What's Better about Heirloom Fruits and Veggies?

As we watch our nation's declining health and expanding waistline, many of us are trying to get more fresh fruits and veggies into our meal plans. The more we learn about the vitamins and minerals these fresh foods pack, the more we want to eat them.

Sadly, our industrial agricultural system manipulates most crops to produce the highest yields possible, often depleting many of the plants' healthful nutrients, and flavor as well. They are also bred to be picked green to withstand lengthy travel to stores. Add to this chemical spraying and you've got produce that doesn't pack nearly the nutrient punch it did 50 years ago.

If you're making the effort to buy organic produce, that's a great step to minimizing pesticides in your fruits and veggies. Another option to consider is 'heirloom' produce. These distinctly non-industrial fruits and vegetables, with wild names like Boxcar Willie or Bull's Blood, are adorned with unusual stripes, bumps and colors. As local produce becomes more prevalent, these heirloom varieties are gaining in popularity. This is a good thing. Not only do they taste better and pack more nutrients than their designed-for-commerce cousins, heirloom cultivation preserves seeds that haven't been hybridized or genetically modified.

It's All about the Seeds

So what makes heirloom fruits and vegetables unique? It's all about the seeds they grow from. Families pass down heirloom seeds without any alteration from generation to generation. "Just like the definition for antiques varies, so does the definition of heirloom seeds," says Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and avid gardener, who started his seed company at age 17. "Some people define it as seeds that have been around for 50 years; others, 100."

One thing is vital though: heirloom seeds have not been toyed with. They are the result of open pollination—they are planted and left alone to do their own thing. They are not hybridized or genetically altered. Ultimately nature (wind, insects, birds) will pollinate the plants, which creates the seeds.

In addition to superior flavor and nutrition, heirloom gardening enables an independent food supply that's not hybridized or genetically altered to exist apart from the large agricultural corporations that control much of the seed industry. A genetic heritage is also being kept alive, Gettle points out. "With heirloom seeds, you might be growing the same plant that Thomas Jefferson once did."

Healthier Fruits and Veggies

Why are heirloom fruits and veggies more nutritious? "Vegetables in the 1950s were a lot more nutritious than your standard produce today," says Gettle. Soil quality plays into this but so does seed quality. "Genetically altered seeds are programmed to produce more, and often at the expense of nutrients." For example, a corn seed may be programmed to take in more nitrogen to grow quickly, but this means it takes in less of other nutrients.

Better-Tasting Produce

In blind taste tests, consumers prefer heirloom varieties to conventional nine times out of ten, according to Gettle. Unfortunately, our industrial farming techniques program seeds to grow produce with fewer nutrients, which is why they are less tasty. As many top chefs know, it's the nutrients that produce the taste.

Finding Heirloom Produce

So, why aren't heirloom fruits and veggies more accessible? Essentially it's because of our current agricultural system, which grows crops to be picked before ripening and to have tough skins and less juice for longevity during lengthy transport. "Heirloom varieties are meant to be picked ripe and eaten, not to be transported and sit on grocery store shelves," Gettle says.

So look for heirloom produce at farmers' markets and through Community Supported Agricultural memberships. As local produce gets more common at grocery stores, heirloom products are more prevalent; but don't be afraid to ask questions: Where was it grown? How long has it been since it was picked?

Make sure to taste your heirloom produce on its own before adding it to recipes to see if you notice subtle flavor differences. Enjoy!