Wow! As a herbalist, saponins are one of my favourite herbal constituents. You can’t select one single action a plant-chemical possesses and then conclude that this one action sums up the entire purpose and existence of this plant chemical as a whole. Crazy stuff!

SaponinsĀ are part of many plant’s immune systems, protecting them from insects, predictors and fungal infections. I love the fact that the presence of saponins can often be identified without any lab equipment, simply by adding water and agitating: if soapy bubbles appear, you have saponins! We used to have a wattle tree outside containing saponins and in the wet season our pavers would get a fantastic wash-down from the combination of rain with fallen saponin-containing leaves. Continue reading

Natural in-context pesticides

Some of the natural chemicals/compounds in plants were developed to deter predators and attract helpers. It’s so, so cool, how some of the deterrent chemicals that are present in plants in very small quantities (because they are more concerned with scaring off bugs), become magically therapeutic for us.

Imagine a plant responding to a plague of insect predators during a period of time. It would increase it’s ‘pesticides’. It would be equally cool if there were a symbiotic relationship between human and plant unfolding at the same point in time.

The plant can protect itself from extinction by making itself useful to us as a food crop, or by associating in some way with humans… by encouraging us to keep coming back. Plants want seeds spread after all…. and they will lure foragers to support them. Foragers are different from predators; they don’t wipe out entire crops and they tend to give something back, staying more in balance with the ecosystem as a whole. Continue reading


Prediction: Dieticians in the future will be more like the modern day herbalists are now/ When you only look at vitamins, minerals, EFA’s, sugars, calories and proteins, you are missing out on a much more holistic awareness of plant food and it’s dynamism. But there is so much more to the biochemistry of a plant than these very basic building blocks and even these aren’y very well understood because we so often insist on studying their effects in isolation from other nutrients and plant chemicals.

Plant chemicals are generally only discussed by herbalists, or scientists keen to come up with the next useful drug or chemical. You don’t hear much about the application of these biochemicals in healthy nutrition beyond the rather over-used word ‘antioxidants’. Yes, plant chemical protect us from ageing and cancer, but science is only just beginning to scratch the surface.

We have so much to learn, not just about the role of plant biochemistry in healthy nutrition, but about the importance of studying the effects of food on the body and mind, and doing it in a holistic manner. A plant can contain a chemical that causes diarrhoea if that chemical is isolated and concentrated (i.e. turned into a drug/supplement), but while it’s inside the plant alongside a broad range of other plant chemicals, it doesn’t have this action at all.

It’s a bit like someone asking me what colour their aura is, as though an aura is only one colour. We, like plants, are a bit more sophisticated than that. There is no one ingredient or colour that sums up the totality of a person or a plant food.

A plant food is like community. Every plant chemical is a member of that community and the community as a whole is shaped by all of it’s parts, not one person (nutrient) in isolation.

But you wouldn’t know it- you could be forgiven for thinking the sum total of an apple was the fact that it’s a carbohydrate, never knowing that it contains an extremely long list of proteins, fat, and fibres, not to mention a vast array of biochemicals. Last time I checked there were over 50 named chemicals in apples, and they are just the ones we are identified so far and consider ‘bio-active’.

Worshiping a single nutrient in isolation from a whole food is like finding something out about your new friend and thinking that one fact or aspect of their identity sums them up completely as a person. And researching an isolated, concentrated nutrient (e.g. iron) out of context from the whole food is has come from, is like trying to understand a person by separating them from their relationships and environment and putting them in a cage so you can study them properly.