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Heirloom produce -- a wiser selection?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created March 10, 2011 at 1:48 AM

Whilst shopping at my local natural food store, I spied some heirloom Arkansas Black apples and selected a few to take home and enjoy. They're absolutely delicious, crisp and tart and almost fermented in taste, not sickeningly cloying or overly sweet at all.

I oftimes hear warnings to avoid modern fruit, since they have typically been genetically bred to be higher in fructose and thus less healthful (as opposed to the fruits that existed during the time of our paleolithic ancestors). Because of this, I tend to steer clear of exceedingly sweet fruits, but I decided to make an exception for these delicious apples.

I was wondering if, when selecting produce, if it is a wiser decision to choose "heirloom" breeds -- are they less meddled with? Are they lower in sugar and perhaps a slight improvement over the sugarbombs such as the Honeycrisp or Jazz apple? Or are they going to send me spiraling out of control on an insulin roller-coaster and kill me dead?

Also -- probably totally irrational paranoia, but are heirloom foods endangered of going extinct? I have this awful mental image of GMO crops driving heirlooms to the brink then pushing them over. o.O

Thanks! :)

74f5d2ff6567edd456d31dfb9b92af61

(5227)

on March 10, 2011
at 10:32 PM

That makes me glad I chose the heirloom apples. Thanks, Karen! :)

74f5d2ff6567edd456d31dfb9b92af61

(5227)

on March 10, 2011
at 05:21 AM

That's an excellent, comprehensive answer. Thank you so much, Dana! I'm going to have to check and see if they have foraging classes out here. :)

922038b6c0ca6a051cc4858218931456

(392)

on March 10, 2011
at 02:46 AM

I second checking out parks programming. It appears I live near Dana and I know the Columbus Metro Parks and Delaware County Preservation Parks around here have some of that type of programming.

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2 Answers

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4
5ccb98f6ae42ce87e206cf3f6a86039f

(11581)

on March 10, 2011
at 03:34 PM

There are some good reasons to grow and eat heirlooms, but not necessarily paleo related, since all heirloom veg would have been selected after the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago, and most common heirlooms only date to the 1800s or after. Some like arugula are pretty close to the wild species, but even most arugula has been selected for larger, softer leaves.

I co-wrote a fact sheet quite a while back on heirlooms. http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/gardening/hgic1255.html It's written for a gardeners perspective, but applies to eaters too. Quoting myself: "One reason to grow heirloom vegetables is simply that they are a taste of the past. Many varieties, which had been prized and maintained for generations, have been lost in recent decades as fewer people save seed year to year. For many gardeners, saving an heirloom cultivar is a connection to their heritage.

Many gardeners grow heirlooms that have superior flavor. Heirloom varieties that have been selected for taste and tenderness through several generations are often tastier than cultivars that have been selected for ease of shipping, uniform appearance or ability to grow well throughout the country.

When gardeners save the seed of the best-tasting, best-performing plants in their gardens each year for a number of years, they gradually select their own special cultivars. Those selections will be suited to their own growing conditions and tastes. Open-pollinated seed that has been grown and harvested for generations in a region or microclimate becomes adapted to that area 's soil, climate and pests.

Many people grow and save old cultivars because they save a lot of money by avoiding the purchase of new and expensive hybrid seed each year. Hybrid seed will not produce similar plants when saved from year to year.

Another vital reason to maintain heirlooms is to keep their genetic traits for future use. When old varieties of food crops are not maintained, the gene pool grows smaller and smaller. This may lead to increased disease and pest problems."

Another reason to buy heirlooms (in the correct venue - farmers markets, CSAs) is that they are primarily grown by small farmers, organically, although this is changing as heirlooms become fashionable and mega ag corps start growing them.

74f5d2ff6567edd456d31dfb9b92af61

(5227)

on March 10, 2011
at 10:32 PM

That makes me glad I chose the heirloom apples. Thanks, Karen! :)

4
F9a0b72f38860d7601afd5a45bb53394

(3618)

on March 10, 2011
at 02:13 AM

Heirloom breeds are good because in breeding terms, the variety is stable. It is not an F1 hybrid, which is a first-generation cross. If you breed two specimens from the same heirloom variety, you will get an offspring that bred true (assuming no cross-contamination from any nearby varieties). Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties, they just happen to be some of the older ones. (I don't know that you would necessarily call a newer OP variety "heirloom," though I suppose some growers might try it so they can jack up the prices.)

I can't imagine there's much of a difference in nutrition; the biggest difference is going to come from organic vs. conventionally-grown, and even then it depends on what's already in the soil and what's added during the growing season.

I would buy OP produce and especially heirloom produce over F1 or GMO simply because it keeps more variety in the plant's gene pool. If you like the idea of a bunch of heirloom varieties dying out and the remaining crops being more susceptible to disease and climate issues as a result, hey, whatever. Consumer choices have a way of producing consequences like that.

If you're that worried about increased sugar in modern varieties, one solution would be to learn how to forage. There are some great identification books out there now, including color photographs, and more and more localities have classes available. I know for a fact there are people in Portland, OR teaching foraging classes and I'm sure there are lots of others. Sometimes even state extension programs will teach wildcrafting, and some city parks & recreation departments have edible wild plant classes. (I'm pretty sure ours does, and I'm in Columbus, Ohio.) The wild plants pretty much always are lower in sugar.

74f5d2ff6567edd456d31dfb9b92af61

(5227)

on March 10, 2011
at 05:21 AM

That's an excellent, comprehensive answer. Thank you so much, Dana! I'm going to have to check and see if they have foraging classes out here. :)

922038b6c0ca6a051cc4858218931456

(392)

on March 10, 2011
at 02:46 AM

I second checking out parks programming. It appears I live near Dana and I know the Columbus Metro Parks and Delaware County Preservation Parks around here have some of that type of programming.

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