An Interview with Jessica Kotlowitz – The Green Dietitian
November 8, 2023
Jessica Kotlowitz is a Registered Dietitian and holds a MSc. Nutrition degree who is passionate about plant-based nutrition. The Indigenous Cookbook is the 2nd mini recipe e-book in collaboration with Nadia Mulder R.D. BSc. where the Green Dietitian explores the abundant and healthful world of African plant-based foods. We sat down with Jessica Kotlowitz to talk about the book.
heir recent work in creating vegan menus for IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) in rural Africa, took them on a journey of discovering the indigenous foods and cultural cuisines of the very land they had been born on, and yet knew very little about. They soon developed a love for African cultural foods and a passion for spreading awareness about the nutritional, environmental and socio-economic benefits of embracing traditional African cuisine
You only became vegan some time after earning your degree in 2012. What was the moment of realisation that made you transition to a plant-based diet?
I was already struggling with some health issues and as a qualified dietitian I thought I was eating well, yet still struggling with some chronic conditions. My diet didn’t seem to be working, so I heard about the plant-based concept. It made sense to me, and as I loved eating those foods it didn’t seem like a compromise. As I slowly adapted towards eating fewer animal products my energy increased and my health issues faded. Over the course of a few months I became fully vegan.
What is the difference between going to a plant-based dietitian compared to a regular dietitian?
Most of the people who come to me do so due to the fact that I went vegan at a time when there weren’t really any vegan dietitians in South Africa. One key difference is that I would educate them on how to get all their key nutrients on a plant-based diet. Sometimes however I do see people who follow a diet containing animal products and would give them more ordinary advice, while still encouraging them to eat more plant-based foods. Sometimes there are specific health conditions that people would like to address.
In a recent survey the Physicians Association of Nutrition in South Africa found that medical and dietetic students in our country tend to receive little or even no instruction on the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. What do you think of this and what would be an appropriate amount of plant-based education in a university-level curriculum?
When it comes to medicine there is very little space in their curriculum for anything else but medicine itself. Plant-based nutrition is a niche. The plant-based community in South Africa is small, and dietitians exist so that they can be a referral point from doctors who are not specialised in this area. When it comes to dietitians specifically there is a lack of training on the plant-based perspective, even though it’s becoming more popular. We should also think about environmental health and sustainability when advocating for plant-based lifestyles and I’m hoping that universities will start to catch on.
In the same survey it was found that social media is by a significant degree the main source of information on plant-based nutrition for these students. While social media can be a pathway to good information, there’s sometimes also misinformation. What are some of the more reliable sources you’d like to steer people to?
There are a few that I would recommend. PubMed by the National Institutes of Health for academic articles. Nutrition Facts by Dr. Greger and the British Dietetics Association have good resources. There’s still a tendency among some health professionals to spread misinformation and that’s mainly due to a lack of education.
You’ve released this Southern African Indigenous Cookbook filled with traditional African cuisines that you yourself tried and tested. What was your inspiration behind this project?
We were contacted by the Akashinga conservation organisation in Southern Africa, who trains community members to be anti-poaching rangers. They have sites in various rural areas such as Zimbabwe and as they don’t promote eating animals they feed their rangers a vegan diet. In 2017 they contacted me to develop a menu for their rangers to meet their nutritional needs. Due to their geographical location they had very little access to commercial foods and we needed to rely on indigenous ingredients that were available and culturally familiar to them. Meat is an expensive commodity in rural Africa and we tried to figure out what they would eat traditionally. In 2022 they contact me again to revise their menus with new recipes and in 2023 they opened a new site in Mozambique where they needed more input from us. During that whole process we’ve been having to learn about indigenous foods, creating recipes, and we’ve fallen in love with the cuisine. In South Africa, when we think about plant-based we might default to Italian, Indian or some Spanish recipes, but it strikes me now how little knowledge there is about indigenous cooking.
