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This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
Last week in “Three Foods Ordained by God,” I introduced the three foods God ordained for the use of His children during their mortal sojourns here on earth. In D&C 89, the Lord explains that He set apart these three foods for distinct purposes:
- Wholesome herbs (plant foods) and fruit are ordained for our “constitution, nature, and use.” (D&C 89:10–11)
- Animal flesh is ordained for our “use.” (D&C 89:12–13)
- Grain is ordained for our use as “the staff of life.” (D&C 89:14–17)
In today’s article, I explore the first of these three foods: wholesome herbs. As I do, it is important to remember that the Word of Wisdom does not “over-explain” its message. Church leaders have given us some important clarifications on a few prohibitions, but like other gospel principles, most of Section 89 is left up to us to choose how to apply the counsel. Through study and prayer, these scriptures can open up to us, but like parables, their meaning may be different for each of us, and it may change or deepen over time. Accordingly, my focus here is on analyzing the words used by the Lord as He describes the foods He ordained for our use.
Herbs and Fruit
In D&C 89:10–11 the Lord describes the first of the three foods He ordained for our use:
10 And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—
11 Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
We typically think of herbs as plants with specific culinary or medicinal purposes, but the footnote to verse 10 states that the word herbs means simply plants. According to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, herbs are:
that part of a vegetable [plant] which springs from the root and is terminated by the fructification, including the stem or stalk, the leaves, the fulcra or props, and the hibernacle.
The word herb comprehends all the grasses, and numerous plants used for culinary purposes.
Note that the 1828 Webster’s defines vegetable broadly as “a plant.” In other words, the word herb encompasses the variety of plants used for food, including the various grasses (wheat, oats, rice, etc.). The first use of the word herb goes back to the admonition God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden:
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. (Genesis 1:29)
The Hebrew word for herb in this verse in Genesis is ê·śeb, meaning plants. In fact, many Bible translators use the word plants in their translation of this verse:
Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.” (New American Standard Bible, 1997)
Likewise, the word fruit suggests a broader meaning than we typically use. The 1828 Webster’s defines fruit generally as “whatever the earth produces for the nourishment of animals,” including “all cultivated plants,” and more narrowly as—
the produce of a tree or other plant; the last production for the propagation or multiplication of its kind; the seed of plants, or the part that contains the seeds; as wheat, rye, oats, apples, quinces, pears, cherries, acorns, melons, [etc.].
The Lord specifies “every herb” and “every fruit.” We might think of the fruit as the fleshy product of the plants, which typically contains seeds. The herbs would be the rest of the edible vegetation.
Between these two categories, are all the plant foods available to us today ordained of God? Would any not qualify? That is an interesting question for us each to consider.
Section 89 specifies that the Lord ordained “all wholesome herbs.” The word wholesome is defined in Webster’s as “tending to promote health; favoring health.” The Oxford English Dictionary uses a similar definition: “Promoting or conducive to physical health; health-giving or health-preserving.”
These definitions might suggest an answer to the question of whether all plant foods are ordained for our use. One limitation might be that these plant foods should be wholesome.
What are wholesome plants? We probably all have some confidence that certain plants are clearly wholesome. These might include, for example, whole, unprocessed produce like broccoli, cauliflower, apples, pears, pinto beans, peas, oats, and brown rice. Likewise, we probably have some idea of plants that are not wholesome for our use, such as tobacco, marijuana, and refined poppy seeds.
But I also imagine we do not all agree on whether or not certain other plants or plant foods promote health. What about refined sugar, white bread, or white rice? What about highly processed plant foods, like Oreo cookies, Pringles, Ritz Crackers, or Pop-Tarts? If the Lord ordained potatoes for our “constitution, nature, and use,” do Pringles also have His blessings?
Again, the Lord does not over-explain. We can think of the phrase wholesome herb like a parable. Each of us may come to a different conclusion, and that conclusion may very well change over time as we seek to hear the voice of the Lord communicate what these words of wisdom could mean to us.
Constitution, Nature, and Use
Each of the three foods the Lord ordained for our use was given a specific role or function. In verse 10, the Lord tells us that He ordained “wholesome herbs . . . for the constitution, nature, and use of man.” Note the contrast with verse 12 where the Lord specifies that the flesh of animals is ordained for our “use” only, without mention of it being ordained either for our constitution or nature, as are plants.
Webster’s defines constitution as:
The state of being; that form of being or peculiar structure and connection of parts which makes or characterizes a system or body.
Nature is defined as:
The essence, essential qualities or attributes of a thing, which constitute it what it is.
The word use means:
The act of handling or employing in any manner, and for any purpose, but especially for a profitable purpose.
Verse 10 seems to suggest that wholesome plants were designed to be employed for something more than even a profitable purpose. We are told that God specifically ordained these foods to form the particular structure, the essential qualities, even the essence of our human bodies.
Interestingly, plants do form the very constitution or nature of our bodies as all the molecules, cells, proteins, and enzymes that make up our bodies ultimately do come from the plants of this earth. Even if we eat animal foods, the nutrients in the animals came from plants. Animals cannot of themselves create any of the nutrients required by the human body. Every carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamin, mineral, and phytochemical all come from the plants that the Lord created and designed for our constitution, nature, and use. Only plants are able to transform the power of the sun, the soil, water, and air to produce all the macro and micronutrients required not only by the human body but for all animal life as well.
