Comparing 6400 understudied wild plants with the better-known plants they are related to suggests that 1000 of them are rich in the B group of vitamins
24 February 2022
SAM K TRAN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Wild plants are an overlooked source of vitamins and minerals that could help combat malnutrition.
More than a thousand wild-growing edible plants have been identified that could supply five vitamins from the B group – thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) and folate (B9). A lack of B vitamins is a frequent cause of malnutrition.
For instance, more than four in 10 people in South and South-East Asia don’t get enough folate, one vitamin in the B group, and this can lead to babies being born with a condition called spina bifida. Lack of some of the other B vitamins can cause fatigue and weakness in muscles and nerves.
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Education campaigns about the benefits of consuming these plants could help reduce some of these health problems, says Aoife Cantwell-Jones at Imperial College London.
While many thousands of different plants are edible, people around the world get most of their plant-based calories from just three crops: rice, maize and wheat.
The vitamin and mineral content of most edible plants is unknown. Cantwell-Jones and her colleagues predicted the levels of the five B vitamins of about 6400 edible plants that grow in various countries, based on how closely each species is genetically related to other plants that have been nutritionally analysed. They checked that their prediction method worked using nearly 300 plants where the vitamin B content is known.
Using this method they identified 1044 species as good sources of this group of vitamins, although 6 per cent of them are classed as threatened in the wild and a quarter haven’t been preserved in seed banks. They include several species of grass, such as the Ethiopian oat (Avena abyssinica) and a wild species of durian (Durio kutejensis) from the island of Borneo, which is threatened by deforestation and expanding agriculture.
There can be several reasons why people don’t eat local edible plants growing wild, says Cantwell-Jones. “Education is really important in combating malnutrition, knowing that you need to eat a diverse diet and not just rely on staple crops,” she says. “Maybe people know that these plants exist in some local communities, but not at the national level.”
The same prediction method could be used to find out the levels of other vitamin and minerals in edible plants, says Cantwell-Jones.
Journal reference: Nature Plants, DOI: 10.1038/s41477-022-01100-6
Article amended on 25 February 2022
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