How did you source your recipes and did you seek any special instructions on how to cook them?
While we did ask the rangers about what they were currently eating, we didn’t get any formal recipes, just an idea. Google was helpful but our real asset was our Zimbabwean associate Mary who has been working with me since 2021 whom we turned to for advice and approval on food combinations. The problem is that traditional African recipes are passed down orally and usually not codified, so we had to experiment with ingredients and quantities until we were satisfied.
Do people need any specialised cooking skills to follow along with this book? Or are there any particular challenges to cooking different kinds of African cuisines?
Based on our experience the largest challenge was sourcing the indigenous ingredients. These are not commercial crops and not available in supermarkets. While many of them grow wild, in urbanised areas you won’t necessarily find them, and so we had to go to informal traders. While many of the ingredients are replaceable with more common ingredients, we feel that people should at least be educated on what African foods likes and tastes like.
It may come as a surprise to some that there are so many traditional African recipes that are in fact plant-based. What are some of the more interesting things you learned about African food culture while writing this book?
Nutritionally speaking we learned a lot in terms of figuring out how to meet needs without supplements. We discovered how calcium needs could be met through greens and how canola oil supplied omega 3s, for example, and in a way an African diet rather easily provides the essential nutrients. Some of the ingredients actually blew me away in terms of how nutritious they are. In our research we found that in Tanzania they have been making meat alternatives for hundreds of years, so in that context veganism is not a western idea.
What are some of the health benefits of eating indigenous cuisines?
Due to the nutritional properties we found that these recipes tend to be high in antioxidants and phytonutrients, making them cancer-fighting foods. When you look at what you can get at supermarkets there are actually few varieties, but with indigenous foods people can really increase their dietary diversity.
Local and indigenous foods are more sustainable environmentally since they are well adapted to the area in which they are grown and farm-to-table you don’t have the same carbon footprint that you would have for other ingredients that have to be transported over great distances. What kind of impact do we make by going indigenous?
Even when you think about consumer goods logistics in retail, you are cutting down immensely on carbon footprint, bite by bite. Indigenous plants are also more resistant to drought and pests, minimising the need for both water and chemical fertilisers. Buying locally also means supporting your immediate economy through small-scale and subsistence farmers.
Ingenious foods also have the potential to reduce food and nutrition insecurity. What is the role of eating indigenous in helping create a more equitable food system?
It’s mostly about accessibility and affordability. Costs can be high at supermarkets, but we also have to consider that some of these foods grow wildly. If you have some seeds and a little land then you can grow your own food. Wealth is unequally distributed and we need to do something about that from a nutritional perspective.
Home gardens are one way to improve one’s nutritional independence and security. During the course of testing these recipes did you grow any of the ingredients yourself? And how can people who want to make such a garden get started?
I actually did try my hand at growing some of these ingredients, with seeds supplied from Seeds for Africa. My first attempts failed though I do plan to try again. They’re actually easy crops to grow and are mostly perennials that don’t need to be replanted. Anyone can do it.
The annual global loss of plant-biodiversity is troubling, which is driven by deforestation, urbanisation and other human activity. Africa hosts 9 of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), over 3,100 plants in Africa are at risk of extinction. How does planting indigenous crops help protect against the loss of biodiversity?
The best thing is to simply make an effort to keep these in our ecosystem. These crops are not being commercially grown and are therefore less available. If we continue on this path then, eventually, we will lose them. We need to take back the power to grow our own foods, and many of these plants will seed wildly through natural processes once you have them in your garden.
Are there future plans to expand on your indigenous recipes or other books?
While we don’t have immediate plans for the next publication we would like to get a hard copy published. That being said, we have other themes in mind for future cookbooks. We would also like to complete a database with plant-based nutritional information for South Africans, since what we see online mainly caters to the foreign market. However we already have some resources at Vegan Nutrition.
Get your copy of the Green Dietitian’s Indigenous Cookbook here.