Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
30 Nov

Dear Mark: Are Hybrid Fruits and Vegetables Healthy?

Dear Mark,

I was wanting to know if there is any danger in eating hybrid foods. I recently tried broccolini and then discovered that it was a hybrid between broccoli and Chinese kale. Is this dangerous to eat? Is it similar to GM? I would greatly appreciate your input on this before I start eating more of it.

Thanks, Angelina

Thanks, Angelina, for the question. It’s a good one, because even when we don’t explicitly seek out the obvious hybrids (broccolini, pluots, apriums, etc.), we’re still exposed to them. In case you didn’t know, hybrid fruits and vegetables are created by cross-pollinating two closely related species of the same genus or two cultivars or varieties within the same species. Though we’re talking about the artificial, man-enabled variety in today’s question, this phenomenon happens quite frequently in nature. Random hybridization is essentially how new species of plants arise – stretched out over time. Artificial hybridization operates on the same principle as natural hybridization, only with authorial intent.

So, does eating a pluot, a tangelo, a plate of broccolini, some seedless watermelon, a golden kiwifruit, or salad of hybrid cherry tomatoes mean we’re consuming an unholy bastard child that our ancestors wouldn’t have recognized as food? Of course not. These are legitimate, interesting varietals that taste good and offer beneficial dietary nutrients, just like their parents.

Technically speaking, all fruits and vegetables are hybrids. You go back far enough and it’s just pollen and seeds and wind and bees – one big swirling floral orgy – and every single plant we know today has ties to that epoch of love. Modern hybridized fruits and vegetables like broccolini and grapples come about in much the same way (cross-pollination), but with a little guiding intervention. And remember that many if not most “normal” fruits and vegetables we eat today are modern creations – the familiar yellow banana, boysenberries (a hybrid of raspberries and blackberries), grapefruit, meyer lemons, and numerous apple varieties (but more on this tomorrow). We’ve been cross-pollinating plants for centuries.

But wait: how similar are hybrid foods to GMOs? I mean, both represent forms of human intervention into nature for the purpose of improving it, right? We’re generally suspicious and skeptical of GMOs, so why do hybrids get a pass?

GMOs involve the combining of DNA molecules from disparate sources into a single molecule to form a new set of genes. The organism that receives this new DNA molecule gets modified, or new, genes, including ones that improve a plant’s hardiness, imbue it with powerful endogenous pesticides and/or herbicides, or lengthen its shelf life. Others increase the vitamin content and some increase the uptake of minerals from the soil. Whatever your opinion on GMOs, hybrids aren’t the same.

At first glance, I understand the hesitation, the instinctual drawing back. Mankind may be damn good at creating complex tools, inventing machines, erecting global communication networks, and generally manhandling anything the world can throw at us, but we seem to trip up when we try to circumvent nature. More specifically, our attempts to improve upon nature in the dietary realm have been downright disastrous. Industrial solvent-extracted seed oils, Crisco, HFCS, wheat fortified with extra gluten, acres and acres of soil-depleting monoculture crops, and (potentially troublesome) untested, unproven GMOs – our track record inspires little confidence.

But hybridization isn’t some monolith to be universally condemned. You have every right to be wary of it, but be smart about it. Hybridized wheat bred to have triple the gluten? Avoid it – but not because it’s a hybrid. Avoid it because it’s wheat with triple the gluten. It’s the gluten that’ll get you, not the fact that a human interfered in its conception. There’s no toxic byproduct created out of thin air by the act of hybridization. But broccolini, demon spawn of the deadly broccoli and toxic Chinese kale? C’mon. If a person is going to posit that broccolini is dangerous, they need to give a better reason than “It’s a hybrid.” Hybridization happens in nature. In and of itself, it’s a perfectly legitimate process. You need to identify specifics. What are the toxic elements being introduced or concentrated? Where are the nutritional deficits? You need to point to the “gluten of broccolini,” if it even exists.

