Imperfect fruit: Do we forgo nutrition when we 'eat with our eyes'?
Several weeks ago, my patient Mary brought me a bag of Gravenstein apples fresh-picked from her backyard tree. They were squat and mottled, and, from the occasional puncture hole, I could tell that the birds had enjoyed them first. These apples had little in common with the archetypal Granny Smith you might find in a supermarket. I lifted the oddest of the bunch from the bag; it looked like a giant dappled lima bean.
"Gorgeous," Mary sighed as if she were admiring a rare jewel. "Not like those machines you get in the store, the ones that are totally perfect and don't taste nearly as good. But that's what people buy."
She is right. We want our produce to look like supermodels: sleek, unblemished and perfectly proportioned. But I am discovering that our preference for these idealized fruits and vegetables might have negative consequences for our taste buds and our health.
"Produce porn" is what David Mas Masumoto calls it. He is an organic farmer near Fresno, Calif., whose peaches are widely considered to be some of the most delicious in the country. He and his family recently published "The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories From the Masumoto Family Farm" (Ten Speed Press).
"Salability defines what is good," Masumoto told me. "And the easiest way to sell product is to make it a commodity defined by the visual. What I am focusing on instead is peaches with special needs. These are peaches that don't look like the perfect peach but have just as much, if not more, value."
According to Beth Mitcham, a post-harvest researcher at the University of California at Davis' School of Agriculture and Natural Resources, our preference for uniform, camera-ready produce is shaped partly by marketing and partly by USDA regulations that stipulate all commercially grown fruits and vegetables must be at least 90 percent blemish-free.
She places most of the blame squarely on us, the consumers. Mitcham contends that we are ignoring our innate food-selecting instincts and "buying with our eyes" rather than with our noses or our taste buds.
"Research shows that food gets rejected at point of sale if it's bruised, not if it's unripe or has poor flavor," she says.
But Masumoto is hopeful there is a growing market for his produce with special needs. He says he is thrilled that some food and cooking magazines are eschewing the classic hero shots in favor of images of less-than-perfect produce.
John Navazio, a plant breeder in Washington state, also sees a new trend in how we choose our produce.
"We still want beautiful food," he says, "but as we understand the story behind that food, we begin to look for a different kind of beauty."
No one can tell that story better than Navazio, who began his career at a commercial seed company and now works for the Organic Seed Alliance, a nonprofit organization that helps farmers develop seeds best suited for organic farming. According to Navazio, after decades of preferential breeding for yield, transportability and uniformity, our standard produce has lost much of its flavor and, in some cases, some of its nutrients.
Initially, his goal was to improve upon these commercial breeds. But in 2002, when he started working with organic farmers at the seed alliance, he realized most modern crop varieties were simply not suitable for most organic farming.
"The available commercial seed stock was developed for a high-input industrial model where the land is flat, irrigated and treated with pesticides and fertilizers," Navazio says. "Organic fruits and vegetables need to resist pests naturally by having more genetic diversity within each breed and by having a structure that wards off pests. They also need to be great nutrient scavengers, because their fertility is not handed to them on a platter."
In addition to prizing hardiness, Navazio found, organic farmers had other priorities that were different from those of big conventional growers. First and foremost, they wanted fruits and vegetables that had great taste, and preferably ones that packed a bigger nutritional punch.
On the other hand, Navazio found that shelf life and transportability were less essential to most organic farmers because they sold locally and had less lag time between field and plate. A high yield was less important, because local customers accept more imperfections and so less of the harvest needed to be discarded. Mitcham told me that as much as 30 percent of all produce on some larger farms is relegated to animal feed or canned food or is left to rot in the field.
To meet this new set of standards, Navazio realized, he needed to bring back a whole series of characteristics that have been lost with modern breeding. For example, one of his favorite carrot varieties, the Chantenay, has a wild, bushy top and a blunt root. To the untrained eye, it's a lot funnier-looking than your classic "Bugs Bunny" carrot. But when you learn that the Chantenay's top does an excellent job of fighting encroaching weeds and that its root is especially adapted to grab nutrients from less-processed and -amended soil, you begin to appreciate its odd shape.
And once one realizes that root vegetables and most other plants synthesize more antioxidants and more flavorful sugars and tannins in response to stress, even the insect nibbles and sun spots have an appeal.
"Just like every face tells a story," Navazio says, "you can look at every fruit and vegetable and learn about the life and environment that it came from."
Vegan-raw chef Jonathan Seningen of Elizabeth's Gone Raw in Washington echoes those opinions.
"They say we eat with our eyes, but I try not to be too shallow," he says. "I look for produce that has spent time in a healthy field and that doesn't have the face that only a genetically modified organism can love."
Seningen says he has to be extra picky about his plant ingredients because he cannot easily mask their flavor, or lack thereof, by frying or sauteing. He is happy to sacrifice some perfection in pursuit of flavor: "If there are no worms at the end of my corn, I wonder: 'What did they do to this corn?' "
As I admired my Gravenstein apple and breathed in its delicate scent, my patient Mary made a similar comment.
"The birds go after the best ones," she said. "If a bird doesn't want to eat it, then why should I?"
Try this recipe: Less-than-perfect peaches, or those that are overripe, are just the ticket for this savory soup. Serve as a starter or as refresher between courses.
• Miller is a family physician and author. Her most recent book is "Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing" (William Morrow, 2013).