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IBSARESDUAmerican University of Beirut

Promoting Diet Diversity in Lebanon
Mallow, tumbleweed, salsify, and purslane—otherwise known in Arabic as khubbayzeh, akkoub, micheh, and farfahine respectively—are among a wide variety of wild edible plants that are no longer an integral part of the Lebanese diet - Main Gate, Fall 2005

Main Gate

Mallow, tumbleweed, salsify, and purslane—otherwise known in Arabic as khubbayzeh, akkoub, micheh, and farfahine respectively—are among a wide variety of wild edible plants that are no longer an integral part of the Lebanese diet.  Highly nutritious—most are good sources of fiber, antioxidants and minerals, in addition to possessing important medicinal qualities—and cheap as well as accessible, these are a few of the many plants that are the subject of a two-year project headed by Professor Malek Batal and funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).

Entitled “Wild Edible Plants: Promoting Dietary Diversity in Poor Communities of Lebanon,” the project aims to increase dietary diversity through the promotion of sustainable use of wild edible plants, with the hope that this will lead in time to an improvement in the health of people in those communities.

“I’ve always been interested in what makes people eat what they eat,” says Malek Batal, assistant professor at the Department of Nutrition and Food Science.  “I am also very interested in working to make people more aware of the link between diet and health.  The Lebanese diet can no longer be described as a Mediterranean diet, since it is moving away from the traditional ideal and has become less diversified and more homogenous, relying heavily on refined foods that are also high in fat and sugar.”

Recent studies conducted at AUB and by the World Health Organization indicate that urbanization is to blame for changing food consumption patterns in and for a diet that is now characterized by a marked decrease in traditional foods, fruit, vegetables, and fish and a much higher consumption of bread and refined grains.  At the same time, high-energy, low-nutrient foods that are cheap—i.e. “fast food”—and that are associated with an increase in overweight and obesity rates have become readily available.

Although, as Batal explains, there has not been sufficient research in on the issue, elsewhere in the world overweight and obesity rates have been linked to higher rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease.  Working with three rural communities in the Shouf Mountains, the eastern Beqa’a Valley, and in the region of Hermel, as well as in the urban community of Wata al-Msaitbeh in Beirut where the population has strong links to rural areas, researchers have conducted focus group interviews to determine the general knowledge of plants, the names of specific wild edible plants and their uses, traditional recipes in which the plants constitute key ingredients, and the known health benefits of those plants.

The research team analyzed the ten most common recipes identified through the interviews for nutrient content and potential health benefits.  One mouth-watering example is akkoub, a dish of rice and meat whose main ingredient has therapeutic and beneficial properties; it includes a healthy balance of the major food groups, is high in fiber and devoid of food preservatives and additives and, because it is cooked with olive oil, increases good cholesterol or HDL levels.

In a separate and larger survey, the team interviewed 800 individuals and questioned them about their general health—the presence or not of chronic diseases—as well as their dietary intake and the ability of the family to afford foods that are healthy as well as culturally acceptable.  In addition, the height and weight of the respondents were recorded and blood samples were taken to determine blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

“This data,” explains Batal, “will allow us to make the link, if there is any, between what people consume and the general status of their health, as well as the link between what they consume and several socio-economic and demographic variables, such as gender, age, whether they live in rural or urban areas, and their economic status.”  The researchers, who include academics from the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences and the Department of Economics, have also looked into ways of cultivating plants that are found in ’s rural areas to ensure long-term supplies once they are more widely used.  

“Since these plants are wild and there is a danger of depletion in the case of overuse, we’re also working on propagation of the plants in a farm setting,” explains Batal.  “We are encouraging farmers to grow them on the side, around their houses, for example, or on the edge of a field where other crops are planted.  Some plants, like akkoub for instance, which is harvested and exported to, might be in danger in the future if they are too heavily marketed.”

The project will also include development initiatives to create economic opportunities for women and young people in ’s poor communities, such as setting up community kitchens in partnership with the community through village or town municipalities and local interest groups.  Women have been trained to use and market wild edible plants, as well as in good manufacturing practices and in the “ins and outs” of running a small business.  The kitchens will be fully equipped and handed over to the community when the project is completed.  The communities will also be helped to set up cooperatives to market the edible plants.

Another development strategy undertaken at the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajni and the village of Koueikh in Hermel is called Matbakh as-Suhha (Healthy Kitchen).  A local nongovernmental organization and the AUB team are working together to train young people to recognize wild edible plants and their health benefits as well as to cook and consume them.  According to Batal, the group has already catered functions for the Ministry of Environment and hopes to generate more income, as well as promote wild edible plants in the future.

On another level, the Food Heritage Foundation at AUB, which is headed by Professor Shadi Hamadeh, is working on ways to promote the country’s food heritage—of which wild edible plants are an important part—and to preserve it.  This is an especially important component of the project, since knowledge of the nutritional value of wild edible plants is disappearing along with the experience of the older generation that once advocated their use.

