The Dreams of National Kale Day
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
This sidebar is a supplement to The Vegetable Detective, Take Two
Dr. Drew Ramsey, one of the founders of National Kale Day, which celebrates its third year on October 7, has watched the media attention to Ernie Hubbard’s findings with some amusement. To him, the whole idea of a nation eating kale in dangerous excess is absurd. Even today, after all of kale’s trendiness, “The average American eats 2 to 3 cups of kale a year!” Ramsey says. “Most Americans have never eaten kale.”
For his own part, Ramsey says that he recently ate kale every day for four months—in smoothies, in daily salads—“and the main side effects were more energy, lots of creativity…” Assuming that Ramsey’s self-diagnosis is accurate, this speaks to a major conundrum when it comes to special diets: each individual is different, born and armed with different genetic strengths and weaknesses regarding their ability to tolerate, or make use of, any given food. (As further proof, Hunter Pence, the energetic star of the World-Series-winning San Francisco Giants, is a huge advocate for kale, and the paleo diet. By all indications, he is not suffering.)
Ramsey also doesn’t understand why Hubbard picked on kale. “Why aren’t we talking about canola oil, or sweet potatoes, or soy beans?,” he asks. “They all accumulate thallium.” Therein lies a second dietary conundrum: How does a planet increasingly crowded with industrial refuse grow clean, nutritious food?
Look at the foods Ramsey mentioned. Most are considered highly nutritious, and they get this reputation for an interesting reason. In comparison with other crops, all of these plants are uncommonly good at drawing nutrients from water, sunlight and, in particular, from soil. In fact, one of the reasons that Ramsey is such a believer in kale is because of “its ability to concentrate nutrients.” Unfortunately, this also means that kale and its nutrient-gathering cousins will accumulate the good with the bad. Zinc and iron, for example, are “nutritious” when consumed in moderate amounts, but “toxic” when consumed in excess. Then again, news articles published in The New York Times and elsewhere in recent months have indicated that most modern food crops have become so bred for quantity, size, and sugar content, that they’ve lost much of the nutrition they would otherwise contain. That’s what makes Hubbard’s findings of heavy metal excesses so curious, and potentially so worrisome.
In kale’s defense, Joshua Nachman, a nutritionist with Johns Hopkins University, believes that most people can enjoy the best of both worlds by simply eating cruciferous vegetables in moderation. For example, if people were to eat kale, say, once or twice a week, they are likely to enjoy many of its nutritious benefits without suffering from thallium’s toxicity. (If you’re still nervous, eating foods high in potassium—like bananas—should provide auxiliary supplies of potassium to outfox thallium’s cloak-and-dagger game with this nutrient.)
But none of this thallium stuff worries Ramsey, a psychiatrist who specializes in nutrition and brain health. For him, Hubbard’s findings are too “unsubstantiated and uncontrolled” to be worth any major dietary changes. If such foods pose any danger, he says, it’s when people seize on one of them as the answer, thereby cheating themselves of the food system’s other vital nutrients. As long as a person is eating a varied diet, he says, “There is no harm in eating cabbage or a kale salad every night.” As proof, Ramsey says that for every report we’ve received of people who feel kale is making them sick (and we’ve gotten more than a few by now), “I’ve got many hundreds of examples of people who feel like they have more energy, are more alert, and just feel better.”
Even the risks of any excess in his campaign’s message about don’t worry Ramsey. A main goal of National Kale Day is to enlist schools to start serving the vegetable. And this year, the campaign managed to enlist the Los Angeles Unified School District, which brings the number of schools signing on for kale to 2,500. One of the first school systems to do this was New York City schools, which took up the kale bandwagon soon after Ramsey’s campaign began. Today, he said, “New York City schools serve kale about five times a year.”
But public perception of kale is clearly evolving. Two days after this year’s National Kale Day, Ernie Hubbard takes the stage, for a segment on the Dr. Oz Show on Friday, October 9. Stay tuned.