...but probably aren't.
Unlike much of the produce we consume, weeds have a much lower carbon footprint. “They have zero food miles—the distance foods are transported from their inception to the time they reach the consumer—and they grow without the need of fertilizers,” says Keely Gerhold, co-founder of Tinyfield Roofhop Farm in Brooklyn.
It's their evolutionary resiliency that's made them so healthy. “Unlike cultivated agricultural plants, wild edibles have to survive entirely on their own, developing defense mechanisms that make them robust enough to endure harsh conditions," explains Kristen Rasmussen Vasquez, RDN, a culinary nutrition educator based in San Francisco. "In fact, some of the very characteristics that make these plants prolific as 'weeds' are why they are nutrient-dense and flavorful.” Phytonutrients (bioactive compounds that protect plants from germs, fungi and other potential threats) may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. These valuable compounds also give weeds their bitter tinge of flavor, which can be minimized via cooking methods like blanching or seasoning, or 'diluting' them in a mélange of mixed greens.
Here are some of our favorites:
The scourge of lawns is entirely edible, including flowers, stems and leaves and is an excellent source of potassium (218 mg per cup of dandelion leaves compared to 167 mg per cup for spinach). “Dandelion greens are not only packed with vitamins A and K, and fiber, but they are full of detoxifying and cleansing properties,” says Mikaela Reuben, a Vancouver-based health consultant. The leaves are typically blanched to remove the slightly bitter palette while the leaves and buds can be eaten raw. Mixed with citrus, the flower petals are used to make dandelion wine and ground, roasted roots can be used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute. Try Ruben's dandelion salad: blanche leaves, then sautée with Swiss chard and baby spinach in lemon juice; toss with warm garlic oil, tahini dressing and top with sesame seeds.
More common in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Mexico, purslane is a great source of omega-3s owing to its unctuous leaves. “It’s easy to chop up and throw in a salad, and it has a very earthy, lemony taste,” says Gerhold. Its high level of pectin makes it a great thickener for soups and stews, and it’s an ideal spinach substitute because of its similarity in taste and texture.
Lambsquarters are a true nutritional powerhouse, high in vitamins A and C, plus calcium and magnesium. Eat these mild leaves fresh in a salad or blend up for a protein packed smoothie.
Like its weedy cousins, sorrel (of which there are about 100 varieties) contains a bevy of vitamins and nutrients, including vitamins A and B9. It's also a necessary component of the classic French dish Salmon and Sorrel Troisgros.