‘Witches Fingers’ grapes may sound scary, but what about other types of cross-bred, designer produce? Sure, some of it—cotton candy grapes, anyone?—seems straight out of Willy Wonka. But other designer fruits and veggies—like super broccoli, selenium-enriched tomatoes and vitamin-D enhanced mushrooms—have been engineered to contain more nutrients than typical varieties. That’s a good thing … right?
To be clear, this isn’t ‘genetically modified’ produce we’re talking about, at least not in the way we typically use that term (food that come from organisms with genetically engineered, or changed, DNA). Most of the designer fruits and veggies mentioned below, with the exception of the mushrooms (we’ll get to that), are simply hybrids, developed by extensive cross-breeding of compatible plants or plant varieties.
And it’s a brave new broccoli world we’re living in, folks. Last week, UK scientists unveiled the ‘super broccoli,’ a new breed of the cruciferous vegetable specially grown to contain 2 to 3 times the amount of fat-burning nutrient glucoraphanin. The broccoli, which remains nutritionally unchanged in all other ways, may taste slightly sweeter, scientists say. But Super Broccoli—a hybrid of traditional British broccoli and a Sicilian variety—contains no genetic modifications. It’s pretty much your standard broccoli, with a little more fat-fighting oomph.
Earlier this year, British researchers produced ‘super tomatoes,’ high in the anti-oxidant selenium. Then there’s The Moruno, a tomato which took Spanish scientists two years to develop and is the result of cross-breeding 2,000 varieties; it has double levels of cancer-fighting lycopene.
Also new to the produce aisle: Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms. Both Dole and Monterey Mushrooms (maker of Sun Bella mushrooms) sell these suckers, which have been zapped with artificial UV rays to increase their Vitamin D content. “Mushrooms contain a compound called ergosterol that gets converted to vitamin D when exposed to UVB light,” according to Tara McHugh, research leader at the Western Regional Research Center of the Agricultural Research Service, in Eating Well magazine.
This conversion is similar to the one that creates vitamin D in our skin. Mushrooms grow in the dark, so theoretically you could force them to make vitamin D by exposing them to sunlight, but it would take a long time. Instead a new technique exposes mushrooms to high-intensity artificial UV rays for a few minutes (think tanning bed).
While a tanning bed for veggies may not sound healthy, the process is harmless, and doesn’t adversely affect other nutrient content, at least according to the first study on the mushrooms, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in September. These tanning-bed mushrooms could actually be really good news, since many people lack vitamin D, and few natural foods are high in the vitamin.
But not all specially-engineered produce is designed with extra nutrition in mind. Red Brussels Sprouts were designed to appeal to kids bored of green veggies. Red celery’s impetus is also novelty.
“For a category that’s relatively flat, how do you bring excitement to the produce section? said Dan Duda, president of red-celery-maker Duda Farm Fresh Foods. “How do you get consumers to try different things? Certainly colour is one way to do it.”
And, apparently, elongated, bluish Witches Fingers grapes are just the beginning in the grape world, where International Fruit Genetics, a private fruit breeder based in Delano, California (slogan: “Premium fruit varieties for a global market”), and others are breeding grapes in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors. There are grapes that taste like mango, cotton candy and lollipops; limited-edition crops are being sold to high-end restaurants and specialty stores.
“It seems only logical to try to have these genetic advances used to create unique products that consumers will enjoy,” John Clark, a University of Alabama agriculture professor, said.
In other words, it’s genetic wizardry as marketing gimmick. I, for one, welcome a future where socialites tout their designer grapes and eggplants instead of handbags and boots. The last time we got so excited about scientific advances in food, we wound up with TV dinners, Spam and a whole new lexicon of preservatives. Hopefully, this next wave of laboratory food, focused on fruits and vegetables, will at least fare a little better in the health department.
Some people are warning that added nutrients like glucoraphanin can be toxic in high doses. “Researchers have argued away the toxicity arguments,” Philip Ridley writes. But
“… for me, this is similar to the flu vaccine argument. I prefer … well trodden paths to immunity, leaving unproven, newfangled foods on the doorstep, particularly when they appear to be elevated by a well targeted PR campaign.
Hmm. The marketing of designer produce does feel a little odd, but farm groups have been applying commercial advertising products to food staples for years (think ‘the incredible, edible egg’). It’s the patents that could be more troublesome—companies are already patenting their crosses, so only they have the right to reproduce certain hybrids.