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.
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.