If you accept the nutritional legitimacy of broccoli and Chinese kale (and you should – they’re great), you shouldn’t fear their love child (it was an arranged marriage, sure, but it worked out in the end) broccolini on dietary grounds. Lightly steam it, stir-fry it with a bit of butter or coconut oil, or add it, chopped, to a soup right before serving, and you’re in business. It’s full of potassium, folate, iron, soluble fiber, and vitamin C. You might run into talk online of a rat gene being spliced into broccolini to increase its vitamin C production, but it’s unsubstantiated, and the folks who originally made the claim have retracted and corrected it.

The same goes for the others. For example, pluots are fine if you tolerate apricots and plums. Sure, there’s a bit more (or a lot more, as the case may be) sugar, but that’s plainly evident once you taste one. The fructose content is not a hidden danger. It’s considered a feature by the producers. Just don’t eat a bag of them in a sitting, just as you wouldn’t eat a sack of donut holes.

Use common sense and avoid utter nonsense, like this supposed drawback to hybrid fruits and vegetables that I kept coming across online: that they’re missing “vital electrics.” Vital electrics. Yes. Those. I’m not entirely certain what electrics are, but the fact that they unerringly appear coupled with “vital” makes me think I need them. So, yeah – hybrid foods apparently lead to vital electrics deficiency. If you’ve ever eaten a hybrid vegetable, be sure to get your electrics tested. It’s absolutely vital that you do. Fruitarian guru David Wolfe seems to be the source of this vital electrics business, and he’s also of the opinion that a hybrid fruit is to be avoided because “it is confused.”

Hybrids aren’t a big deal either way. They’re just another type of vegetable, only cross-bred to maximize desired traits, like durability, yield, size, and taste. Eat them, or don’t, but don’t fret. You’ve got bigger things to be concerned with – the vegetable oil your food is cooked in, the wheat and sugar that worm their way into seemingly everything, the quality of your meat and fat, the overabundance of stress and scarcity of sleep, the strength of your social ties, the intensity of your workouts – so don’t worry whether broccolini is out to get you.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Gaahh! Broccolini is out to get me!! lol. Good post mark, not something I would have ever thought about so that was definitely a good question. Didn’t even know that those mini-tomatoes were ‘man made’ :)

    Mlkrone wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • I work at an agriculture store and as far as I know, every single vegetable grown for commercial purposes is a hybrid, even the organic ones. It simply makes no sense to use pure lines as they are always weaker, less productive or just less some feature.
      There is something in genetics called “vigor of hybrids” and its usually best seen in first generation hybrids: F1. You get 2 different really pure lines and you cross them, and even if you didn’t do it for any particular purpose, you’ll always get better vigor (they grow stronger, healthier and with better fertility rates than their ancestors). And they’re about as strange as any human in this earth: Apart from the aborigine I don’t know of many other human races that haven’t been hybridized sometime in the close past. Or say, cross a Siberian husky with a Pharaoh hound (2 ancient pure-line breeds). Will you say the puppies lack vital electrics???? LOLOL I’m betting one will regret ever imagining such a thing

      Ana wrote on December 15th, 2014
  2. Hybrid cars are alright too, right? ;-)

    Paleohund wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • I believe they contain Vital Electrics, so yeah. :P

      Stephen wrote on December 4th, 2011
  3. I guess I should be avoided – sometimes I am confused.
    Electrics are vital to my computer(s) but they don’t enjoy fruit very much.

    Peggy wrote on November 30th, 2010
  4. All plants contain toxins (natural pesticides) to ward off being eaten by animals or insects. The public is demanding less pesticides. Seed producers have responded by modifying the plants to contain more toxins so less pesticides can be used. The most infamous example is now wheat contains much more lectins than it used to.

    So how do we tell if the modification was made to make the plant more nutritious or to kill insects (and us?)

