Where Do Our Fruits and Vegetables Come From?
Where do our fruits and vegetables come from? NOT from the supermarket. That is just where most of them are sold. Not from large commercial farms. Not from local farms. Not from our own household gardens. No? That is where they are planted, tended, and harvested. But where did they come from? The fruits and vegetables themselves came from the wild plants that grow in widely scattered areas around the globe. Some of their distant cousins we find in our lawns, and are trying to eradicate as weeds.
Most of our blueberries are descended from wild “swamp blueberries” that are native to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The wild ancestor of the beefsteak slicing tomato on our BLT is a berry-sized fruit that grows on the flanks of the Andes Mountains. Our lengthy, sweet orange carrots are related to skimpy purple roots that grow in Afghanistan. When our distant ancestors began “farming” ten thousand or so years ago, they began altering these and other wild plants to make them more productive, easier to grow and harvest, and more enjoyable to eat. As of 2016, several hundred generations of farmers, and tens of thousands of plant breeders have played a role in re-designing native plants. Our food history is of selection of characteristics that please us better, and de-selecting characteristics that are less than convenient to fall by the wayside. All these characteristics, those we like, those not so much, have always been written in the genes of the organism. The combined changes from our selections are not are new at all.
Buying any bananas at the grocery store this week to top off your morning cereal? The wild ancestor of the banana grows in Malaysia and parts of Southeast Asia in a wild range of shapes, colors and sizes. Full of large, hard seeds and tough skins covering flesh that certainly doesn’t enhance the flavor of my breakfast flakes. Over several thousand years we have bred this hardly edible fruit into the Cavendish banana. In this bright yellow, sumptuous, fragile and tender fruit in the produce isle you need to concentrate to even see the non-reproductive seeds. Generation after generation we have reshaped native plants and made them our own. The “latest pair of designer genes” to suit our pursuit of sweet and easy.
Without intention, as we developed tastier fruits and vegetables, we often have deselected the nutrients we now know to be essential for optimum health. Compared to the wild cousins, many of our man-selected (some would say man-made) varieties are measurably lower in in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty-acids. Take purslane (Portulaca), it has six times more vitamin E than spinach and four times more omega-3 fatty acids than spinach. It has seven times more beta-carotene than carrots and is loaded with anti-depressants. And we kill it with herbicide when it shows up in our gardens because we view it as a weed. Although, under the micro-greens section of our favorite seed catalog, we can buy the seed, plant it, grow it, and enjoy the succulent, somewhat nutty flavor in our mixed green salad, along side our chicken or steak and feel like we got the best of the situation.
We as humans go for the candy, candy, candy. It’s hardwired into our brains. Most native plants are higher in protein and fiber, but lower in sugar than the ones we’ve selected to keep reproducing in our gardens. The ancestor of our modern corn is a grass plant called Teosinte – from central Mexico. Kernels with about thirty percent protein and two percent sugar. Looks like a tiny guitar pick. Tastes like one too. Old fashioned corn is four percent protein, about 10 percent sugar. Some of the newest varieties of the super-sweet corn are almost forty percent sugar. Hit’s the blood sugar like a candy bar or cake donut. Today’s health experts tell us that the most healthful diet is high in fiber and low in sugar and “fast carbs” (easily digested), as a low-glycemic diet keeps blood glucose at optimum levels. A low glycemic diet has been linked to a multitude of decreased risk of health issues, including cancer, heart disease, chronic inflammation, obesity and diabetes. All diet-related health issues. Wild fruits and vegetables are the original low glycemic foods.
Plants can’t fight their enemies by running away, so their protection is inbred with a host of chemical compounds that protect them from depredation from predators: insects, disease, damaging UV light, bad weather and nibbling critters. More than 8,000 different phytonutrients have been identified so far, and each plant produces several hundred of them. Many act as antioxidants – combatants against free radicals that cause so much damage bouncing around in our systems unchecked. Others act as critical messengers between our cells, and other alter our cells boosting all kinds of performance results. New research is just beginning to determine the extent of these benefits. Many of these benefits are isolated from the wild =-plant origins and marketed back to us in the form of supplements. As many of us try to “eat healthy”, by eating more fruits and vegetables, we need to remember that all things are not created equal. The difference is in the variety, and heirlooms are not necessarily more nutritious. Which fruits and vegetables will be the healthiest? We can choose those select varieties of fruits and vegetables that have retained much of the nutritional content of their wild ancestors. In addition to phytonutrients, our modern produce has a wide range of other nutrients, including fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and sugar. A baked russet potato can boost your blood sugar as much as eating two slices of white bread. Conversely, some heirloom and hybrid varieties can help stabilize your blood sugar – or even lower it. Depending on how you store, prepare, and cook your fruits and vegetables. And on, and on. Modern researchers have discovered hundreds of new ways to retain bionutrients in our fresh produce and make them more bio-available.
It is possible to find many highly nutritious varieties of fruits and vegetables in the grocery store. However, when you buy directly from the farmer, or consumer supported agriculture operation (CSA), you get to enjoy fresh picked flavor as well as added health benefits.
Hippocrates’s famous saying “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be they food” can be more than inspirational words, it can be a daily reality.
For more information regarding fruit and vegetable nutrients and origins take a look at
Mineral nutrition of plants: a short history of plant physiology. Pennazio S(1). Institute of Plant Virology of CNR, Strada delle Cacce, 73, 10035 Turin, Italy. . 1. Riv Biol. 2005 May-Aug;98(2):215-36.
Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.