Dear Mark: Are Hybrid Fruits and Vegetables Healthy?
Posted Nov 30 2010 12:43pm
I was wanting to know if there is any danger in eating hybrid foods. I recently tried broccolini and then discovered that it was a hybrid between broccoli and Chinese kale. Is this dangerous to eat? Is it similar to GM? I would greatly appreciate your input on this before I start eating more of it.
Thanks, Angelina, for the question. It’s a good one, because even when we don’t explicitly seek out the obvious hybrids (broccolini, pluots, apriums, etc.), we’re still exposed to them. In case you didn’t know, hybrid fruits and vegetables are created by cross-pollinating two closely related species of the same genus or two cultivars or varieties within the same species. Though we’re talking about the artificial, man-enabled variety in today’s question, this phenomenon happens quite frequently in nature. Random hybridization is essentially how new species of plants arise – stretched out over time. Artificial hybridization operates on the same principle as natural hybridization, only with authorial intent.
So, does eating a pluot, a tangelo, a plate of broccolini, some seedless watermelon, a golden kiwifruit, or salad of hybrid cherry tomatoes mean we’re consuming an unholy bastard child that our ancestors wouldn’t have recognized as food? Of course not. These are legitimate, interesting varietals that taste good and offer beneficial dietary nutrients, just like their parents.
Technically speaking, all fruits and vegetables are hybrids. You go back far enough and it’s just pollen and seeds and wind and bees – one big swirling floral orgy – and every single plant we know today has ties to that epoch of love. Modern hybridized fruits and vegetables like broccolini and grapples come about in much the same way (cross-pollination), but with a little guiding intervention. And remember that many if not most “normal” fruits and vegetables we eat today are modern creations – the familiar yellow banana, boysenberries (a hybrid of raspberries and blackberries), grapefruit, meyer lemons, and numerous apple varieties (but more on this tomorrow). We’ve been cross-pollinating plants for centuries.
But wait: how similar are hybrid foods to GMOs? I mean, both represent forms of human intervention into nature for the purpose of improving it, right? We’re generally suspicious and skeptical of GMOs , so why do hybrids get a pass?
GMOs involve the combining of DNA molecules from disparate sources into a single molecule to form a new set of genes. The organism that receives this new DNA molecule gets modified, or new, genes, including ones that improve a plant’s hardiness, imbue it with powerful endogenous pesticides and/or herbicides, or lengthen its shelf life. Others increase the vitamin content and some increase the uptake of minerals from the soil. Whatever your opinion on GMOs, hybrids aren’t the same.
At first glance, I understand the hesitation, the instinctual drawing back. Mankind may be damn good at creating complex tools, inventing machines, erecting global communication networks, and generally manhandling anything the world can throw at us, but we seem to trip up when we try to circumvent nature. More specifically, our attempts to improve upon nature in the dietary realm have been downright disastrous. Industrial solvent-extracted seed oils, Crisco, HFCS, wheat fortified with extra gluten , acres and acres of soil-depleting monoculture crops, and (potentially troublesome) untested, unproven GMOs – our track record inspires little confidence.
But hybridization isn’t some monolith to be universally condemned. You have every right to be wary of it, but be smart about it. Hybridized wheat bred to have triple the gluten? Avoid it – but not because it’s a hybrid. Avoid it because it’s wheat with triple the gluten. It’s the gluten that’ll get you, not the fact that a human interfered in its conception. There’s no toxic byproduct created out of thin air by the act of hybridization. But broccolini, demon spawn of the deadly broccoli and toxic Chinese kale? C’mon. If a person is going to posit that broccolini is dangerous, they need to give a better reason than “It’s a hybrid.” Hybridization happens in nature. In and of itself, it’s a perfectly legitimate process. You need to identify specifics. What are the toxic elements being introduced or concentrated? Where are the nutritional deficits? You need to point to the “gluten of broccolini,” if it even exists.
If you accept the nutritional legitimacy of broccoli and Chinese kale (and you should – they’re great), you shouldn’t fear their love child (it was an arranged marriage, sure, but it worked out in the end) broccolini on dietary grounds. Lightly steam it, stir-fry it with a bit of butter or coconut oil , or add it, chopped, to a soup right before serving, and you’re in business. It’s full of potassium, folate, iron, soluble fiber, and vitamin C. You might run into talk online of a rat gene being spliced into broccolini to increase its vitamin C production, but it’s unsubstantiated, and the folks who originally made the claim have retracted and corrected it .
The same goes for the others. For example, pluots are fine if you tolerate apricots and plums. Sure, there’s a bit more (or a lot more, as the case may be) sugar , but that’s plainly evident once you taste one. The fructose content is not a hidden danger. It’s considered a feature by the producers. Just don’t eat a bag of them in a sitting, just as you wouldn’t eat a sack of donut holes.
Use common sense and avoid utter nonsense, like this supposed drawback to hybrid fruits and vegetables that I kept coming across online: that they’re missing “vital electrics.” Vital electrics. Yes. Those. I’m not entirely certain what electrics are, but the fact that they unerringly appear coupled with “vital” makes me think I need them. So, yeah – hybrid foods apparently lead to vital electrics deficiency. If you’ve ever eaten a hybrid vegetable, be sure to get your electrics tested. It’s absolutely vital that you do. Fruitarian guru David Wolfe seems to be the source of this vital electrics business, and he’s also of the opinion that a hybrid fruit is to be avoided because “ it is confused .”
Hybrids aren’t a big deal either way. They’re just another type of vegetable, only cross-bred to maximize desired traits, like durability, yield, size, and taste. Eat them, or don’t, but don’t fret. You’ve got bigger things to be concerned with – the vegetable oil your food is cooked in, the wheat and sugar that worm their way into seemingly everything, the quality of your meat and fat , the overabundance of and scarcity of , the strength of your social ties , the intensity of your workouts – so don’t worry whether broccolini is out to get you.