Ancient vs. Modern Fruits and Vegetables

In case you’re still a little wary of humans messing around with food, I thought I’d show how some of your favorite fruits and vegetables are actually the products of selective, targeted breeding. What, you thought every non-explicitly hybridized fruit and vegetable can trace a pure lineage back to the Paleolithic? Ha! The stuff we enjoy, even the heirloom, dirt-and-mud-encrusted ugly, but delicious, stuff we get from the farmers’ market, is different from what Grok enjoyed. Plants reproduce far more often than, say, humans, so evolution happens faster. We’ve got a dog in the fight, too, and the means to influence its outcome (hybridization, breeding, selection), so changes happen even quicker.

This will either spur your acceptance of broccolini or turn you into a raging zero-carber who shuns all vegetation. Your choice.


Almond fruits are drupes, and delicious ones at that. Packed with magnesium, monounsaturated fat, and full-spectrum vitamin E, a handful of almonds makes a good snack – but it wasn’t always like that. Wild almonds contain high levels of amygdalin, a potent glycoside that the body metabolizes into hydrogen cyanide. An alternative cancer treatment called laetrile, or “vitamin B17,” used amygdalin as the active ingredient, and patients who’ve taken it often suffer cyanide poisoning. Luckily, early farmers discovered a common genetic mutation that prevented wild almonds from producing amygdalin. Wild almonds with the mutation left no progeny, since birds would just eat all the delicious, non-toxic fruit, but humans were able to exercise self-control and save enough almonds to plant entire orchards of these mutants.

Wild almonds taste terrible, horribly astringent and bitter. There’s no getting around that taste, making their consumption impossible. In this case, we can use taste as an indicator of suitability for consumption. Domesticated almonds are sweet, full of valuable nutrients, and perfectly non-toxic. Eat away.


Modern domesticated apples (also known as Malus domestica, doctor repellant, or bags of sugar) can trace the bulk of their ancestry to the Malus sieversii, or Asian wild apple, which grows in China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. What about wild crabapples, those sour, small European fruits? Until recently, Malus sylvestris, the European wild crabapple, was assumed to be completely separate, contributing little, if any, genetic input to modern domestic apples. New research shows a number of identical chloroblast haplotypes shared by both species, indicating that the crabapple played a much larger role in the development of the domestic apple; in the same study, only one of the Malus sieversii trees displayed one of the three primary haplotypes shared by the domestic apple and European crabapple. “This study hereby reopens the exciting discussion on the origin of M. domestica.”

M. sieversii is sweet, while M. sylvestris is bitter and sour. M. sylvestris is incredibly high in both vitamin C and pectin, a kind of prebiotic soluble fiber that doubles as a gelling agent, and it was used to make jelly (mixed with other, sweeter fruits) and strong cider. Phenolic content and free radical scavenging potential of ancestral apples were greater, as a recent comparison of domestics to M. sieversii showed. Still, domestics ranked decently in phenolic content and antioxidant potential, with Granny Smith leading the way and beating out over a third of the wild apples studied.


We shun this grain, but it’s the perfect example of a hybrid food and bears mentioning. The wild ancestor of corn, or maize, is Balsas teosinte, a large grass of the Zea genus native to Latin America. It was domesticated at least 8,700 years ago in southern Mexico, but possibly even earlier. Both Balsas teosinte and corn share similarly robust growth patterns (tall, impressive plants), but the “ears” are different. Each teosinte kernel is encased in a separate “stony casing” that can easily survive the digestive tracks of birds and mammals (and that counts us in); teosinte ear has five to twelve kernels. Teosinte kernels are distributed separately and easily for efficient promulgation. Ears of corn, on the other hand, carry up to 500 naked kernels, all exposed and bound together to the cob, which animals can readily identify, consume, and digest. Left to its own devices, corn cannot spawn progeny because the hundreds of seeds all compete for the same soil territory and nutrients. It needs human intervention to grow, making it the quintessential artificially selected grain-that’s-eaten-young-and-treated-like-a-vegetable.


You don’t think ancient Romans were harvesting beefsteaks and making vats of marinara sauce, do you? The tomato, or Solanum lycopersicon, can be traced back to what’s now the Peruvian Andes, still the area with the greatest diversity of wild tomato relatives and where it began as an herbaceous plant with tiny green fruits. By the time the Spanish arrived, the tomato was cultivated across Central America, and it quickly gained favor in Europe upon its introduction. Early wild tomatoes were probably mostly inedible or unappetizing, since virtually no mention of the fruit appears in Andean pre-Columbian art or writing, whereas the fruit played a huge role in Mesoamerica (the Aztecs write of an early incarnation of salsa, for example), where domestication began in earnest.

Domesticated tomato varieties number in the thousands, and they aren’t products of natural selection. Even those odd shaped heirlooms you pick up at the farmers’ market have mutants in their bloodline (somewhere); ancient Quechua weren’t picking Brandywines in the jungle. Modern hybrids, bred to be late bloomers who ripen in or immediately after transit, are admittedly unimpressive when compared to open-pollinated heirlooms, but they make a decent sauce.

There’s the tendency to accept and condone those early gene manipulators, maybe because they wore tunics rather than lab coats, or maybe because their products have been with us for millennia without any obvious problems arising. Those are fair points (I love a good burlap tunic and wish they were still fashionable), but it’s important to note that the inherently human drive of mankind to improve its situation – constantly, always, every minute of every day – makes hybrid and artificially selected fruits and vegetables as natural a progression as tool-making. It doesn’t negate or contradict nature’s processes. It’s all just a tool to make life easier and, in this case, food tastier, more dependable, hardier, and possibly more nutritious. It’s about striking a balance. I’d love it if we had access to all the wild cultivars that Grok knew and fed upon, but even if we could, there’s a good chance they’d be unpalatable or even toxic. Does this mean grains and legumes are perfectly fine since they’re products of human manipulation? No, but the fact that we bred them isn’t the problem. It’s the demonstrably pervasive and deleterious anti-nutrients present in even the most modified of the grains (extra gluten, anyone?) that we avoid.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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53 thoughts on “Ancient vs. Modern Fruits and Vegetables”

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  1. I have a crabapple tree right next to my house. In fact, I can see it when I look outside my bedroom window and the branches are almost touching my window. At least I think they’re crabapples. They’re about the size of a lemon, but rounder, and a light green. A more bitter taste than a regular apple. And the tree only grows them every other year :(. But they make a nice treat.

    1. It might bear every other year because it needs to be pruned. Fruit trees do better when they are pruned- I only learned that recently. Your local library probably has some good books. You prune in February (can depend where you live) so now is a good time to learn.

      A lot of apples are good cooked but not eaten fresh

  2. I came across some wild apples in Colorado when I was there for a wedding. As small as crab apples, but surprisingly delicious. I spent several hours gathering these awesome free treats. And it was fun to compare them to their massive grocery store cousins.

  3. Hybridization may not be a bad thing, but I really miss certain kinds of apples I could buy in my country 5-10 years ago. Today the difference between one kind and another seem to be the proportion of (basic) sour tase and sweet taste (with the prevalence of the latter one). The apples available in eco shops do not much differ from the ones available on the standard market. And what happens, people quickly forget and get used to it and maybe even like it better (whot doesn’t like sweet).

  4. I think there’s a big distinction to be made between hybrids that occur through “natural” processes (meaning pollination of a flower to bear a fruit) versus modern hybridization that requires knowledge of DNA and genetic engineering to fuse two dissimilar species in an industrial setting.

    As you mentioned yesterday, plants frequently cross pollinate all the time, and it’s nothing I am afraid of even if it’s somewhat directed by humans.

    1. I agree with the notion that there can be a reasonable distinction made between naturally occurring hybrids and those create by humans. And nutrition is only one of the factors.

      The first reason is simply the benefit that natural hybrids have of being tested over time. Any further explanation needed here?

      The second reason is that by being naturally occurring, some limited validation of the viability of the plant has been made. Although being able to propagate (i.e., not being sterile) may not be necessary to be nutritious, it is still reassuring. Because fruits and veggies that we eat are often eaten by other animals, this suggests that they are compatible and complementary to the animals and the ecosystems in which they’ve developed.

      These two reason may actually be one, now that I think about it .. Nonetheless contrast them with human-made hybrids, many of which cannot propagate themselves, require lots of inputs and maintenance to be grown by people, may have had unintended harmful traits amplified along with desired ones, and have not been around long enough to prove their long-term benefit and sustainability.

