Fiddlehead research springs ahead
Innovation in nutritional research leads to healthy discoveries about a food favourite of several parts of Canada
Fiddlehead greens, the young tightly curled fronds of the indigenous wild ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris), are a delectable spring vegetable and rite of the season. Fiddleheads as a food source have been well known to Canada's First-Nations for many years. Primarily found in Maritime Canada, they are also native to parts of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
Research being done by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientist Dr. John DeLong and his colleagues is now proving that fiddleheads are not only delicious but also have many health benefits.
Working from his laboratory at the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, Nova Scotia, Dr. DeLong has been studying the nutritional composition of fiddleheads for a number of years. In addition to being a good source of dietary fibre and being low in sodium, fiddleheads contain vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium, phosphorous, iron, and magnesium. Interestingly, the brilliant green fiddleheads also contain significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Although he regularly enjoys fiddleheads in meals (and won't disclose where his favourite local stashes of ostrich ferns are located), Dr. DeLong stresses that fiddleheads must never be eaten raw, due to the potential for harmful microflora and fauna to be caught and held in the vegetable's tightly curled fronds.
"They need to be well washed and fully cooked." He also notes it is important to harvest them at the right stage, i.e. before the tightly curled fronds begin to unfurl - which is before they are 10-12 centimeters high. If they are too mature, they will have a bitter, unpleasant taste.
The fresh fiddlehead industry in Maritime Canada is traditionally a short-lived one of about a month's duration, following which consumers must rely on commercially frozen or even home-preserved fiddleheads if they want to continue to enjoy this unique vegetable.
While the current demand for fiddleheads is adequately supplied by wild harvesting, further interest in the plant for its nutritional qualities may well lead to opportunities for agricultural producers to take an innovative step forward into raising this unique crop.
Dr. DeLong is also currently working with a colleague at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, investigating the inclusion of the plant as a nutrient additive that could be used in livestock and poultry feeds, for example to produce omega-3 rich eggs and pork.
"If we were able to use a fiddlehead meal as an additive," Dr. DeLong says,
"it may be a useful source of an important new dietary ingredient."
What does the future hold for Dr. DeLong's research with fiddleheads? He is curious about what cooking does to the beneficial compounds fiddleheads contain, and whether how they are cooked - by steaming or boiling - will affect nutrient levels. Stay tuned!
For more information please contact:
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada