Beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to nutrition, it turns out the best of it may be hidden in ugly fruits and vegetables.
The concept, of course, goes against our preference for visually pleasing produce—a consumer obsession fueled by big agriculture and the development of flavorless yet eye-appealing bright red apples or perfectly round tomatoes, for example. Most of us have come to discover many of these perfect-looking fruits and vegetables to underwhelm upon tasting them, yet we buy them again and again, hopeful that taste will live up to the visual perfection for once.
But this new research may sway you to the ugly side–if not for better flavor, at least for more nutrients. According to NPR, orchardist Eliza Greenman tested scarred versus unscarred Parma apples, a high-sugar variety that’s native to Virginia.
“[The] scarred apples had a 2 to 5 percent higher sugar content than unmarred apples from the same tree,” reports NPR. “More sugar means a higher alcohol content once fermented, producing a tastier hard cider.”
As counterintuitive as it may seem, there’s some truth to Greenman’s hunch.
“One study showed that an apple covered in scab has more healthy, antioxidant phenolic compounds, called phenylpropanoids, than a scab-free apple peel,” NPR explains. “Another study showed that apple leaves infected with scab have 10 to 20 percent more phenolic compounds. Similar research has found high levels of resveratrol in grape leaves infected with fungi or simply exposed to the stress of ultraviolet light. A study of Japanese knotweed, a plant with a long tradition of use in Chinese and Japanese herbal medicine, found that infection with common fungi boosted its resveratrol content as well. Resveratrol is an antioxidant that’s been well-studied for its potential cardio-protective action. All these antioxidants protect both plants, and probably the humans who eat them.”
All of this could be incredibly good news not just for the people who eat the ugly fruits and vegetables, but also for the farmers who grow them. High visual standards mean that many farmers throw away a sizable chunk of harvest—often as much as 20 percent—because stores will refuse the scarred or misshapen produce solely based on appearance.
But recent efforts to bring awareness to our global food waste issue—about 2.9 trillion pounds of food a year—have put “ugly” fruits and vegetables in the spotlight.
Last year in France a supermarket campaign helped usher less desirable fruits and vegetables to center stage by selling them at a deeper discount. Here in the U.S., Whole Foods Market has begun a similar campaign in select California stores in a partner project with Imperfect Produce. And many conscious foodies are snapping up funky fruits and veggies from local farmers markets where they’re often cheaper there, too.
“We find that it is really easy to convince people when they realize they can pay a fraction of the price to get the same kind of taste and health,” Ron Clark, the chief supply officer for Imperfect Produce, told the New York Times. “Once one person is convinced, it doesn’t take much to get them to convert others.”