On the policy level—and with a longer-term view in mind—the researchers are also looking into the role that local and national governments have played in promoting a less-diversified nutritional path for the population by, for example, keeping down the price of refined white bread or by not promoting bio-diversity in Lebanon’s agriculture.

For Batal, the project is about more than just “wild edible plants.”  It is important because it is a step in the right direction in terms of finding ways to improve the existing overall diet of the population.

“I think wild edible plants are only a vehicle for us to understand the importance of dietary diversity.  My focus has been to show how we can be better off with a diet that is less industrialized and closer to our natural environment.”

Professor encourages Lebanese to start eating wild plants
Aub project points to health benefits of consuming traditional diet - By Iman Azzi - Daily Star staff -

Daily Star

BEIRUT: It's time for the Lebanese to drop the fast food and take a hike for dinner, literally. A new project undertaken by the American University of Beirut has revealed that incorporating wild edible plants into your next meal will bring both cultural and health benefits. Dr. Malek Batal, professor of nutrition and food science at AUB, recently headed a team that investigated ways of re-incorporating near-extinct greens in a sustainable manner. "We don't want a stampede to regions that will eradicate the plants," Batal says. "But the Lebanese diet needs to be diversified, so we wanted to look at the traditional diet."

After giving two well-received on-campus lectures, Batal sat down with The Daily Star to explain the importance of promoting the consumption of wild edible plants, saying nearly 40 varieties were recorded during his two-year study. "The Lebanese take up an unhealthy lifestyle in general. They drive badly. They smoke heavily. They don't worry about what they're eating for nutritional reasons; some may watch what they eat for aesthetic purposes but not health," Batal explained, adding that the top three foods eaten in Lebanon are bread, rice and sugar.

Citing previous studies, Batal pointed out that one third of Lebanese women of child-bearing age have iron deficiency. Fourteen percent of Lebanese children are stunted. It is the obesity figures, however, that have Batal most worried.

"Lebanon is showing obesity levels similar to developing countries," he said. "In terms of obesity, we're not quite as advanced as the Americans, but there are more overweight people here than in America in terms of proportion of population." The next generation doesn't look much healthier. Another survey shows that 40.1 percent of boys and 40.7 percent of girls under 10 are overweight. "Chronic disease is our malaria," Batal said.

Overweight people have a higher chance of contracting a chronic disease. Sometimes it's not how much you eat, it's what you eat. Many Lebanese have moved away from their traditional diets and consume less fruits, vegetables and fish. "Food is more modern, more American. Just walk down Bliss Street and you'll see what AUB students are eating," Batal said. Bliss Street favorites include manakeesh stands, pastry shops, a McDonald's and a recently opened Dunkin' Donuts.

According to Batal, the loss of whole wheat bread in today's diet is a major problem. "The bread we eat, the bread manakeesh is made with, is made with white flour. White flour is processed to take the germs out but the germs contain the nutrients, magnesiums, fiber, iron and B vitamins."

Batal's presentation, entitled "Wild Edible Plants: Promoting dietary diversity in poor communities in Lebanon," is being published as a scientific study this June. He hopes to set up a Web site introducing these 36 wild edible plants to the public. For his study, 799 men and women aged 40-60 were interviewed from four regions of Lebanon. Batal's team is still conducting nearly 200 interviews with participants from greater Beirut, collecting city data that can be compared with the rural regions.

Three villages in the Chouf, Irsal in the Bekaa Valley and Hermel and a neighboring village called Khoueikh were chosen, as they are known to still use traditional eating methods. "It's a science that's being lost because people aren't taking time to learn from the elders," Batal says. It's not always about eating food for survival, collecting wild edible plants takes cultural knowledge and physical effort. "It's an occasion for the elders to share knowledge with the younger generation in the field and in the kitchen." For example Batal offers a purslane and yoghurt salad in place of coleslaw. "They're both creamy salads of a sort," he said, adding that the purslane has fewer calories and more protein. Other wild plants, like tumbleweed, were thought to be high in protein but it turns out it doesn't live up "to its reputation."

Batal said the AUB team is putting together a cook book to promote the use of edible wild plants among a broader audience. Purchasing the ingredients, however, might still require a trip to the village. "Very few are available in Beirut," Batal acknowledged. Most Lebanese living in Beirut come from outside the capital and Batal said they could find the ingredients on trips back to the village. The cook book, while providing recipes sampled in AUB kitchens, will also give instructions on where and how to locate your desired plant.

It's a far step from improving the health of the general population but it's a step in the right direction - a step into the woods.

الغذاء السليم في المطبخ التقليدي
ورشة عمل عن "التنوع البيولوجي كغذاء" - صحيفة النهار

Nahar Newspaper - صحيفة النهار


Nahar newspaper, 7 February 2006



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