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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25 thoughts on “On the Problems of Cultivated Fruit”

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  1. This is one of my pet peeves. I spent some time living in the country as a child and today, I can hardly eat tomatoes and strawberries form the market. The real crime is that even when they are is season, you get the same tasteless grainy produce as you do in January. BTW, I find this argument also applies to farmed seafood. Have you tasted shrimp lately? I didn’t think so…there is no taste to shrimp anymore!

  2. Regarding this statement:

    ***to make it through long transport times, cultivated fruits are bred for tougher exteriors and are usually picked long before they’re actually ripe.

    I’ve heard that because of this factor, you’re often much better off buying frozen fruit, which is usually frozen right after being picked ripe.

  3. dragonmamma, that certainly helps dispel the notion that frozen produce is somehow inferior. We buy frozen organic a lot (both fruits and veggies) so that we always have something “at hand”.

  4. I am in complete agreement here. The huge, photogenic fruit sold the supermarkets have a beauty that is only skin deep.

    A couple of months ago I purchased a vacuum sealer and I highly recommend it. It makes eating fresh produce much more “user friendly” for salads,snacks and meals. You can purchase produce at a farmers market and once you seal what you don’t eat immediately the produce will stay fresh in the ‘frig for up to 2 weeks and can be kept in a freezer for at least 1 year.

    I have found it to be a very effective way for expanding the peak seasons of the fruits and veggies that I eat.

  5. I was really lucky to grow up on a farm where we had a small orchard and a huge vegetable garden. Nothing was ever sprayed or fertilized so think small gnarled apples and spotty peaches, but while ugly they were incredibly juicy and flavorful. For the things we didn’t grow, we’d hit the adjacent farms and picked enough to freeze. My parents own another farm now where they grow lots of heritage/heirloom vegetables (tomatoes/beans) which are incredibly popular at the local farmers market.

    As for wild foraging, I grew up doing it, so when on a date with my future husband, I didn’t think twice about stopping in a blackberry patch on a hike. At first he was horrified: What are they? What about bugs? They’re not washed! I finally convinced (dared) him to eat one, and he was hooked. I then couldn’t get him out of the patch until he’d gorged himself.

    Oh, and my rule of thumb with the supermarket strawberries: the bigger they are, the worst they taste.

    1. 2004—Ireland in the summer was covered w/ wld blackberries. Ate them while hiking, sightseeting, and even out the car window while stuck in traffic! Delish!!

  6. Tomatoes from the grocery store and the tomatoes from my backyard are like two different fruits entirely. The taste isn’t even comparable. It’s sad but I’ve become somewhat of a produce snob – I can just taste the difference. Seattle did that to me with their year-round farmer’s markets and plentiful wild berries. Now that I’m trapped in the no-grow lands (which are really very nice otherwise), I pine – literally – for a wild blackberry.


  7. When I was seventeen I took a trip to Honduras (don’t ask), and I experienced an exotic, wild, awakening: I ate a freshly picked banana. The real thing is so vastly different from what I’d had before I can no longer buy bananas at the grocery store. Night and day, folks. Night and day.

  8. That’s it, folks! I’m outta here to pick (wild) salmonberries!!!

  9. Two words: Heirloom Tomatoes.

    My grocery store has a “tomato island” with all sorts of cultivated options. Occasionally they put a little basket of heirloom tomatoes in the center of the island. They’re so delicious, I usually take half the basket. Then I feel guilty for depriving other shoppers of the wonder that is heirloom, so I put a few back.

  10. This reminds me of eating strawberries from a backyard patch in Norway. The long days make for the absolute sweetest berries I’ve ever had. Our hosts served them in a bowl with fresh cream. Absolute heaven! Nothing I’ve had here comes close to comparison except some berries from a small organic farm in Wisconsin.

  11. My grandfather worked on a farm all of his life and even in the later years after he retired from his job as a plummer and pipe fitter. He would give us some fresh veggies out of his garden and to this day I have never tasted a better onion or a better tomato. Now, to tell you the truth, he liked rhubarb as well and this was even edible out of his garden, and I hate, hate, hate, rhubarb.

  12. I’m pretty lucky. I live in Sonoma County, California, and lots of the produce even in regular chain grocery stores is grown locally. The strawberries or plums I get at Food Maxx have just as much flavor as when I pick them from my backyard; they were probably picked the day before in the next town over.

    Plus, we have so many “micro-climates”, that the growing and harvest seasons last a long time.

  13. question: Do we really need fruit in a healthy diet consisting of vegetables and protein sources? Theoretically, there should be enough Vitamin C and antioxidants in the veggies. Mark has mentioned in his definite guides that “ketosis is NOT a bad thing”. But is it better or worse than a non-ketogenic diet? I don’t recall the comparison being made.

