What’s the cost of perfection?

My heirloom tomatoes are anything but uniform but oh so delicious!

My heirloom tomatoes are anything but uniform but oh so delicious!

Perfection- it’s something that so many strive for.  It’s also something, though, that can be our undoing – whether it’s trying to achieve a particular body shape or as simple as in the shape or colour of the produce we eat. I’ll leave the body shape issues for another day but I do want to plant a seed in your mind about produce.

I remember, as a child, laughing in the garden as we looked at the various fruits of my family’s labour – tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and the like – and trying to see which ones were the weirdest shapes. Giant beefsteak tomatoes often won the prize for their lack of symmetry. But as odd was the shape, its deliciousness could not be surpassed.

Baskets of local tomatoes used to be a perfect example of  how varied the shapes could be. But have you noticed lately how it’s no longer the case. Visit a green grocer or a supermarket and you’ll find that the baskets are filled with uniform sizes and shapes.

Unfortunately, though, the fabulous flavour is likely M.I.A.

Nowadays, as a society we value consistency in what we purchase. That may be a smart idea when it comes to opening a can of tomatoes but the same should not hold true for the fresh produce we consume.

At the same time, we look for the mildest tasting  fruits and vegetables – those with fewer strong flavour attributes that some people find offensive. So scientists breed new plant varieties that offer more pleasing tastes.  But what are we giving up in our quest for beauty and blandness?

An opinion piece, Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food, in the New York Times hit the nail on the head about what we’re doing to our food. It reveals that over the years, the phytochemical content – the array of disease-fighting compounds – has been diminishing. These substances often have stronger flavours or aromas, something that we seem to find less and less appealing.

Here’s a  little background on phytochemicals. While these substances with their anti-cancer and heart healthy action,  may  be the new superstars in nutrition circles,   their role in  plant life is even more critical.  Phytochemicals may help to prevent disease in humans but in plants, they’re vital for survival.

For example, the pigments which give plants their colour or substances responsible for  odours may attract insects that lead to pollination. And no pollination means no reproduction.   Other phytochemicals are actually part of the plant’s defence systems against various pests and  diseases or even too much sunlight.

For example,  onions  make you cry for a reason — they’re trying to stop you from eating them.   The sulfur compounds  that can lead to a flood of tears also repel the onion’s natural predators.  The  bitter substances in citrus fruits  are another example of a defence mechanism.  In order to avoid being eaten, plants secrete a variety of toxins and  natural pesticides.  But some of these  very same substances, such as  flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes and glucosinolates, have been shown to act as disease-fighters in humans. In large doses, such as those found in supplements, however, these compounds may do to humans what small doses do to insects.

So what we are doing now? We want to get rid of various phytochemicals in our foods, those bitter tasting compounds, and then take them as supplements so they don’t interfere with the pleasure of eating produce.

Yes, indeed we want perfect looking produce with flavour that do not offend. But what’s the cost?

Coming up: Getting back to basics and why bitter is not so bad.
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Do you prefer more uniform produce or are you a fan of the unusual? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Food Trends, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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