ONE thing that has always fascinated me is the concept of food taboos. While those of other cultures can seem quirky and colourful to our minds, we can often forget that we have several of our own. These don’t stay still as cultures evolve either, and the introduction of novel foods can often be accompanied by new foodie fears. If my inbox is anything to go by, there is one that seems to be gathering pace in the West: the idea that seedless fruits are dangerous.
For those unfamiliar with this belief, it seems to go as follows. The whole biological function of fruit in nature is to distribute the seeds of the plant to ensure the survival of the species. When fruits are seedless, however, it is meant to be a sign that they have been nefariously manipulated to abandon their basic biology by industrial agriculture, rendering them of lower nutritional value. According to more extreme proponents of this view, these fruits not only have an inferior vitamin and mineral content, but are actually harmful.
Typing the term “seedless fruit” into an internet search engine presented me with the suggested search terms of “bad”, “bad for you”, “good or bad”, “GMO” and even “bible”. If you are curious about the last one, there appears to be a relatively large section of the internet that views seedless fruits to be against the teachings of the bible and, in particular, anti-abortion beliefs, meaning to some people seedless fruits aren’t just unhealthy, but unethical too. Given the controversy, let’s take a closer look at what seedless fruits are and how they are produced.
Seedless fruits are the result of a biological process called parthenocarpy – the development of a fruit without prior fertilisation. While it is true that this can be the result of human actions, it also happens in nature all the time. Often, it is a combination of both.
For example, in the wild, banana fruit are filled with hard, ball bearing-like seeds that make them incredibly fiddly to eat, to the point of being essentially inedible. Archaeological evidence suggests a naturally occurring hybrid between two banana species that produced infertile offspring was noticed by the Palaeolithic peoples of South-East Asia and Melanesia for its much tastier, better-quality fruit. By splitting off the baby plants that bananas naturally produce around their base and replanting them, it is thought they were able to spread clones of this new wonder plant via dugout canoe all the way from Papua New Guinea to India, the Middle East and the eastern coast of Africa thousands of years ago.
“Palaeolithic peoples in South-East Asia spread clones of a naturally seedless banana plant around the world”
Similar events have occurred in a wide range of fruits with a pretty ancient heritage. This includes “Thompson Seedless” grapes, which dominate world trade. This variety is frequently cited as a classic example of modern genetic manipulation, when in reality it is a modern US trade name for a Turkish cultivar that dates back to at least the early Ottoman Empire. The development of genetically sterile hybrids continues today, with the comparatively modern invention of seedless watermelons, for example.
However, genetic crossing isn’t necessary to produce seedless fruit. In some cases, perfectly fertile plants will produce seedless fruit in the absence of pollination. Some citrus farmers will net their trees in a fine mesh to prevent bees from pollinating the flowers, resulting in seedless fruit, but there is an even simpler way to do this. Some varieties of fruit are naturally self-sterile and will only produce fruit with viable seeds if crossed with a genetically different variety. Many pineapples, for example, are made seedless by simply growing one variety in a field, kept away from the partners they need to produce viable seeds.
Finally, there are chemical interventions that can be used to induce seedless fruit, but these make up only a tiny percentage of the market.
But what effect does the lack of seeds have on nutrition? Well, seeds do often contain nutrients like fibre, which can mean seed-containing fruits are, gram for gram, slightly higher in fibre. They can also contain potentially beneficial phytonutrients like polyphenols. This, however, assumes you not only consume the seeds, but crunch into them with your teeth to release these compounds in a digestible form. When was the last time you munched on all the seeds in a non-seedless orange or grape variety instead of spitting them out?
Then there is the question of popularity. It doesn’t matter how nutrient-packed a crop is if people are unwilling to eat it. While the nutritional difference between seeded and seedless is minimal, we know that the consumption of grapes and citrus fruits has greatly increased since seedless forms were introduced. So when seen in this crucial, wider context, rather than being a net loss for nutrition in our diets, seed-free fruits have been a net gain.
What I’m reading
Lots of studies on soy and corn cultivation for a new documentary I am filming in the US Midwest on the future of farming.
What I’m watching
After a long wait, I am so excited about the new series of Grace and Frankie.
What I’m working on
Another season of Follow the Food, which is a global documentary by the BBC on how civilisation will feed the world in 2050 given the threat of climate change and a growing population.
- This column appears monthly. Up next week: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
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