Age Before Beauty: Are Ancient Fruits & Vegetables More Nutritious?

Food scientists have wondered about the difference in the nutrient content of the fruits and veggies we eat today from their ancient or older counterparts. Are we taking in less or more nutrients than people did from the Paleolithic age? We can’t know for sure, and it will be hard to compare, but the truth is, plants have evolved a lot more times than humans or animals. And with evolution comes changes. Here are some findings on the ancient produce vs. modern produce front:

Evolution made some fruits and vegetables more nutritious and palatable.

Many people have been wary of humans messing around with food. Check out your grocery aisles – the non-GMO label is always often included by food companies that claim to promote health. But do you know that many of the produce we consume today are actually products of selective, targeted breeding that created a hybridized version of a fruit or vegetable? The stuff we enjoy, even those that we buy from the local farmers market is a product of human manipulation. These are some examples of modern fruit and veggies that improved since ancient times:


Many people shun this grain now, but it’s the perfect example of a hybrid food. The wild ancestor of corn is Balsas teosinte, a large grass of the Zea genus native to Latin America. Corn was domesticated at least 8,700 years ago in southern Mexico, but it probably even happened earlier. Balsas teosinte and modern corn both have robust growth patterns, but their ears are different. Unlike our corn with ears all over the cob, each Balsas teosinte’s kernel is encased in a separate casing, and it has five to 12 kernels per piece. Our corn today can carry up to 500 naked kernels bound together on the cob. Corn needed human intervention to grow and become grain that can make you feel full. When left on its original form, corn cannot spawn progeny because of the hundreds of seeds that compete for the same nutrients.


The wild tomato, or Solanum lycopersicon, can be traced back from the Peruvian Andes of today. By the time the Spanish arrived, tomatoes were cultivated across Central America, and it gained favor in Europe. Early wild tomatoes were mostly inedible or unappetizing. There are now thousands of domesticated tomato varieties, and they weren’t products of natural selection. They are modern hybrids of artificially selected tomatoes. Modern tomatoes are unimpressive compared to open-pollinated ancestors, but they are tomatoes with juicier flesh that can make a decent marinara sauce.


Almond fruits are drupes, and they are pretty delicious. Almonds are packed with vitamin E, magnesium, and monounsaturated fats, which makes them a good snack. However, it wasn’t always the case. Wild almonds had high levels of amygdalin, a naturally-occurring chemical compound that the body metabolizes as hydrogen cyanide. This was the main ingredient in an alternative cancer cure called laetrile, and patients who have taken it often suffer from cyanide poisoning. Also, wild almonds taste bitter and horrible – you wouldn’t want to eat them as a snack.

Fortunately, early farmers discovered a genetic mutation that prevented almonds from producing amygdalin. Today, almonds are perfectly non-toxic, delicious, and full of vital nutrients.

There’s a tendency to condone gene manipulation, but early farmers were doing it so many years ago. The important thing to note is their drive to improve fruits and vegetables for mankind. It doesn’t contradict or negate nature’s processes – it’s simply a tool to make food tastier, more dependable, and possibly more nutritious. It’s the pervasive anti-nutrients in the modified grains and food that we must avoid.

Study suggests old fruit is better than new fruit.

While some products have improved due to human intervention, some may have lost their original nutrient level. Consumer goods group Unilever conducted a study to find out if older varieties of some fruits and vegetables were more nutritious than their modern-day counterparts. They tested older varieties of apples, mangoes, bananas, and onions. The research consortium found that an older version of an apple, the Egremont Russet, contains ten times the amount of phytonutrient studied than in common varieties of apples you can find today.

Unilever encourages fruit and vegetable selection based on content rather than aesthetics and weight-based yields. Further research from the consortium will focus on other older varieties of veggies and fruit, and their potential for enhanced nutrition.

The fruits and vegetables from decades ago are more nutrient-dense than modern produce.

The nutrition you got from the carrot you ate (or your parents ate) in the 1970s is most likely higher than the carrot you eat today. Fruits and vegetables grown decades ago are found to be richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties we get today. The main culprit for this nutritional trend is soil depletion. Modern agricultural methods have stripped down nutrients from the soil in which the food that we consume grows.

A 2004 study from the University of Texas analyzed nutritional data from the US Department of Agriculture from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. They found reliable declines in the amount of calcium, protein, iron, vitamin C, phosphorus, and riboflavin over the past half-century. It was found that the decline in nutritional content to the majority of agricultural practices designed to improve traits like growth rate, size, pest resistance, etc., other than nutrition.

Farmers’ efforts to breed new varieties of crops that offer greater yield, better climate adaptability and improved pest resistance have allowed crops to grow bigger faster. However, their ability to create nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth.

The Organic Consumers Association cited other studies with the same findings. An analysis from the Kushi Institute involving nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that the average calcium levels in 12 fresh veggies dropped 27 percent, vitamin A levels 21 percent, iron levels 37 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent. A study published in the British Food Journal revealed that in 20 vegetables, the average calcium content declined 19 percent, potassium 14 percent, and iron 20 percent, according to nutrient data from 1930 to 1980.

These studies prove that the key to healthier produce is to plant in healthier soil. Those who want to get the most nutritious fruits and vegetables must buy from local organic farmers. This is probably the reason why the term “organic” is sought after, and products labeled as such are priced more expensively.


Some fruits and vegetables have evolved to be more edible, larger in size and yield, and even more nutritious. However, fruits and veggies that our grandparents ate are healthier than what we get today. But just because these natural foods aren’t as healthy as they used to be, it doesn’t mean that we must avoid them. Fruits and vegetables are still rich in nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals that you won’t get from other food types.