Modern fruits and vegetables descended from wild plants identified by our ancestors as edible. The fruits and vegetables most commonly consumed today ― potatoes, sweet corn, head and Romaine lettuces, onions, apples, bananas, and tomatoes ― have little resemblance in appearance, taste, and nutritional value to the wild plants that grew, and continue to grow in some cases, all over the globe.
When farming came into being over ten thousand years ago, wild plants were bred to be tastier, easier to grow, and easier to harvest. With these changes came a change in the nutritional value and many of the evolved relatives we now enjoy are lower in phytonutrients, protein, fiber, and essential fatty acids while being higher in sugar content. Produce with optimum nutritional value can be found in supermarkets, farm markets, or home gardens if you know what varieties to choose or plant, and how to store and prepare them at home. Here are some tips for making the healthiest choices.
Lettuce varieties with the most phytonutrients are brightly colored red, purple, and reddish brown, followed by dark green. Colorful loose and open leaves have more bionutrients than tightly packed, pale head lettuce. To obtain the most from store bought lettuce, once home, pull off the leaves and soak them in very cool water for about ten minutes, dry with a towel or salad spinner and tear up the leaves to double their antioxidant value.
Modern day sweet corn is nowhere near as nutritious as its wild ancestor teosinate, a bushy grass plant with small sparsely kernelled cobs native to Mexico. Modern day sweet corn contains up to 40% sugar and is much lower in phytonutrients. When choosing sweet corn, look for the deepest yellow rather than white, for greater than 50% more beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. If you are lucky enough to find multi-colored Indian corn, it contains significant amounts of anthocyanins.
Like most other fruits and vegetables, tomatoes were bred to be more uniform in size, attractive, and plants more productive at the expense of their taste and nutrient content. Supermarket tomatoes are force ripened making them less sweet and more acidic than those allowed to ripen naturally. In fact, the most nutritious supermarket tomatoes are processed which makes the lycopene more available. On the vine or cluster tomatoes are also harvested early, but allowed to ripen a bit longer in the field, making them a bit more flavorful. Tomatoes with the darkest red color and small size will have the most lycopene per ounce, plus they are sweeter and more flavorful. At home, tomatoes should be stored outside of the refrigerator as refrigeration, because the refrigerator destroys the flavor and aroma. For maximum taste and nutritional value, store tomatoes in a cool place between 55-70 degrees.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” according to variations on an old Welsh saying. Domesticated apples have lower antioxidant activity. However, nutritious varieties are available especially if you shop in season at farm markets and choose brightly colored apples such as Gala, Honeycrisp, and Red Delicious – and if you eat the skin. Whenever possible, buy organic to limit your exposure to pesticides.
These are just a few highlights of how modern day produce differ from their ancestors. Searching heritage seed catalogs or the Internet, and inquiring at farmers markets can provide a sense of which varieties are more nutritious, how to purchase them, store them, and prepare them.
By Sarah E Harding Laidlaw, MS, RDN, MPA, CDE
Robinson J. Eating on the Wild Side. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company; 2013.
Seed Savers Exchange. Their mission is to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. http://www.seedsavers.org/
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Offers nearly 2,000 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs and supply free seeds to many of the world’s poorest countries, as well as here at home in school gardens and other educational projects. It is their goal to educate everyone about a better, safer food supply. http://www.rareseeds.com/
Seeds of Change was founded in 1989 with a revolutionary mission: to make organically grown seeds available to gardeners and farmers, while preserving rare heirloom and traditional seed varieties and promoting sustainable organic agricultural practices. Their website offers extensive information about organic farming and harvesting. https://www.seedsofchange.com/home.aspx