Grow the Most Nutritious Fruits and Vegetables

Take the nutritional value in your homegrown foods to a new level by growing varieties proven to be rich in phytonutrients, including anthocyanins, quercetin, lutein, lycopene and more.


| February/March 2015



Garden on Vashon Island

The author’s bountiful garden on Vashon Island, Wash. has a priceless view.


Photo by Jo Robinson

I’ve spent the past 10 years scouring scientific articles for information on the most nutritious fruit and vegetable varieties in our modern world. So far, I’ve pinpointed hundreds of stellar choices. The health benefits of eating these specific varieties range from lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer — the top two causes of death in the United States — to boosted energy and a more radiant complexion. You might even live longer. Studies suggest that eating the most nutritious varieties of fruits and vegetables may have a bigger impact on our health than how many fruits and vegetables we consume.

For example, in a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2013, participants 65 years of age and older who consumed highly nutritious fruit and vegetable varieties during a 12-year period had a 30 percent lower mortality rate compared with those who consumed less-nutritious varieties.

Phytonutrient Power

The reason some varieties of fruits and vegetables are more protective of our health than others, according to 21st-century science, is that they are rich sources of molecular compounds called “phytonutrients.” Phyto means “plant” in Greek, and plants produce phytonutrients to protect themselves from diseases, fungi, insects, harmful ultraviolet light, drought and other threats. When we eat plants rich in phytonutrients, we receive health benefits, too — the plant’s self-protection becomes our protection.

Decades ago, the prevailing stance among nutritionists was that phytonutrients were of no benefit to human health. This old viewpoint has been flipped on its head, however, and some scientists, including Rui Hai Liu, a professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, now maintain that the majority of the health benefits we get from eating fruits and vegetables come via their phytonutrient content — not from their more often-credited vitamins, minerals and fiber.

You can find some phytonutrient-rich fruits and vegetables in supermarkets and farmers markets. Home gardeners are in an enviable position, though, because we can fill our plots with the most healthful varieties. Happily, because many of these choice plants are disease-resistant as well as nutritious, they’re often ideal for organic growing. One of my favorite examples of this is the ‘Liberty’ apple, which was released to the public in the 1970s by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. This apple has two to three times more phytonutrients than most supermarket varieties, and it’s crisp and juicy, with a good balance of sweet and tart. The ‘Liberty’ tree is also wonderfully productive and highly resistant to apple scab and fire blight, two destructive apple diseases. Last year, my ‘Fuji,’ ‘Gravenstein’ and ‘Northern Spy’ apples were covered with scab, but the fruits on my ‘Liberty’ tree remained pristine.

Appetizing Allies

Most phytonutrients are potent antioxidants, which help protect us from tiny particles called “free radicals.” We generate free radicals when we breathe, eat, exercise, fight disease, or are exposed to toxic substances. We can’t avoid free radicals, and, when kept in balance, they can be beneficial. In excess, however, they can turn a normal cell cancerous, promote chronic inflammation, contribute to the blockage of our arteries, or destroy vital neurons in the brain. Fortunately, phytonutrient-rich foods have such potent antioxidant activity that they can limit the damage free radicals cause.

annette
7/20/2016 2:41:13 PM

Anyone who is interested in boosting his or her health with beneficial food varieties should read the book, "Epic Tomatoes". That assumes that such person likes tomatoes and wants to boost his or her nutritional health with tomatoes. It encourages tomato lovers/ growers/ seed savers to try many heirloom varieties, and eat lots of tomatoes. The book may not be heavy on nutritional benefits and nutritional explanations, but it tells of a multitude of heirloom varieties and their similarities or differences. I learned so much from that book that now I have to try to expand my tomato growing experience to include lots of tomato varieties over the course of a lifetime. After that I read online that numerous tomato seed savers who have contributed greatly to the heirloom varieties that we have today lived into their 90s or around 100 years of age, but I did not keep the reference where I got that information from. The question was asked, "Is it their gardening or eating habit which preserved their life that long?" I might add to the question, "Was it their generosity in sharing and thinking of future generations that preserved their life as well?" I wish I had that kind of info about tomato growers and breeders or other people who specialize in one fruit/vegetable or another.






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