If you have been reading The Genomic Kitchen Notebook,  you know I have been talking a lot about the power of bioactives and their ability to influence how your genes behave. Bioactives can initiate the process by which we turn genes on and off. Bioactives are an important part of the biochemical conversation impacting health processes such as maintain smooth blood sugars, accessing fat for energy,  or turning off cell growth and division, which left unchecked can promote cancer. To learn more about some of the ingredients we include in the Genomic Kitchen Ingredient Toolbox and how they work, download our QuickStart Guide to get a head start on learning about ingredients you can start eating to talk to your genes. 

But perhaps what you really want to know is: how can I get started right now? What can I do today to start my own food-gene conversation on my plate?   I’m going to keep it really simple and use a basic salad to show you how a few nips and tucks take a salad from a no food-gene convo, to a robust one that super chatty for your genes. Let’s get started. 

Many salads use lettuce as the foundation ingredient. While it is true that some lettuces are richer sources of nutrients and antioxidants than others (think red oak leaf lettuce versus Iceberg), the simple fact of the matter is that lettuce does not talk to your genes. So let’s build a salad that does.

A Bioactive Food-Gene Talking Salad

1.    Ditch the lettuce and use a mix of arugula and/or watercress. Both are crucifers and a source of the bioactive sulforaphane once you start chewing them. Sulforaphane talks to our Master Gene NrF2. Read more about this gene here. 

2.    Can’t find arugula or watercress, or don’t like the taste by themselves? Find a pre-packaged salad mix that contains arugula, baby kale or mizuna in the mix. You can also take a few leaves from a bunch of fresh kale and finely slice (chiffonade) them if you want to create a salad using kale as the base. Want more crunch in your salad? Ditch the leafy mixes and use a prepackaged mix of cabbage, carrots and other ingredients. Or slice and grate your own. 

3.    Another option for a leafy salad is baby bok choy. Slice off the leaves to form the foundation of the salad. For crunch, you can throw in finely sliced bok choy stem. To bolster the bok choy salad base, mix in some spinach leaves or other leafy salad mixes. 


4.    To power up the food-gene convo a little more in your salad, toss in some finely sliced breakfast radishes (the red ones). On that note, any radishes will do, so you can peel and finely slice a chunk of Daikon radish, a watermelon radish or a spicy black radish to change things up. Radishes deliver food-gene double talk. They are a source two bioactives,  sulforaphane and quercetin. Both bioactives activate the NrF2 gene which we’ve been talking about.  Here’s a food-gene chat tip: the leaves of radishes contain a much higher concentration of quercetin than the root, so whenever possible buy radishes with leaves on, wash them well and then slice and include in your salad. Easy and no extra money spent to boost your food-gene conversation!

5.    Now that you have secured a conversation with your genes through the base ingredients, power up the rest of your salad with other sliced or grated vegetables such as cucumbers, grated carrots or even grated beets. Throw in some sprouts if available and then always a tablespoon of fresh herbs. Think basil, dill, mint or thyme for some nice flavor. 

Dressing Up Your Food-Gene Chatty Salad

Now you know how to power up your salad with basic ingredients, what can you about the dressing, since no salad is complete without it!  And yes, the dressing can be a part of the food-gene convo too. Here's how. Use Olive oil and fresh herbs as staples in your vinaigrette. Both are a treasure trove of bioactives and it is no surprise that these are staples in many parts of the Mediterranean, a region long associated with health and longevity. I'm not saying don’t experiment with different styles of vinaigrettes. Please do. I am saying: make olive oil and herb dressings a staple in your cuisine  Here’s my base vinaigrette. Put all ingredients in a bowl and whisk together, or put in a screw-top jar and shake until combined. 

2 tablespoons red wine or other vinegar such as sherry ( you can also substitute fresh lemon juice)
2 shallots, minced (or part of a small red onion if no shallots)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon of fresh Dijon mustard
⅓ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons of fresh herbs, minced (thyme, parsley, dill, oregano whatever)

If you want to punch more bioactives into the dressing, add 1/2 teaspoon of capers (or more). Capers, like radishes and their leaves, are a potent source of quercetin. A dash of hot red chili peppers or a pinch of cayenne adds the bioactive capsaicin to your plate. Research has shown that capsaicin can alter the expression of genes that otherwise promote cancer cell growth and survival. 

One FinalTip

Tip for making a salad dressing

All vinaigrettes or dressings have some form of acid, be it vinegar or a citrus juice. Acid and bioactives are not the best of friends when they come together. Acid can slowly reduce the potency of those bioactives, perhaps garbling the food-gene convo.

 To keep the food-gene conversation crystal clear, add your dressing as close as possible to the time you eat your salad. And if you must dress your salad ahead of time, throw in a handful of radish or a quick flourish of fresh herbs right before eating. This way those bioactives are back and in their chatty form! 

Finally, if you are looking for more ideas to get the food-gene convo started, check out our blog: Thirteen Ways to Work Raw Crucifers Into Your Food World