    Jake wrote on November 30th, 2010
  5. Kserge5534 wrote on November 30th, 2010
  6. Hybrid foods? I really missed something here, I’ve never heard of them or seen them before. Broccolini sounds interesting, gonna keep my eyes peeled.

    Steve wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • they’re awesome. they run on gas on the highway, but on vital electrics in the city :p

      Chris wrote on November 30th, 2010
      • Chris, you’re killin’ me!!!! But don’t confuse Steve. I remember my Dad planted F1Cross about 45 years ago, a hybridized corn. Mendel’s work with peas was about hybridization as much as about genetics. So, yes, hybrids have been around for a long, long time. And the genetic traits are similar and move in ‘clumps’. GMO, on the other hand, can take a completely different gene (like splicing an animal gene into a plant gene or chromosome)and create some pretty odd stuff.

        Mary Anne wrote on December 1st, 2010
  7. I know what you mean when you say that all plants are the result of random hybridization, but it’s incorrect to say that’s how all new plant species arise. New species are formed by the process of speciation, and hybridization is a subset of that. For example, if you plant the same plant on two different islands with different environments, and after many generations they become two different species, that is called allopatric speciation. Sure, they’re hybrids of previous generations’ pollen, but it would not be accurate to have said the new species were a result of hybridization.

    Chris wrote on November 30th, 2010
  8. In truth, a LOT of foods we take for granted are hybrids, and modified versions of their early cousins. Take an orange for example…
    The original was ugly, not uniform, and certainly was not a perfect round globe… They have been modified to what is universally recognised as an orange now. (Except at XMas, where mandarines and clemintines seem to be okay.)
    As consumers, we are obsessed with price, quality, and uniformity for our food. Tomatoes all look the same because they were picked while green, gassed until they are various grades. (Green, Pink, Orange, Red respectively.)
    Also, we have differing views on what is “normal” these days. In the case of broccoli crossed with Kale, that is nothing new, I believe it is called Guilan here in Chinatown, and believe me, it is awesome!

    Jason Sandeman wrote on November 30th, 2010
  9. Interesting article, thanks. Going to need to digest this one for a while before forming an opinion.

    The Primal Palette wrote on November 30th, 2010
  10. This was a very interesting read. Just wanted to point out that Grapples (at least Grapple brand grapples), aren’t actually hybrids, but just apples that have been saturated with grape flavoring. And unless you’re a big fan of grape kool-aid, I’d say they are abominations ;-P

    Crystal wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • haha- I thought of the grapple when I read this… Definitely an abomination and NOT a hybrid!

      Victoria wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • Ah, yes. Substitute tangelo, peacotum, plumcot, aprium…

      Mark Sisson wrote on November 30th, 2010
  11. Brilliant.

    “You go back far enough and it’s just pollen and seeds and wind and bees – one big swirling floral orgy – and every single plant we know today has ties to that epoch of love.”

    Melanie wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • Summer of ’67, right?

      Alhaddadin wrote on November 30th, 2010
      • Way back before you were born, remember kids?

        StoneCutter wrote on May 24th, 2012
  12. Another point with the GMO’s… corn, soybeans, etc. are being genetically modified to be “round-up ready” This allows the farmer to spray round-up on the whole field to get rid of weeds without harming the crop. so now there is round-up in your consumable crop. and the best part is the weeds are evolving and genetically modifying themselves. farmers are having to pay for the licensed gmo seeds AND having to spray harsher chemicals for weeds. Monsanto’s fix… working on plants that are resistant to the harsher herbicides… b/c that worked so well the first time!

    HeidiAnne wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • I saw that documentary…scary!
      And, they fly or drive around and dump seeds in organic fields to later on shut that farmer down for not having license to grow monsanto’s GMO plant.
      Brilliant eh?!

      They try to sabotage this organic movement and want to control ALL seeds to every food available on the planet…from what I saw in that documentary.