  5. I used to live on apples because of my incredibly low budget. now that I read this (and currently The Vegetarian Myth), what the hell do we eat…

      1. Or perhaps air? (Breatharianism anyone?) Don’t forget that animals have been subject to the same process of human selection and interbreeding as have plants. Holsteins and Angus are no more similar to their wild ancestors than modern apples are to theirs.

        Perhaps eat only aurochs? Hard to find these days.

      2. yes, now that I have a job, meat! 😀
        i used to have trouble getting my hands on good-quality meat. things are looking up

  6. I’m surprised that grafting hasn’t been mentioned before. It was my understanding the grafted apple trees yielded a significant percentage of available-at-market apples.

    1. Carl, grafting doesn’t effect the genetic or nutrient content of plants, its merely a means of producing said plants, so it shouldn’t be too relevant for these purposes.

      1. Well, right, yeah. I didn’t mean to bring it up as something to be worried about. I just thought it was interesting and relevant. Brought up to be dismissed as another example of “combining” different plants.

    2. All of them, actually – but that’s because apples don’t breed true. That is, if you take a red delicious and plant a seed from it, the resulting tree will be highly unlikely to produce apples that look or taste anything like a red delicious. Because of this, when apple breeders find a new and tasty one (via seed) they immediately start grafting it onto rootstocks for propagation. So usually, every apple of a certain variety that you eat is actually genetically identical. Pears, plums, cherries – most tree fruits are propagated like this, rather than from seed.

      1. For more on apples, their history and stuff about grafting, etc, I can’t recommend “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan, highly enough. I simply adore that book. It really makes me want to visit the forests of ancestral apples! Too bad I am too afraid to visit those countries 🙂

  7. Grafting isn’t hybridizing. It’s simply taking the stem of one plant and attaching it to the root (or stem) of another. It’s done to combine a vigorous root system with a weaker plant that has desirable attributes.

    1. exactly, case in point wine. The grapes preferred for wine(vitis vinifera) had to have root systems from other strains grafted onto them when Phylloxera was introduced into Europe

  8. until i came to this country i have never so many types of apples and the apples in US is more sweater than any other country. i found some tart small apples in the farmers market which have irregular shapes. i never seen so many perfect shape apples. that is not natural…there should be holes..irregular shapes in the apples..perfect shape and color is only an indication of too much human touch which should be avoided as much as possible.

    1. I noticed that with all kinds of fruit and vegetables in a supermarket in Hawaii when I was visiting a few years back from the UK. We simply don’t have anything that looks like the huge, perfectly shaped, long-shelf life produce I found there.

      1. I grew up eating wild and semi-wild apples (I lived on a farm near a lot of orchards, with many “escaped” trees spread by wildlife), and you’re right, they’re very different, and in my opinion far superior (although they yield far less).

    2. Stuff you see in the stores are selected for uniformity. Stupid people like everything to look perfect. The rest are left to rot, tilled into the soil, sold to the roadside/market people, or used as animal feed.

  9. No kidding about the cyanide in almonds; it’s the same the other way around. If you’ve ever worked in a lab (or engaged in some kind of elicit activity that I’d rather not know about) and smelled cyanide, you know that it basically smells like marzipan.

    But of course, if you’re a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you’d already know this… :

    “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

  10. Call me undereducated, but as I read this article, especially about apples and almonds, there’s too much “smart-speak” in it. I quit reading, because all I was seeing was “bla bla bla”. When I stumble over a word in an article that I thought is going to be written in plain English, I’m done with it. For instance, “Wild almonds contain high levels of amygdalin, a potent glycoside that the body metabolizes into hydrogen cyanide” The only word I got out of this was “almond.” See what I mean?

    1. Yo, sticks and stones may break my bones, but (big) words… well, you know.

      I feel like it’s Mark’s prerogative to get all polysyllabic on a Wednesday morning if he wants to, especially when he’s covering a topic like this, which you’ve got to admit, is a pretty scientific topic to begin with.

      That being said, you gotta hand it to him that when it comes to conveying the most important parts of living and eating Primally, he does a great job of putting it in the most straightforward possible terms. There aren’t many places on the Internet where you can get such a square dose of geek-speak mixed with straight-up, evidence-based advice, and I’m willing to bet that this is the biggest reason why so many people frequent this blog.

