Today's food plants have changed

I recently read a fascinating book about the original plants that have become the food we eat today.

"Eating on the Wild Side," by Jo Robinson, offers information about how plants are different now, as well as information about their changed nutritional value.

Most of our fruits and vegetables originated from places scattered around the globe. Today's blueberries are descended from wild "swamp blueberries" native to a part of what is now New Jersey. The wild ancestor of today's beefsteak tomatoes is a berry-sized fruit growing in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.

Our big, crunchy, orange carrots originated as scrawny purple roots growing in Afghanistan. The wild plants of bananas were first discovered in Malaysia and parts of Southeast Asia. Back then, they were full of large, hard seeds and had such firm, tight skins that they had to be cut off with a knife. But if you took a bite of the banana then, it was so dry and astringent, you'd probably throw it away.

Central Mexico gave rise to corn, but you might not even recognize it today. The kernels were about 30 percent protein and 2 percent sugar. So-called "old fashioned" sweet corn had about 4 percent protein and 10 percent sugar, while today's supersweet varieties have about 40 percent sugar.

How have these changes taken place? Our distant human relatives continued to search for and consume food in its wild form until 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. Then people began to live more in groups and to cultivate their food plants, while still hunting for wild game.

Starting with those first gardens, our ancestors undoubtedly cultivated the plants that were most pleasurable to eat. This could be accomplished in part because seeds were saved from the best plants, just like we do today. In addition, plants undergo natural changes, called mutations. An observant caveman would notice this and take advantage of the fact, provided the new mutation was an improvement. Why bother to cultivate plants that are unpleasant to eat?

Favored crops included sweet ones, such as figs and dates. Archeologists tell us that while early man ate only small amounts of grain, those first farmers grew early versions of wheat, barley and millet in the Middle East, corn in the Americas and rice in Asia.

Oil-rich plants were valued, too. The charred remains of a 7,000-year-old olive grove have been unearthed in Palestine. Sesame seeds were domesticated 5,000 years ago, and avocados have been grown in Mexico for at least 3,000 years.

As science and technology, as well as travel, advanced, so did the development of "new and improved" plants. Science-based plant breeding has speeded up the process, too.

Some people, including the author of the book, are concerned that the nutritional value of our man-made varieties has been an afterthought. Plant breeders may spend years perfecting a new variety without ever measuring its nutritional value or its effect on blood sugar. If it's attractive, pleasing to eat, withstands shipping, is productive and disease-resistant, it's considered a triumph.

We might want to give this some thought and maybe more research.

Coming up: Yours truly will teach a class about thinking spring in December, such as how can we get an early start on raising veggies without using a greenhouse The class, from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10, will be held at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371 to register.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at

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