      Primal Palate wrote on June 24th, 2011
  13. Vital electrics refer to the organism’s ability to naturally reproduce. Many hybrids need to be grafted in order to replicate. Similarly, hybridized animals are often sterile–beefalo, mules, dzo, etc.

    Sandra wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • What about one of the coolest animals on the planet… the Liger, the Tigon however is not so kick ass.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=191cPadaxCk

      Steve wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • But many other hybrids can reproduce just fine. Grow cucumbers and melons in the same garden for a few years running and you’ll just need to look at the sprouts of your compost heap to see fertile hybridization at work.

      jj wrote on December 1st, 2010
  14. The link to David Wolfe’s site made me laugh. I especially liked this part:
    “Mangos transport you into the ecstatic state of summer fun. Bananas make you feel like a wild primate!”
    The whole purity thing is pretty weird. I’m always suspicious of talk like that. A little too cult-ish for me.

    Molly Bean wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • I agree with David Wolfe, I feel blessed to be able to experience these very peaceful thoughts as I enjoy natural whole foods! I can only pity those who don’t allow themselves to have this ability. And no, I am not one to be superstitious or brainwashed by no cult.

      debnose wrote on September 9th, 2012
  15. Grapples aren’t hybrids, FWIW. They’re just apples bathed in “Concord grape flavor”.

    Karin wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • Jeewhiz, don’t we have enough artificial junk on our shelves, do they even have to junk our natural food selections too? People should learn to appreciate and enjoy the nature of things more and stop demanding all this artificial man-made JUNK!

      debnose wrote on September 9th, 2012
  16. Isn’t broccoli a hybrid of spinach and cauliflower?

    Brian White wrote on November 30th, 2010
  17. No, broccoli is not a hybrid of spinach and cauliflower!

    There is no nutritional problem with hybrids, but as many are sterile or lack reproductive efficacy, they do pose a problem from a sustainability perspective in that many hybrid vegetable lines are controlled solely by large seed companies, most of which are controlled by Monsanto and the like. So, by buying fancy hybrid vegetables & fruits, you are indirectly supporting these. However, many of the non-fancy vegetables you see in the store, like plain old broccoli or spinach, are in fact hybrids themselves, only hybridized for things like shelf life, colour, size, and occasionally flavour. These too are likely from sterile seed stock distributed by Monsanto-linked seed suppliers.

    Unfortunately, the only way around this is to buy from organic growers to whom you can actually speak and inquire as to the source of their seeds and whether the grower saves his/her own seeds and uses heritage, open-pollinated varieties. If you have no way of doing that, then there is no benefit in avoiding the fancy stuff.

    Sarah wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • ” many hybrid vegetable lines are controlled solely by large seed companies, most of which are controlled by Monsanto and the like. ” Sarah

      And there lies my problem with buying and consuming hybrids. I don’t want to support a company that has malicious intensions and an evil agenda.

      Primal Palate wrote on June 24th, 2011
  18. broccolini + coconut oil = BLISS!

    Michele wrote on November 30th, 2010
  19. Hybrids certainly seem natural enough… I came across this article today though: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gjbYauB3WWZW2NuY5bwD7RluUv2A?docId=606e323dbd664ba1b021280b03aff34c

    Don’t think I’ll be trying those any time soon. I’ll take my oxidizing apples the way they are.

    Sarah Due wrote on November 30th, 2010
  20. Cruciferous vegetables contain goitrogens which interfere with thyroid function and other toxins. http://www.westonaprice.org/abcs-of-nutrition/177-bearers-of-the-cross.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goitrogens

    Matt wrote on November 30th, 2010
  21. The whole thing with hybrids become especially amusing if you consider the fact that some creationists take the banana as a sign that creationism is right. Cause something that brilliant MUST have a maker ;)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2z-OLG0KyR4

    Malin wrote on November 30th, 2010
  22. Wow, I’d take a ” big swirling floral orgy” any day.

