The first time I went to a grocery store after moving to the US, I literally jumped in joy at the opulence of it all. It was 1989, and the Berlin wall was six months away from being toppled. Having grown up in socialist India, I had never before seen anything like this amazing symbol of American consumerism known as, SAFEWAY!
I danced and danced down the wide aisles of the huge grocery store, and rode the supermarket trolley like it was a mini-scooter, admiring the extraordinary variety of every category of, er, stuff. Eighteen types of toothpaste, twenty yogurts, an entire aisle dedicated to varieties of soda pop, wow!
The fruits and vegetables were perfectly waxed and huge compared to the little discolored runts found in India. I marveled as my host-mother Marlene selected these enormous, beautiful tomatoes and white onions and a head of lettuce that was bigger than my own head.
We went back home, and I helped her make this wonderful looking salad, and we sat down to eat.
I bit into a slice of tomato, ready for the burst of fresh flavour to attack my tongue.
I blinked. I ate another slice. Same result.
The lettuce leaf was also just a watery bite of nothing. Deflated, I followed my host mother’s suggestion and loaded up my salad with some sugary honey mustard dressing.
Now, my dear American consumer friends, I have a question. How is it that the wealthiest nation on the planet produces the worst tasting vegetables and fruits?
The main reason is actually a scientific one.
It turns out that fruits and vegetables that ripen more consistently are also flavourless. In the wild, tomatoes ripen inconsistently. There is an evolution/natural selection pressure that favours this because inconsistent ripening allows the tomatoes a greater chance to be eaten by birds and animals, thereby allowing for those seeds to spread and germinate.
However, there is a genetic mutation that allows uniform ripening that affects a percentage of tomatoes, and this genetic change also happens to make the tomatoes less nutritious and flavourful.
The full explanation on this mutation is found here. http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1112648268/scientists-find-gene-behind-ripe-tasteless-tomatoes/
Now think about this. There are two broad categories of tomatoes.
Type 1 is full of nutrition and flavour, but this type ripens inconsistently, and comes in all kinds of colour shades, shapes and textures.
Type 2 looks perfectly shaped, is in a uniform colour, shows perfect behaviour and ripens uniformly, but it also happens to have no flavour and little nutrition.
If you were a big US grocery chain, even a purportedly organic one, which type of tomato would you stock?
If you guessed Type 2, you would be right, and you would also solve the mystery of why not only American tomatoes, but the vast majority of fruits and vegetables in the USA have no flavour and are less nutritious compared to fruits and vegetables found in, say, a much-poorer country like India.
It is also true that most American consumers have never really tasted decent fruits and vegetables and they don’t know the difference. This largely explains why when Americans go abroad, to Italy or Japan or India, and taste real vegetables for the first time, it is a major eye-opener!
Implications for Health
What happens when we eat these tasteless vegetables? Actually, the reality is that even flavourless vegetables and fruits are quite nutritious and good for you; if this were not the case, no grocery store would stock or sell them.
The problem is more indirect. When healthy food is tasteless, our taste buds will simply guide us towards junk food like chips, sugary drinks, and saturated fats, so instead of a tasteless salad, we end up preferring to eat burgers and fries.
The golden rule of public health is that we have to make healthy food taste good. Think how wonderful a Mediterranean diet tastes like! This diet is difficult to follow in the US because the same vegetables that are so yummy in Greece taste like nothing in the US. There is a mountain of difference between freshly-grated parmesan cheese, and the pre-packaged mass-market crappy shite that passes for parmesan in grocery stores.
In many parts of the United States, CSA (community supported agriculture) farms are available that provide fresh fruits and vegetables that are not industrially produced. Just type CSA and your home town/county into an internet search engine, and you will see them. For a few hundred dollars, you too can enjoy the freshest fruits and veggies throughout the growing season, and your kids can go and pick fresh veggies in most of these farms too, which is a great day out for the whole family!
The fact is that in the US, middle class people spend a very small amount of their income on food. Spend a bit more, and you can have an amazing quality of life in the food you eat. Your body is a temple; it deserves the most flavourful and nutritious food you can comfortably afford.