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10 Strange Facts About Vegetables


“Eat your vegetables”, my mother used to say, “they’re good for you!” But I’d feed them to the dog if I got a chance.

She was right, of course, that vegetables are good for us. They’re richer in vitamins and minerals than just about anything else we can eat. But there are also a lot of fascinating facts about them that most people don’t know. Here are a few:

1. Tearless Onions

20170323A.jpgWhat gives onions their pungency and irritates our eyes to the point they tear up is the presence of various volatile sulfur compounds in their cells. Cut into an onion and the air is instantly full of tiny irritating particles. They evolved in onions as protection, to discourage animals from munching on them. However, in the rare occurrence of sulfur-free growing conditions, onions completely lose their pungency… even “onion breath” becomes a thing of the past. Even so-called “sweet onions”, genetically less pungent than most of their kin, have to be grown in soil that is poor in sulfur in order to have the mild taste we expect. Certain soils in the US West and South and in the heart of Europe, for example, are poor in sulfur… and that’s where sweet onions are grown. Try growing a sweet onion in normal garden soil, rich in sulfur, and it will leave  you crying.

2. Baby Carrots Aren’t Babies

20170323b.jpgThe so-called baby-cut carrots aren’t miniature carrots, they’re full-sized carrots trimmed down to size by industrial machines.

This technique was first used to convert substandard carrots, with blemishes or marks, ones that had no market value, into saleable items. Now, though, there is an entire industry based on producing the pre-peeled, ready-to-eat babies. Surprisingly little goes to waste: shavings account for only 0,84% of the production, largely because special carrot cultivars and tight spacing during sowing lead to long, narrow carrots easily cut into 3 to 4 pieces. Shavings are either used for animal feed or in the food processing industry (think “carrot cake”).

Of course, there are also true baby carrots: naturally miniature strains that you can grow… but you rarely find those in supermarkets!

3. Tomatoes are Legally Vegetables

20179323C.jpgBotanically speaking, tomatoes are  fruits. In fact, they are technically berries, since they are a simple fleshy fruit with many seeds and no stone (stone fruits are called drupes). However, in the United States, they are legally vegetables. Following a controversy about the tomato’s status, the U.S. Supreme Court officially decided that the tomato is a vegetable. That was way back in 1893 and the decision still holds today.

4. Eat Those Peels!

20170323D. ALice Wiegand, WCjpg.jpg
Photo: Alice Wiegand, Wikimedia Commons

Peeling your vegetables before you eat them is a nutritional faux pas. In most vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, and cucumbers, a good percentage of the nutrition is actually stored in the skin or just below the skin. That means when you peel them, you’re actually removing many of the nutrients they contain. Vegetable skins also contain a lot of fiber and fibers too are good for you.

5. If You Hate the Taste of Brussels Sprouts, It May Be In Your Genes

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Photo: Rainer Zens, Wikimedia Commons

Studies all over the world suggest that Brussel sprouts are world’s most hated vegetable. American President George H.W. Bush famously hated Brussel sprouts so much he banned them from the White House. Recent studies have shown that your like or dislike of Brussel sprouts (and other cabbages) is encoded in your DNA. There is actually a gene shared by about half the world’s population that allows them t0 enjoy the taste of Brussel sprouts, as they are genetically incapable of tasting highly bitter compounds called glucosinolates found in all cabbages, but more abundantly in Brussels sprouts. To glucosinolate tasters, that is, the other half of the population, Brussels sprouts are incredibly bitter. The researchers doing the DNA study found that for these people, Brussels sprouts taste about as appealing as (and I am quoting) “eating a rubber shoe.”

6. Carrots Are Not Really Good for Night Vision

Part of a WWII poster encouraging people to eat carrots for improved night vision.

Unless your diet is seriously lacking in Vitamin A, carrots don’t help you see better at night. The belief that eating them does improve night vision actually stems from a WWII propaganda campaign. At the time, Great Britain was developing new radar technologies to help their aircraft better find their targets in the dark, but didn’t want the Nazis to know. So they started running stories in British newspapers claiming Royal Air Force pilots were being fed carrots to improve their night vision, thus creating a plausible explanation for their improved nocturnal aerial success. This propaganda piece was so successful that the information spread around the world and even to this day, many people still believe that eating carrots helps you see better at night.

7. The Downside of Beans

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Photo: cookbookman17, Flickr

“Beans, beans, they’re good for the heart…” So goes the first part of a popular child’s rhyme. As to being good for the heart… well, they’re as good for the heart as just about any vegetable, but what is far truer is that they assuredly do contribute to flatulence. That’s because our stomach and small intestines lack the enzymes necessary to completely break down two sugars found in beans, raffinose and stachyose. Instead, bacteria found in our large intestines tackle the job and break them down into hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide… but especially the malodorous gas methane, with often explosive results. Yes, you can take an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase (sold as Beano) before eating beans and it will break the sugars down without any unfortunate consequences. Soaking beans for several hours before cooking will also help, as this allows yeasts to start digesting the sugars.

8. Popeye Was Wrong About Spinach

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Image: jean pierre Gallot, Flickr

When I was a kid, the popular Popeye comics and cartoons showed Popeye ingesting a can of spinach and suddenly becoming incredibly strong. This wasn’t enough to encourage me to eat any more spinach than I was forced to, but it did lead to spinach gaining massively in popularity. Unfortunately, the entire idea that spinach made you stronger was based on a simple notational mistake. In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf reported that a 100 g serving of spinach contained 35 mg of iron, far more than any other vegetable. And iron is associated with strength, as it helps carry oxygen to your muscles. The problem is that von Wolf had mistakenly misplaced a decimal point. 100 g of spinach contained the more modest and normal quantity of 3,5 mg of iron, not 35 mg. Spinach is good for you, but not as good as many people today still believe.

9. Many Vegetables Contain Toxins

20170223I.pngThis is not something we like to think about, but many if not most vegetables (kale, carrots, Swiss chard, tomatoes, etc.) contain products (alkaloids, goitrogens, oxalic acid and others) that are toxic to humans. Fortunately, they are present in such small quantities they cause no harm. The poison, goes the saying, is in the dose and that is very true. Still, people subject to kidney stones or gout should avoid eating too much spinach  or asparagus (they contain fairly important quantities of oxalic acid, a toxin that can exacerbate both conditions) and any green parts should be removed from potatoes, as they contain solanine and other toxic alkaloids. Eating green potatoes could theoretically kill you! Also never eat the foliage or stems of any Solanaceae (tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant, etc.) as they really do contain enough solanine to make you seriously ill.

10. There is No Such Thing as a Negative-Calorie Vegetable

20170323J.JPGThose of us who need to lose a bit of weight (or a lot of it) may have been encouraged by claims that some vegetables (celery, kale and lettuce are often cited) are negative-calorie foods, that digesting them requires more energy than the energy they release when we digest them. That means you’d lose weight just by eating them. But unfortunately, that isn’t true. Even celery, usually touted as the best negative-calorie vegetable, and which is indeed mostly composed of water and fiber, still contains about 6 to 10 calories per stalk, yet digesting it requires only about ½ calorie. Still, if you stuffed yourself with celery, you wouldn’t have much room for calorie-rich foods and you’d certainly lose weight.

Vegetables: we eat them on a daily basis, yet we know so little about them.20170323K

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