      If you’re not happy with what you find here, there’s always the hyperbolic watered-down CW otherwise known as “journalism”…

      1. Just to play devil’s advocate here, is it really so difficult to open a browser tab to and do a little bit of copy and pasting?

        I deeply enjoy the detailed and painstakingly researched information that Mark shares on this blog, and one of my favorite things about it is that he assumes his readers are smart enough to either know what he’s talking about or put in a few seconds of legwork to find out.

        Not to insult BK or anything, but with the amount of effort Mark puts in to delving down to the biochemistry of nutrition and dredging up supporting evidence, is it so much to ask the readers to pop open Google and find out what glycosides and cyanide are?

    2. I appreciate the details (especially mechanisms when appropriate) being from a biology background. Thanks for all that you do, Mark.

    3. I think this is an issue of learning skills. If you parse the sentence in this manner: “Wild almonds contain ______ a potent ____ that the body ____ into cyanide”, you can figure out that “wild almonds contain something that the body turns into poison.” That’s the gist of the sentence, and you can get to it without having to learn any of the ‘big’ words.

      The trick of self-education lies in a) wantng to learn and b) knowing how. Learning to get to the substance of a sentence without understanding all the details is an essential learning tool.

  11. Watched a little documentary not too long ago addressing similar topic to this called “Botany of desire”. Talked about the modern apple, the potato, tulips and several other plants. I thought it was well put together and interesting. Its on netflix for those that have that available.

  12. well,mark could have said almonds are bad,,,,,,ummkay.people who eat almonds are bad ,,,,,ummkay,oh wait thats mr. haney from south parks who sounds like that:)

  13. Very interesting post. I have to admit that I only knew how these foods are eaten but I have scarce knowledge about their backgrounds and history. Great job!

  14. Even heirloom varities change over time. My mom sent me a box of “Arkansas Black” apples from century old trees and in addition being smaller (to be expected from untended trees) they had a different flavor and texture than Arkansas Blacks I bought from a farmer who specializes in heirloom apples.

  15. I am so happy that Shane is so much more educated than I am. I’m going to go watch Southpark now.

  16. Avoid hybrids you die. Plants and animals. You’re a hybrid too! You may have Neanderthal (and bat LOL) blood in you like Ozzy Osbourne?

    I wrote on this subject about year ago. You aren’t going to eat anything paleo in your lifetime, so quit looking and stick to selecting quality.

    As for the market food… you can have it! Plant or animal. Once you’ve had better stuff for a while, you’ve turn your nose to all of it. I guess it fills a hole in a pinch, or if you don’t have access to anything better due to where you live 🙁 That sucks.

  17. My family were the last in a long line of fruit growers, and I always remember my 90-year-old granddad talking about the fact that the old varieties were much smaller and less sweet, and it was the value of hybridization that the crops were bigger and sweeter– good from a producer’s point of view, but bad from a paleo diet view. I’m in my 60s and have seen a further degradation in taste and ever increasing size and sugar content of fruit. You pretty much have to go organic to get good tasting fruit.

    1. As a guy who eats a diet of 95% fruit, I can attest to basically none of the fruit in the stores is ripe or anywhere even close to it. Much of it is picked so green, that it will never ripen (just rot). This has a great deal to do with the loss of flavor.

      I almost cant even shop at grocery store anymore, except for greens sometimes. I like my washed organic baby spinach 😉

  18. Neat post Mark!

    It would be fascinating to try an ancestral apple, even if it would be much less sweet.

    Really makes you think about how much humans have impacted the planet, even if it is in a benign way, (most of time anyway.)

    Also makes me a little bit worried about biodiversity!

  19. definitely ancient fruits and vegetables are better than the modern ones in terms of quality as the modern earth is more polluted with chemicals and so when compared to the ancient earth

  20. The part about corn is a bit off. Maise or corn was known thousands of years ago in the middle east and later in europe. The Romans grew corn and fed the masses with it until the little ice age.
    It along with grapes stopped growing in europe due to the cold. The settlers from northern europe were reintroduced to corn in America. We here in the US we were settled by wheat eating, beer drinking Europeans. Of course the older versions of maise or corn is quite different than now.
    I read tomatoes were know in europe also but the lead plates combined with acid made them poison.
    So if they all came from central america did the seeds fly acros the ocean or did some early travelers bring them?
    Also this if all this is from the Americas and no humans were here until about 10,000 or 15,000 years ago and it took several thousands of years to travel from Alaska to Panama then this Grok dude would have been able to eat them.
    OMG!!! we were settled by Aliens and they brought all this food with them.

