7 Fruits and Veggies That Used to Look a Whole Lot Different Than They Do Today

fruits and veggies laying on the ground

Treehugger / Christian Yonkers 

You walk through the produce section of your supermarket and everything looks so familiar. But the fruits and vegetables you see bear no resemblance to their ancestors from thousands of years ago. Most of them don't taste the same either.

Credit our forefathers who wanted bigger, tastier and more attractive food. We talk a lot about GMOs these days, but selective breeding has been around for a while.

"Genetically modified foods, or GMOs, inspire strong reactions nowadays," writes Tanya Lewis in Business Insider, "but humans have been tweaking the genetics of our favorite produce for millennia.

Here are seven fruits and vegetables as they look today and a peek at what they looked like many years ago.


a basket of corn on the dirt ground
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

Corn is everywhere, especially in the summertime. That doesn't mean we know exactly where it came from. In fact, it's biological beginnings are considered a mystery.

Some scientists eventually linked maize to a Mexican grass called teosinte. The grass has skinny ears with just a few dozen kernels inside a hard casing. In fact, writes the Times, teosinte was first classified as a closer relative of rice, rather than maize.

teosinte corn
Teosinte corn has skinny ears and very few kernels, but the kernels pop. Shaw Woods Outdoor Education Centre

But George W. Beadle, a graduate student at Cornell University, not only found that maize and teosinte had similar chromosomes, he also was able to get teosinte kernels to pop. Beadle concluded the two plants were closely related (and later went on to win the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics.)


watermelon on dirt ground with gloves
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

Another summer favorite, watermelon has been around for millennia. Archaeologists found watermelon seeds at a 5,000-year-old settlement in Libya. Paintings of watermelons (as well as actual watermelon seeds) have been discovered in Egyptian tombs built more than 4,000 years ago, including the tomb of King Tut.

Detail of Giovanni Stanchi’s “Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape”
This detail of Giovanni Stanchi’s 'Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape' (1645-1672) shows a paler melon with more seeds. Christi's

Early watermelons likely didn't have the popular red flesh we know today. They were paler with less flesh and more seeds.


banana bunch on black dirt
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

A 2011 study looked at the evolution of the popular, familiar yellow banana. It analyzed multidisciplinary findings from archaeology, genetics and linguistics to figure out when and where bananas came from.

wild banana
Musa balbisiana, the wild banana above, has hard, large seeds and not a lot of fruit. Warut Roonguthai/Wikimedia Commons

Modern bananas evolved from two wild varieties: Musa acuminata which Smithsonian describes as "a spindly plant with small, okra-like pods that were bred to produce seedless fruit" and the heartier Musa balbisiana, which had hard, large seeds. That wouldn't make it so easy to slice over your breakfast cereal.


carrots and shovel on black dirt
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers 

Bright orange and beloved by rabbits, horses and even small children, carrots are easy to grow and have been around for quite a while. They just didn't resemble their current form.

purple carrots
Early carrots were often off-white or purple, like these that still grow today. World Carrot Museum

Historians believe the ancient Greeks and Romans grew carrots, according to the virtual World Carrot Museum. Those early plants were very thin and either an off-white or purple color. They typically had a forked root, like today's wild carrots.


red apples and a basket on black dirt
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

The modern apple's ancestor looks relatively similar to what we find in supermarkets today. But the taste has certainly evolved over the years.

Malus sieversii wild apple
The Asian wild apple or Malus sieversii is small and sour unlike its descendant, the apple we eat today. Global Trees Campaign

According to the Global Trees Campaign, Malus sieversii is a wild apple native to the mountains of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. Research has shown that this fruit, also called the Asian wild apple, is one of the main forefathers of our domesticated apple. It's small and sour, unlike the sweet apples we eat today.


red tomatoes and gloves on black dirt
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

There are many varieties of tomato in our gardens today, but historically people weren't so quick to eat this interesting fruit — that some consider a vegetable.

Herbarium sheet with the oldest conserved tomato plants of Europe, circa 1542-1544.
This herbarium sheet shows the oldest conserved tomato plants of Europe, circa 1542-1544. Naturalis Biodiversity Center/Wikimedia Commons

Early incarnations of the plant had tiny green or yellow fruit. It was used in cooking by the Aztecs, and later explorers brought the tomato back to Spain and Italy.

Although now a staple in those countries, Smithsonian says in the 1700s the tomato was feared and nicknamed "poison apple" because people thought aristocrats died after eating them. But it turned out it was the acidity in tomatoes leached lead from fancy pewter plates that was causing lead poisoning.


two large eggplant on black dirt
Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

Now known for their deep aubergine color, historically eggplants have had several hues including white, yellow, azure and purple. In fact the English name "eggplant" comes from the fact that the plants were often white and round. Some plants even had spines.

wild eggplants
Wild eggplants still come in a variety of unusual colors, like their ancestors. whologwhy/flickr

In the Chronica Horticulturae article "History and Iconography of Eggplant," authors Marie-Christine Daunay and Jules Janick write, "Several Sanskrit documents, dated from as early as 300 BCE, mention this plant with various descriptive words, which suggest its wide popularity as food and medicine."