I recently received the following question from a reader:
“How do I buy fruits and vegetables that are closest to the way our ancestors ate them? I don’t want to be eating these hybridized apples and giant unnatural strawberries, etc. How do I go back to finding original types of fruits before they were altered? How and what should I be shopping for? I trust my instincts, but my instincts tend to push me away from the extremely sweet, weird-tasting new fruits. What should I shop for and where should I be buying? I live in Illinois.”
This is an interesting question, and my answer may surprise you.
First, my follow-up question is: “Why would you want to eat foods close to the foods your ancestors ate?”
It’s probably because you’ve been told that those foods are somehow better, healthier, and more nutritious. They contained less sugar, more fiber, and perhaps more antioxidants.
You probably also have bought the common myth that hybridized foods are bad for health.
But let’s put things into perspective.
Our ancestors ate foods that they could find in their environment, and over the course of thousands upon thousands of generations, they altered these plants by selecting the ones that they preferred.
Our ancestors always preferred foods containing more calories (natural sugar), a manageable amount of fiber, and fewer natural toxins.
The plants we cultivate today are the most nutritious and digestible foods that humans ever had access to.
Trying to go back to wild foods entirely would not only be a mistake, it would actually be counterproductive. While it’s true that some wild plants are nutritious and offer some health benefits, designing a diet around wild plants would be extremely ill advised.
If you tried to live on wild fruits, such as the ones that chimpanzees live on, you would actually become sick and eventually die. That’s because humans are not adapted to live on wild plants. We are genetically adapted to foods with more available calories, fewer tannins and fewer natural toxins.
Richard Wrangham, from Harvard University, writes:
“Evolutionary adaptation to cooking might likewise explain why humans seem less prepared to tolerate toxins than do other apes. In my experience of sampling many wild foods eaten by primates, items eaten by chimpanzees in the wild taste better than foods eaten by monkeys. Even so, some of the fruits, seeds, and leaves that chimpanzees select taste so foul that I can barely swallow them. The tastes are strong and rich, excellent indicators of the presence of non-nutritional compounds, many of which are likely to be toxic to humans—but presumably much less so to chimpanzees. Consider the plum-size fruit of Warburgia ugandensis, a tree famous for its medicinal bark. Warburgia fruits contain a spicy compound reminiscent of a mustard oil. The hot taste renders even a single fruit impossibly unpleasant for humans to ingest. But chimpanzees can eat a pile of these fruits and then look eagerly for more. Many other fruits in the chimpanzee diet are almost equally unpleasant to the human palate. Astringency, the drying sensation produced by tannins and a few other compounds, is common in fruits eaten by chimpanzees.
(…) Astringency is caused by the presence of tannins, which bind to proteins and cause them to precipitate. Our mouths are normally lubricated by mucoproteins in our saliva, but because a high density of tannins precipitates those proteins, it leaves our tongues and mouths dry: hence the ‘furry’ sensation in our mouths after eating an unripe apple or drinking a tannin-rich wine. One has the same experience when tasting chimpanzee fruits such as Mimusops bagshawei or the widespread Pseudospondias microcarpa. Though chimpanzees can eat more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of such fruits during an hour or more of continuous chewing, we cannot.
(…) The shifts in food preference between chimpanzees and humans suggest that our species has a reduced physiological tolerance for foods high in toxins or tannins. Since cooking predictably destroys many toxins, we may have evolved a relatively sensitive palate.”
I’ve spent a lot of time in Costa Rica, and I’ve had the chance to look at what monkeys eat in the wild. The monkeys in Costa Rica are not like great apes, but fruit constitutes most of the diet of some of these monkeys.
What always puzzled me is that whenever I saw the fruits these monkeys ate, and by accident some of it was dropped on the ground, it always looked far from edible to me. Whenever I tried to eat some of these fruits, I found them to be quite repulsive.
In his famous book “Guns, Germs and Steel” author Jared Diamond writes extensively on the domestication of plants.
