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Brave New Produce

Expanding the fruit & veggie section

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Brave New Produce

Purple artichokes. Red corn. Orange cauliflower. Food scientists with genetic curiosity have created hybrid fruits and vegetables popping up at markets near you.

Purple artichokes. Red corn. Orange cauliflower. Food scientists with genetic curiosity are monkeying around with Mother Nature’s crisper to produce jazzy new fruits and vegetables. With newfangled produce popping up at markets near you, should you take a bite or turn your attention back to more customary fare?

Ever so sweet and drippy, watermelon has always been one of my favourite fruits. That’s why I’m tinkled pink to have stumbled upon a mini seedless version at my local market. Weighing in at 5 lbs/2.3kg (a more manageable weight than the standard watermelon), minis slide effortlessly into my refrigerator.

But that’s not why I am such a devotee. One bite and I was blown away by its sweetness. A thinner rind means I get more toothsome mouthfuls per buck. To seal the deal, the deep crimson flesh indicates sky-high levels of lycopene–a powerful antioxidant that can reduce cancer risk.

Mini watermelons are just one example of how our favourite fruits and vegetables are getting a cheery makeover.

Weird Science?

In nature, plants reproduce when the male part of the flower called the stamen makes pollen and then cuddles with the pistil, or female part. Genetic material is united during the process and a fertilized seed is born. Usually this dance is performed between parents of the same species, such as a male apple hitting it off with an apple of the fairer sex.

But now agricultural scientists are taking unlikely pairings and performing shotgun weddings in the produce department to see what happens. It was a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale that produced broccolini; a coming together of grapefruit and tangerine that yielded the curious tangelo. In short, the white coats are creating hybrids that improve on nature’s own wanton ways.

But not all plant scientists are such daredevils. Rather than mixing two or more plant species, some work with just one at a time, breeding within the species to obtain desirable traits. In recent years the ability to identify and test for genes that produce certain characteristics has increased greatly. It was a kind of trait manipulation within the watermelon species that gave birth to the diminutive watermelon. In this case, the objective was to rid the fruit of its copious number of seeds and hard-to-handle bulk.

It turns out that all this genetic mucking about is turning already healthy produce into bona fide rock stars. New breeds are showing up with higher levels of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and, importantly for those whose favourite-tasting veggie is the French fry, a better palate experience. The brown Rosso Bruno tomato was conceived out of a demand for store-bought tomatoes that actually deliver a flavour wallop, unlike the bland varieties we have, sigh, become so accustomed to. Reams of studies prove that for the sake of our well-being, we need to eat more fruits and vegetables. If new eye-catching varieties accomplish this, then they’re more than worthwhile.

Survival of the Fittest

Before you start wagging your eco-conscious fingers, you should know that crossbreeding is different from genetic modification, which directly alters plant DNA. Genetic modification involves moving genes and their traits across natural boundaries; for example, implanting an algae gene into another plant to boost the plant’s omega fatty acid levels. That kind of science may have introduced new allergens into the food supply and produced insects that are more tolerant to chemical inputs.

Conventional crossbreeding and hybridization, however, allow plants to merge naturally and have yet to result in any noticeable adverse outcomes except that now your kids might have to wear sunglasses when eating salads because the veggies are extra bright.

So, while you still should chomp on lots of old-school broccoli and apples, the potential health boost these radiant mongrels bring to the salad bowl make them worthy of space in your crisper.

Now, if only they could produce a banana that tastes like chocolate.

Colour It Nutritious

Rainbow-hued rutabagas, durians with a pleasant aroma, or blueberries the size of baseballs won’t be cropping up at the farmers’ market anytime soon, but several enticing new creations are already available. Here are the latest value-added mongrels nestled among the more common breeds.

Scarlet (red) Corn

How It Came to Be

New look but traditionally bred from heirloom corn seeds

Your Tastebuds will Think…

You’re eating good old-fashioned sweet corn.

Health Boost

It’s custom-cultivated to provide high levels of anthocyanin, a red-hued flavonoid that may help fight diabetes and heart disease.

Rainbow Carrots

How It Came to Be

Kaleidoscopic carrots born from heirloom yellow, purple, and red seeds

Your Tastebuds will Think…

They’re sweeter than the go-to orange tuber.

Health Boost

Yellow carrots pony up lutein to safeguard your eyes; red carrots hand over lycopene, which protects against prostate cancer.

Rosso Bruno Tomato

How It Came to Be

A brown hybrid from a mishmash of wild varieties

Your Tastebuds will Think…

What juicy, rich flavour!

Health Boost

The hefty dose of fibre will keep blood sugar and cholesterol in check.

Plumcots

How It Came to Be

A crossbreed of plums and apricots

Your Tastebuds will Think…

How can something sooo sweet be so good for me?

Health Boost

They’re a champion source of vision-protecting vitamin A.

Orange Cauliflower

How It Came to Be

A mix of the traditional whitevariety and an orange-tinted one scooped up from a Canadian marsh

Your Tastebuds will Think…

It’s creamier and more tender than its ghostly cousin.

Health Boost

Unlike its ho-hum standby, this flushed head is bursting with beta carotene, an antioxidant with cancer-fighting properties.

Broccolini (a.k.a. baby broccoli)

How It Came to Be

A hybrid of broccoli and gai lan (Chinese kale)

Your Tastebuds will Think…

There is a peppery sweet edge that’s less bitter than broccoli.

Health Boost

Four stalks boost your immunity with 65 percent of your daily vitamin C needs

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