    Danielle wrote on November 30th, 2010
  23. I’d always heard that the lemon was a hybrid between a citron and a lime.
    According to Wikipedia, it’s a citron and a sour orange (which I’d never heard of).

    Melodious wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • I’ve always wanted an old Citroen…

      I bet “sour oranges” have bred out of existence – except for some lesser-known corner of Spain…

      Peggy wrote on November 30th, 2010
      • Seville oranges are readily available when they’re in season (usually February-April) – but really, you don’t want to eat them unless they’re marmalade. “Not palatable” doesn’t even begin to describe them.

        Sarah wrote on November 30th, 2010
        • Hey, fear not! Sour oranges are alive and well in my native Arizona!

          I grew up in a neighborhood of Phoenix/Scottsdale called Arcadia, which was a colony of gigantic citrus orchards until about 1960 (when air conditioning made Phoenix somewhat livable…). When they started parceling out the orchards into subdivisions, developers built the homes around the “less palatable” varieties of fruit, leaving the good stuff for the farmers, but still giving new homeowners a picturesque yard full of colorful (but sour) orange trees.

          I can’t imagine that people are really jonesing for sour oranges – not great for a whole lot except (totally un-Primal) orange meringue pies… but if you are, definitely let me know and I’ll ship you out a whole crate of those guys the next time I’m home :)

          Alhaddadin wrote on November 30th, 2010
      • Peggy,
        We had a ‘sour orange’ tree in our back yard about 10 years ago :) (in Australia)
        We now have about 10 old Citroens instead :S
        No joke.

        Thanks for the article Mark :)

        Kitty wrote on December 1st, 2010
  24. Bok Choy, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Kale, Kohlrabi, Rutabaga, and Turnips are all the same species, so could that really be a hybrid?

    jspradley wrote on November 30th, 2010
  25. I do like that you point out what we DON’T need to worry about. Any nutrient, diet, plant or animal–someone always makes a claim that there’s something to worry about. As a nutrition student I have to/tend to think about food A LOT, and it’s tiring; the last thing I want to do is worry about food.

    I am still skeptical about the sugar content though (most fruit have significantly more sugar than 30 years ago due to selective breeding)…but I know there are bigger fish to fry.

    David wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • Yeah, I do worry about food a lot. If everything is so wonderful about all of these foods, then why has autism spiked 4000% yes four thousand percent in the past 10 years? And it does concern me that viruses are used to invade the cells of the plants. And look at the illnesses that have rampaged unlike any we’ve seen in most of our life times.Something is not right with this crap, sorry to disagree, but I am not blind, deaf or dumb.

      eeew wrote on February 6th, 2013
  26. Mark,

    I wouldn’t be so quick to demonize David Wolf; he may have something there about the seeds. We truly don’t know. Let’s keep Paleo and Primal diets open minded and positive. That, to me, is of the utmost; we aren’t like the militant vegans/vegetarians. We keep open minds about our foods, and other’s opinions. If I’m wrong, please tell me so.

    Best,

    Matt

    Matt Robbins wrote on November 30th, 2010
    • :-) i don’t know about DW, but i sure agree about group attitude — macronutrient fanatics and food nazis are no fun! talk about raising stress levels….

      tess wrote on December 1st, 2010
  27. I get such a kick out of your writing. This one had lots of fun phrases that others have already gleened from the text. Thanks for brightening my day with your wit. You are vitally electric!

    Clint White wrote on November 30th, 2010
  28. I reckon I might be a hybrid myself.

    kem wrote on November 30th, 2010
  29. So where does “Purple sprouting broccolli” fit?