    1. This is not accurate. Maize is definitely a new world crop, and there is quite a bit of historical evidence to this effect. A common mistake is to read references to ‘corn’ in material written by ‘British’ speakers and not realize that to a Brit, corn = all grain (wheat, quinoa, rye, barley, oats, etc), not just maize.

  21. The most mutant and downright ‘freaky’ domesticated plant of all, is wheat. It’s a multiple hybrid, of at least three completely different herbs ; it’s an hexaploid, a a real genetic monster. It should really have a place in this list !

  22. Don’t forget about the fact that most apples in supermarkets are waxed to look better, as well as some other fruits and vegetables. After going primal/paleo, though, I can’t stand to eat fruit anymore anyways. A girl in my class eats an apple everyday for a snack. Just makes me cringe, and it’s hard to think of it as something being ‘healthy’.

    1. Oh and, Mark, thanks for delving into this topic. Most people out there are completely unaware of this. You should have a part two (or three) on ancient vs. modern wheat and meat.

  23. Corn to Europeans was any grain, usually wheat, but not maise until recent times. Corn, as in sweet corn Americans eat, was rarely eaten outside the Americas before the late 19th century.

  24. I’ve been to 11 countries and corn or maise is fed to animals in all of them. Many people around the world do not eat corn. Corn does seem to be differnt due to where it’s grown. What we call Indian corn is multicolored and might be the Primitive corn from the past. Sweet corn is nothing like corn from the past which could have been picked from wild plants so one of Groks wives or mates would have brought it home.
    Most of wild animals and plants are very hard to chew so many remains of primitive man show worn off teeth. I hunt and eat wild game and most of the meat is so tough I make sausage or Bambi burgers from it.

  25. A very interesting post and, as usual, I learnt almost as much from the comments as the article.

    We have encouraged natural hybridization in both plant and animals because initially it improves flavor and textures. But once “big business” gets hold of the hybridization process – they have a different agenda.

    I believe this is the first time in history that the genes of our food supply is in the hands of people who care nothing about taste or nutrition.

    That’s dangerous.

  26. There are several wild plum trees that grow in the marsh by my parent’s house. The fruits are tiny and mostly insipid, but the ones you do find with a bit of flavor in them are wonderful treats, they aren’t mealy or mushy but tart and robust. I like them much better than their crate rotted cousins.

    I have gathered wild fruit since my childhood and remember mothers pulling their children away from me when I offered them wild raspberries with purple and red stained fingers, cut up legs and a huge grin. “her parents shouldn’t let her do that!” (my parents knew what I was eating)
    I have fond memories of eating fat clover blossom petals, shaded dandelion and plantain greens, tiny wild strawberries and tart gooseberries – but never once ended up putting something poisonous in my mouth even though stands of wild hemlock grew very near to my munching grounds. I find it strange how children can connect with our genetic knowledge far better than adults can. Most adults are afraid to eat things out of “the wild”. I still find myself acting like a kid at Christmas when I find a wild patch of blueberries or come across a plum tree on my walks – my favorite part now is smiling at all the appalled up-tight house moms that can’t believe I am sitting in a tree eating something “wild”.

  27. All vegetables are modern. Ancient people rarely ate vegetables hybridized or not.

  28. “An alternative cancer treatment called laetrile, or “vitamin B17,” used amygdalin as the active ingredient, and patients who’ve taken it often suffer cyanide poisoning.”

    I’m dissapointed in your incredible lack of research on this one Mark. The only times a so called cynide poisoning has occurred the actual facts behind the case a suspect at best.

    You actively reject the advice of the status quo (eat grains) by partaking in a paleo lifestyle yet seem to accept without question this idea B17 kills people. The truth is there have been many high profile studies done that proves beyond all doubt not only the safety but also the effectiveness of this food source as a treatment for cancer.

    The full history of laetrile testing is quite incredible and I urge you to read “World Without Cancer” by G Edward Griffin.

    1. Well said Russ, I too was very surprised when I read this comment given the evidence supporting the use of B17!