“How did certain wild plants get turned into crops? That question is especially puzzling in regard to the many crops (like almonds) whose wild progenitors are lethal or bad-tasting, and to other crops (like corn) that look drastically different from their wild ancestors. (…)
“Many wild seeds evolved to be bitter, bad-tasting, or actually poisonous, in order to deter animals from eating them. Thus, natural selection acts oppositely on seeds and on fruits. Plants whose fruits are tasty get their seeds dispersed by animals, but the seed itself within the fruit has to be bad-tasting. Otherwise, the animal would also chew up the seed, and it couldn’t sprout. Almonds provide a striking example of bitter seeds and their change under domestication. Most wild almond seeds contain an intensely bitter chemical called amygdalin, which (as was already mentioned) breaks down to yield the poison cyanide. A snack of wild almonds can kill a person foolish enough to ignore the warning of the bitter taste.
“Since the first stage in unconscious domestication involves gathering seeds to eat, how on earth did domestication of wild almonds ever reach that first stage? The explanation is that occasional individual almond trees have a mutation in a single gene that prevents them from synthesizing the bitter-tasting amygdalin. Such trees die out in the wild without leaving any progeny, because birds discover and eat all their seeds. But curious or hungry children of early farmers, nibbling wild plants around them, would eventually have sampled and noticed those nonbitter almond trees. (In the same way, European peasants today still recognize and appreciate occasional individual oak trees whose acorns are sweet rather than bitter.) Those nonbitter almond seeds are the only ones that ancient farmers would have planted, at first unintentionally in their garbage heaps and later intentionally in their orchards.” (…)
“While size and tastiness are the most obvious criteria by which human hunter-gatherers select wild plants, other criteria include fleshy or seedless fruits, oily seeds, and long fibers. Wild squashes and pumpkins have little or no fruit around their seeds, but the preferences of early farmers selected for squashes and pumpkins consisting of far more flesh than seeds. Cultivated bananas were selected long ago to be all flesh and no seed, thereby inspiring modern agricultural scientists to develop seedless oranges, grapes, and watermelons as well.”
As we can see, humans have always had very good reasons to domesticate plants. The wild versions of most domesticated plants are either inedible, low in caloric value, or toxic.
If you attempted to live on wild plants, you would not thrive for very long. Almost every advocate of a “wild diet” still gets most of their calories from domesticated plants (and often animal products).
In the case of strawberries that are the size of small children, it’s true that sometimes the tastes of the public have pushed industry to create even bigger and tastier versions of common fruits. You may prefer the taste of smaller or even wild strawberries, but there’s absolutely nothing indicating that there’s anything wrong, health-wise, with big strawberries, as long as they haven’t been sprayed with a lot of pesticides.
Similarly, there’s absolutely no reason to avoid modern varieties of apples.
The problem with industry is not hybridization. The problem is that the marketplace has forgotten about older varieties of some plants, like apples or tomatoes. There are literally hundreds of varieties of apples and tomatoes, but only a few are available commercially. However, every single one of those varieties are still domesticated and “hybridized.” They’re just less desirable for commercial reasons, either because the fruits don’t keep as long, or some other rationale like this.
Lately, there’s been a resurgence of interest for Heirloom tomatoes. Those varieties of tomatoes generally taste a lot better, although sometimes look “weird.” They’re just older varieties of tomatoes but are certainly not anything like the wild versions. They are still domesticated plants.
Seeking to eat what our ancestors ate isn’t practical or beneficial. First of all, most of the plants they ate no longer exist. Over the course of evolution, they’ve selected the plants that best suited their needs. The initial wild varieties of those plants may still exist somewhere in nature, but you’d be shocked at how inedible those are!
A few exceptions come to mind: wild berries are generally excellent. But that may be because people, throughout history, have always picked wild berries, and “selected” the best-tasting varieties.
If you want to be healthy and stay healthy, eat foods available at health food stores, farmers markets and supermarkets. There’s nothing wrong with the organic produce sold in those places. If you have a garden, you could try planting Heirloom varieties of some vegetables, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that those foods have anything to do with what our ancestors ate, tens of thousands of years ago.