There’s been lots of stuff in the papers and journals in the last few weeks about our vegetables becoming sweeter. Growers have bred sweeter varieties of vegetables and fruit over the years, which are more palatable to us. Broccoli, once despised by generations of children, is now a favourite food for youngsters, alongside carrots!
Is this a bad thing? It’s an interesting one. The ‘phytochemicals’ – or ‘phytonutrients’ – that provide the bitter flavour in vegetables are also a big part of what makes them so healthy. They have all kinds of interesting health benefits, from fighting cancer to improving the cardiovascular system. Phytochemicals are actually natural toxins that evolved to deter fungal and insect pests, and they are thought to work because they are mildly toxic to humans too. When we eat them, the mild stress stimulates the body’s repair mechanisms, which overcompensate and make us more healthy than when we started. This fascinating biological mechanism is known as ‘hormesis’, and is thought to be the same reason that swimming in cold water or light drinking is good for you.
Should we worry too much? Probably not. One researcher pointed out that if sweeter veg means we eat more of them than if they were bitter, it’s better all round. But the next time, you bite into a bitter salad leaf or piece of chard, take comfort in the good it’s doing for you!