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Most Nutritious Crop Varieties

Choose the fruit and vegetable varieties richest in health-promoting phytonutrients.

| March / April 2018

  • You can grow beautiful crops that are packed with an abundance of nutrients to keep you healthy throughout the season.
    Photo by Getty Images/cjp
  • ‘Merlot’ lettuce is a dark, crisp salad green that is cold-tolerant and able to be harvested from the late fall to winter seasons.
    Photo by RareSeeds.com
  • ‘Juliet’ is a large cherry tomato that’s high in lycopene, tastes sweet, and is easy to dry.
    Photo by Jo Robinson
  • The highly nutritious ‘Liberty’ apple is wonderfully productive and resistant to both apple scab and fire blight.
    Photo by Jo Robinson
  • Incorporate purple produce, which has high anthocyanin levels, into your diet to access a variety of health benefits.
    Photo by Getty Images/Iryna Kaliukina
  • On average, the typical American will only consume 2 tablespoons of fresh berries per week.
    Photo by Getty Images/redmal
  • Choose to eat crops that have intense flavors, such as certain yellow and red onions.
    Photo by Getty Images/pjohnson1

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.

Explore the list of 44 Super-Nutritious Varieties for Your Garden.

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 2 to 3 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.

Amanda
3/24/2018 2:54:26 PM

The health of the soil the fruit and vegetables are grown in also contributes greatly to the nutrient density. A soil full of beneficial microbes and mycorrhizal fungi will create a healthier and stronger plant, resulting in a healthier, better-flavored fruit or vegetable.


Nannie
3/22/2018 11:50:01 AM

Thank you, Jo! I enjoyed reading this article. If you're going to go through the work (yes, sometimes it's work) of growing your own food it is important to get the very most out of it!


maurtura
3/22/2018 10:16:42 AM

I grow aronia berries because they have almost 5 times the antioxidents of blueberries. Have you tried them?




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