  14. True, but true for ALL our modern day foods: vegetables, meats, (of course grains), nuts. They have all been cultivated, and not for greater nutrition.

  15. Mark,
    I stumbled upon your site after an article appeared on LewRockwell.com I think. Don’t hold me to the source. 🙂

    The common theme among the comments on this article relate to “taste” and “nutrient value” of commercially raised produce and fruits. For those interested, there is a movement to increase both in home grown fruits and veggies. Look up http://www.highbrixgardens.com for more info. I am NOT affiliated with them in any way, but I do endorse their philosophy. My company, MightyGrow, Inc. manufactures fertilizers and mineral soil amendments that can be used to grow high-Brix veggies and fruits. Organic is all fine and good, but it is NOT the end-all be-all. Unfortunately, “organic” is more about what NOT to use rather than what TO use.

    There are so many comments that could be made on this topic, I almost don’t know where to start. Suffice to say that until the consumer demands better tasting and more nutritious produce the supply will not show up at the local grocer. Vote with your pocketbook.

    If anyone wants to test fruits and veggies to see what the nutrient content is BEFORE buying it, then an inexpensive refractometer (-$40) can be used. The “brix meter” is easy to use and gives an instant reading by passing light through fruit/veggie juice which then shows on a scale. It is as easy to use as looking through a telescope, and a LOT smaller, less than 7″X1″.

    For more information on growing your own super nutritious foods, please visit my blog at http://www.michaellabelle.wordpress.com.

    Mark, I would love to be able to link your site from mine. Do I have your permission to do so?

    Michael LaBelle
    MightyGrow, Inc.
    plusMinerals, Inc.

    Fruitdale, Alabama

  16. You say to eat fruit in moderation. What about the thought that humans are designed fruit? Such as medium length digestive tract, grasping hands, colour vision, no sharp fangs/molars. After all our closest relative, the chimpanzee, has a diet that is mainly composed of fruit.

  17. Foraging story: When I was in 2nd grade I lived about 400 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska in a very small town surrounded by wilderness. Our family of six would each take a pail and pick wild blueberries on a lower mountain side. I remember my dad watching out for bears. We were suppose to collect them and take them home for storage and use. My pail was always empty because I couldn’t stop eating them. I couldn’t understand why anyone would rather have them in a pie or pancake than have them plain right off the bush.

    Once in a great while I buy some blueberries that are so good, it transports me back to that mountain side in Alaska 45 years ago. Real food is amazing.

  18. Hi Mark. I’m a newcomer here and i thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. Allow me to play the devil’s advocate for a moment though. It is often stated unequivocally within the paleo-community that wild fruit are less saturated with sugar than their wild counterparts, like you just did in this article. However there are little research-papers to back up this claim as far as I’m aware of. One I did manage to find was “Australian Aboriginal plant foods: a consideration of their nutritional composition and health implications” by Brand-Miller and Holt, whose research I follow with some pleasure for a while now. It turns out that at least in this study wild fruit has comparable sugar and fiber than their cultivated counterparts (although they do say it’s possible that they’re figures could be a bit off). This ofcourse does in no way negate claims about possible health-implications of picking before ripeness or the sheer amounts of chemical crap we spray on them. I would love to see or hear about research that states the complete opposite of course.


  19. Does anyone know why cultivated berries producer get on average a higher price for their berries than wild berries producers (in the past ten years)? Is that because consumers prefer bigger, more sugary berries (the cultivated ones) Hope someone can help!

  20. Your red berry picture looks a lot like the mock strawberries that grow wild in my yard! You can eat them but they aren’t very good.

  21. My gran always tells me to go for the ugliest fruit; she says, ‘if a worm think its safe to eat, its good enough for me!’

    I grew up in the country, and we grew most of the things we ate; as far as fruit goes, we had a few apple trees, cherry trees, plum trees, raspberry & mulberry (I miss mulberries so much!) bushes, and red, white, & black currants. The apples were always small, tart, and slightly sweet, and the colour was a more pastel green. I can’t stand cultivated apples except, perhaps, for the Granny Smith variety; they’re all so disgustingly soft and sweet, bleurgh…fruit nowadays is just watered down candy on trees. NOTHING from a supermarket beats ‘bull’s heart’ tomatoes straight from the farm…with my gran’s unpasteurised home-made sour cream in which you can stand a spoon…nomnomnom!!!

  22. Is modern life really that more stressful than Grok’s? Sure more is demanded of us, but then we don’t have the continual stress of being eaten by something, having to fight, and obtaining food that we actually have to catch. Modern society is both a source and a diluter of stress. How can we know which is predominant?

    Also we live a lot longer than Grok did. Surely that says something that doesn’t quite fit with the “Grok had the best circumstances” angle.