On the Problems of Cultivated Fruit

Huge StrawberryThough many of us here tend to frequent farmer’s markets or CSA co-ops for a lot of our regular shopping, we inevitably end up at the grocery store for a few miscellaneous things. Comparing the experiences of the market versus “super”-market has become an interesting exercise in consumer research. Besides the strange and overflowing array of boxed or bagged, artificially flavored wonders that fill the aisles in the average grocery store, we’ve all agreed that there’s something else rather “twilight zone”-esque about our forays into the supermarkets. Specifically, has anyone noticed the mammoth size of fruit sold at the grocery store? What’s more, this Amazonian “beautiful” fruit just doesn’t taste the same, does it?

A few of us here grew up in farmland or at least had close relatives whose farms we visited. Most of us had something growing in our childhood backyards, and the same goes for our yards today. As a result, we’ve seen (and tasted) fruit in its natural and often wild state: Mark’s memories of small, tart and succulent Maine blueberries, others’ wild blackberry bushes, local strawberry “self-pick” farms, grandparents’ backyard apple orchards. Seriously, are conventional farmers all doing the Miracle Grow challenge or what?


Remember back to those earlier days – and those old time fruits. Small, really. But so flavorful. And, yes, admittedly less attractive than the perfect waxed models lining the refrigerated aisles. Would Grok even recognize anything in the produce section? Would he like it?

It likely happened gradually, surreptitiously, but consumers over time have come to associate large size, uniform shape, bright color and sugary sweet with quality. As for Grok? He’s out foraging for the small, the slightly varied, the deep color, and the richer but less sugary flavor. What did he know that we don’t?

Physical anthropologist, Katherine Milton, from the University of California, Berkeley has an interesting angle on that question. She’s studied primate diets in the wild and the nutritional differences between foods chosen by primates and those of cultivated fruits. Her findings: in addition to the dramatic variety of the primates’ diets, the primates selected leaves and fruits that contained more glucose and fructose (hexoses, like honey) but less sucrose (disaccharide, like table sugar).

Wild Strawberry

Cultivated fruits, she notes, are engineered for a strong sugary taste that comes as sucrose and less as other sugars – exactly opposite of what our wild relatives seek out. Likewise, our cultivated fruits reflect a modern preference for low fiber and little to no seed content. Because pulp fiber and seeds can slow the digestion of the fruits sugar content, wild fruit choices result in less of a blood sugar spike than cultivated fruits. Interestingly, Milton also found that the wild fruit was much higher in protein, vitamin C, and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. In some cases, the mineral content was 10 times greater in the wild fruits than in cultivated varieties.

It seems our modern tastes and aesthetics have cost us much in terms of nutrition. Beyond the different sugar composition, fiber content, and lower levels of many nutrients, cultivation for size differential comes with a likewise hefty price. Fruits cultivated for higher yield and/or larger size are further “diluted” nutritionally (PDF).

This means we either end up seriously short-changed on the nutrient front, or we need to eat more of a fruit (more calories and likely more sugar) to gain the same nutritional benefit. Hmmm. (And a couple side notes: to make it through long transport times, cultivated fruits are bred for tougher exteriors and are usually picked long before they’re actually ripe. As a consumer at the end of the line, you’ll get the sugar without much taste or the natural fleshiness of wild versions.)

Wild Apple

Because fruits naturally contain sugars of some kind, the Primal Blueprint recommends including them “judiciously.” This means in moderation. Certainly, we prioritize low GI options like berries, but there’s more to the picture. In light of research on nutrient density (wild versus cultivated, etc.), we suggest going for the most nutrient packed fruit varieties.

But this doesn’t mean you need to go foraging in the woods with Dr. Milton’s apes or even our good man Grok. “Wild” varieties of many fruits are sold in both farmer’s markets and grocery stores. Co-ops and stores like Whole Foods tend to carry more wild fruit than conventional supermarkets, but it’s worth a look anywhere you go. Wild berries are easier to find than other fruits. Check the frozen foods section if the produce aisle is a dead end. This is the time to buy and deep freeze for the year ahead. How about some old school nostalgia? Some garden centers and co-ops sell “wild” variety fruit trees and berry bushes as well. Check out SeedSavers.org or SeedsOfChange.com for wild/heirloom varieties of both fruits and veggies that carry an old-time nutritional punch and natural pest defense.

If wild isn’t an option, we recommend organic. In terms of nutrient density, it wins over conventional hands down with some estimates at over 50% added nutrition. Why? Left to their own devices, fruits (and vegetables) naturally produce substances known as phenolics to defend themselves against various pests when they sense an “assault.” A plant’s anti-oxidant levels rise with the amount of phenolics produced. Conventional agriculture, with its use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides, blunts the production of phenolics. The plant experiences less pest assault to respond to with the release of phenolics.

Finally, if neither is an option, we suggest foraging farm stands and pick-your-own local farms. You’ll likely find varieties that aren’t as “cultivated.” (Hint: they’ll be of a more realistic size and appearance. A little uglier, but a whole lot more flavorful and likely more nutritious.) Sometimes, good old commonsense and a penchant for substance over “style” goes a long way.

Do you have stories of wild foraging to share? Nightmares about fruit monstrosities taking over your kitchen or ruining your summer potlucks? Responses and suggestions for going more Grok in your fruit selection?

feministjulie, Martin LaBar, Zoe52, Chris Campbell Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

What do those produce stickers really mean?

Genetically Modified Foods: Super Solution or Franken Future?

How to Shop a Farmers’ Market

Wild/Natural Fruit vs. Modern/Cultivated Fruit

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