What a sacred role plants were given to become the very tabernacles of God’s children! The power of the sun, the moon, and the stars, along with the energy of earth, water, air, and fire all come together in our bodies via plants.
In the Season Thereof
The Lord states that both herbs and fruit come “in the season thereof” (D&C 89:11). An important purpose for processing and refining food is so that the food will have a long shelf life for cost-efficiency and so we can eat them out of season. Processing can add months, even years to the shelf life of foods, but it does so at the expense of many of their shelf-unstable nutrients. Processed foods often include added fats, salts, and sugars, as well as preservatives that allow us to eat them well past “the season thereof.” Does this mean that if we consume processed foods we are necessarily eating plants past “the season thereof”? Does it matter?
Freshly harvested plants, picked at their peak, certainly have high nutrient density, which decreases with time and processing. Today we can purchase a wide variety of plant foods grown from all corners of the earth and shipped straight to our local grocery stores. Some of these foods are picked long before they are fully ripe so that they can survive the trip and the days sitting in the stores. If they are picked “in the season thereof” in their home country, does it matter if we consume them “out of season” where we live?
As Mormons, we have all learned the value of canning, freezing, and preserving whole ripe plants which are hopefully picked “in the season thereof.” This a prudent way to prepare for times of need, but does it mean we’ll be consuming these foods out of season? Is this less favorable?
Finally, fresh local produce is sometimes much more expensive than the imported, frozen, or canned produce. While fresh produce is more nutrient dense, these other options can also be full of health-promoting nutrients at a lower cost. We are asked to be wise with our money. How should we balance the prudent use of resources with choosing foods of the highest nutrient value?
Clearly, these verses raise some interesting questions that each of us can consider. These verses may also encourage us to study the counsel we’ve received from Church leaders to plant gardens, which enable us to grow our own food and harvest it “in the season thereof.”
Prudence and Thanksgiving
In Section 89 we are admonished to eat wholesome plants with “prudence and thanksgiving.” The 1828 Webster’s definition of prudence is “wisdom applied to practice.” Further, Webster’s explains:
Prudence implies caution in deliberating and consulting on the most suitable means to accomplish valuable purposes, and the exercise of sagacity in discerning and selecting them. Prudence differs from wisdom in this, that prudence implies more caution and reserve than wisdom, or is exercised more in foreseeing and avoiding evil, than in devising and executing that which is good.
To use wholesome plants with “prudence” implies exercising great judgment and wisdom in carefully deciding how to use that which the Lord has provided for our health. How might the word prudence help us decide the type of foods that should go into our body temples?
We are also told to use plant foods with “thanksgiving.” What a profound admonition. Of course, we should give thanks to God for everything we receive, but here we are reminded that He blessed us with an earth filled with diverse foods of seemingly endless variety, taste, smell, and texture. I love these verses in D&C 59 that indicate God’s delight in blessing us with the fullness of the earth:
Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man. (D&C 59:18–20)
Not only do the Lord’s foods keep us alive, they are designed to “please the eye and to gladden the heart.” How can we use these foods with thanksgiving to show our appreciation to our Father for these priceless gifts? How might using these foods with prudence help us to eat with even more thanksgiving?
Principle or Application?
As this article is part of a series on doctrines, principles, and applications, it is interesting to consider whether the Lord’s description of wholesome herbs is a gospel principle or an application. Is it an eternal, unchanging principle that plant foods are designed for the “constitution, nature, and use” of human bodies? Or is this an application of the broader principles of the Word of Wisdom?
Obviously these two verses in Section 89 provide a lot for us to ponder. I’ve raised just a few of the many questions we could ask about the meaning of these verses. I love that these are all questions we get to answer as individuals. The Lord and Church leaders have provided us with powerful doctrines and principles regarding the nature of our bodies and how to care for them. It is our privilege and blessing to study these words and seek the Lord’s guidance in how to apply them in our lives.
I believe the Lord is not indifferent to our health. While some illness is inevitable and many valuable lessons can be learned from pain and suffering, the Lord also needs the health and strength of servants who can do the work of the Kingdom in preparing for His coming. He does not promise us perfect health, but as we take care for our body temples, we are blessed physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. We can then use these blessings to serve the Lord and our brothers and sisters.
Let’s ponder the words of the Lord concerning the wholesome herbs and fruit He ordained for our constitution, nature, and use. Let’s do what we can to eat these foods with prudence. Then we will have many reasons to be filled with thanksgiving!
Next Time in Discovering the Word of Wisdom
Next up in this series, I’ll be examining the second type of food ordained of God: “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air” (D&C 89:12–13).
One healthy way of eating in harmony with the Word of Wisdom is a whole food, plant-based diet. For more information, see: “Getting Started.”
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”
 All dictionary definitions from Webster’s come from Webster’s Dictionary 1828 – Online Edition.
 For several different translations, see Genesis 1:29 in the Bible Hub Online Parallel Bible.
 Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford University Press, June 2014).
 There are only two essential nutrients not created by plants. Vitamin B12 is made by bacteria, and Vitamin D is created via skin exposure to sunlight.