    Ian wrote on December 1st, 2010
  30. I decided to let a few “volunteer” plants grow in my garden this year, and wow, did I get some confused vegetables that were bastard off-spring of previous crops. I had one plant that I swear was a hybrid of yellow crookneck squash and an english cucumber; very weird in appearance and taste.

    dragonmamma wrote on December 1st, 2010
  31. Mark,

    As you say, we definitely have more important things to worry about other than hybrid vegetables; however as a small scale farmer, I believe that many of the heirloom varieties are often more nutritious as they have not been selected to maxamize yield. With fewer “fruits”, the plant does a better job of concentrating its resources. Just something to think about if you are growing your own food.

    Tim Huntley wrote on December 1st, 2010
    • Wonderful insight! My family loves heirloom variety and we can’t wait to start our garden in the spring.

      Kellie wrote on December 1st, 2010
  32. Great question, Angela! And thanks for the insight, well-thought answer. It is actually something that never occurred to me, so I love having the question and answer appear to me all at once. I love hybrid produce, and love them even more now!

    Kellie wrote on December 1st, 2010
  33. Stupid question – If you want your food to be the very best go for GMO don’t bother with hybrids – those are just hit and miss . GE is created on purpose by some of the best designers in the world. You don’t dress in untreated sheep skins, do you?

    Harold wrote on December 1st, 2010
  34. Not sure I’d go whole hog on genetic engineering, Harold, but I am curious about GMO. There are definitely some horrendous ideas out there (Round-up Ready being the poster child), but in theory, at least, GMO could be a good thing if used to increase natural pest resistance, salt and drought tolerance, vitamin content, etc. Like fire, it’s a tool and there’s no reason to reject it out of hand just because Monsanto is an arsonist.

    Ann Coleman wrote on December 1st, 2010
    • “Like fire, it [GMO] is a tool and there’s no reason to reject it out of hand just because Monsanto is an arsonist.”

      LOVE IT.

      I agree that Round-up Ready is probably a bad idea, but “natural pest resistance” could also be bad. If they get the plant to include compounds (toxins) to prevent pests from eating the plant, will those compounds be safe for human consumption?

      PhilmontScott wrote on March 19th, 2013
  35. funny..I couldnt wait to read this . I had Broccolli Rabe last night, tonight, & tomorrow night lined up. Thank god you approved.LOL. I am the only one in my family that eats it, so when I get it, it for 3 nights in a row to stay fresh, & get my WF moneys worth. you can keep your pluots & grapples. how about some new ones..”Jercream”(jerky & heavy cream)or “Chegg” (a cheese omlette already to go) “porkonut” (pig crossed with a coconut)

    Chairdr wrote on December 1st, 2010
  36. Hibrid pets …labradoodles

    Richard wrote on December 1st, 2010
    • or the mutt I got at the shelter, lol!

      CNYmicaa wrote on December 1st, 2010
    • I know a cross-bred dog who has split personalities and anger management problems, you never know when he’s going to growl and jump at your face… I’m suspecting it’s because he’s not a full breed as nature intended? Wut coud go rong?

      debnose wrote on September 9th, 2012
  37. Most people are unaware that grapefruit are also hybrids. They were first created as cross breeds between oranges and pomelos.

    Bo wrote on December 1st, 2010
  38. Weird to see a blog on this. I saw it for the 1st time Monday and brought some home, just had it for dinner…delicious!

    CNYmicaa wrote on December 1st, 2010
  39. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of broccolini, pluots, and apriums until today. Gotta try them out.

    Jeff wrote on December 1st, 2010
  40. Someone correct me if I’m wrong. A hybrid does not ‘breed true.’ That’s why if you save seeds from a true hybrid, if you get offspring, it is not the same as the original hybrid’s offspring.

    Mary Anne wrote on December 1st, 2010
    • The first generation after a cross will probably have a great variety of properties, but the longer you breed a fertile hybrid the more predictable its genetics will become.

      Tim wrote on December 6th, 2010
      • Leave it to nature and stop tampering with it! We may be clever, but nature knows best and always has or else none of us or anything would’ve evolved in the first place!

        debnose wrote on September 9th, 2012

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