14 surprising food facts I've learned over the years

german chocolate cake
© Kathy Burns

As a food enthusiast and a hungry consumer of quirky facts, here are some of the more surprising things I have learned over the years.

All of my life I have been A) an obsessive baker and home cook, and B) completely smitten with arcane knowledge and quirky facts. Put those two together and you get an annoying foodie who thinks she knows everything! But really though, there are so many interesting things to learn when it comes to the things we eat. And given the crazy situation of the modern food system and all of its creepy wizardry, it seems like the better we know our food in general, the better off we will be.

The following are some of things that have surprised me, or that I thought were extra interesting when I learned them. Some are borne from false facts, others are curious esoterica, some dive into nutrition minutiae ... but all of them shine a little little light on the daily ritual of eating.

1. Strawberries aren’t berries ... but bananas are

What? This one still confuses me. Strawberries and raspberries aren't really berries, botanically speaking. Stanford Magazine explains that berries are derived from a single flower with more than one ovary, making them an aggregate fruit. "True berries are simple fruits stemming from one flower with one ovary and typically have several seeds. Tomatoes fall into this group, as do pomegranates, kiwis and – believe it or not – bananas." So, raspberries and strawberries are not berries, but kiwis and bananas are – OK then!

2. Blackstrap molasses is not your average sweetener

blackstrap molasses nutrition info© Melissa Breyer
Blackstrap molasses is the thickest of the inky goops left over from refining sugar cane or beets into table sugar. Unlike most sweeteners with little nutritive value, one tablespoon of blackstrap provides 20 percent of the daily value for iron! Also 19 percent for calcium, and 8 percent for potassium. Sugar is sugar, even in molasses form, but if you are going for something sweetened, at least molasses has some benefits to offer. (I think it's salty-sweet black licorice flavor is heaven, though I know it's not for everyone.)

3. Brown sugar is really white sugar

If you think that brown sugar is less refined than white sugar, it’s not. It is just white sugar with some of that molasses (removed in refining) added back in.

4. Almond extract gets its flavor from stone fruits

You'd think almond extract is the flavor of almonds, but it is not exactly. Pure almond extract is flavored with bitter almond oil, which gets its almond flavor from benzaldehyde, a substance in the kernels of drupes, AKA stone fruits like apricots, peaches, plums, and cherries. Sometimes actual almonds are used, but more frequently not.

5. A pineapple does not ripen any more after picking

Once a pineapple is picked, it stops ripening – so leaving one on the counter for a few days will not make it any sweeter. Plus, a pineapple can be ripe when it is practically completely green on the outside; and despite the myth, if you can pull out a leaf easily, it does not indicate ripeness or good quality.

6. Commercially grown “raw” almonds sold in the United States are not raw

After a series of salmonella outbreaks, by law, every commercially grown almond sold in the U.S. must be steam-treated (or chemically fumigated).

7. Nutmeg and mace come from the same place

The Myristica fragrans tree offers us two gifts for the spice rack. The crimson aril covering the seed is dried and ground into mace; the seed itself is the beautifully fragrant nutmeg.

8. The original Caesar salad was invented in Mexico and didn’t have anchovies

Caesar salad is easily the most popular salad in the U.S., even if it was invented in Tijuana, Mexico … and didn’t contain anchovies! Bonus fact: It was made with whole romaine leaves and meant to be eaten with the hands (the way a salad should be eaten, to be honest).

9. German chocolate cake is not German

While it always seemed so European to me, German chocolate cake (like the one on top) was created by a Texas homemaker using “German’s Chocolate,” a sweet baking chocolate invented by one Sam German for Baker’s chocolate company. Somewhere along the way, there was an apostrophe accident and German's became German; no Germany involved. In retrospect, a chocolate-coconut cake does seem pretty American.

10. Froot Loops are a bowlful of contradictions

And not just for their prodigious amounts of sugar. First, they are froot, not fruit – is that a hint about the lack of actual fruit in those 27 ingredients? But the real surprise here is that every color of frooty loop is the same flavor.

11. Saffron is often a clever fraud

Saffron is so labor-intensive and expensive to harvest that it is often the subject of counterfeiting; creative swaps include marigold and calendula flowers, turmeric, corn silk, poppy petals, dyed onions, colored grass and even red-dyed silk fiber, according to the Food Fraud Database.

12. Some vegetable are healthier when cooked

As counterintuitive as it may seem, and despite the countless claims that "nutrients are lost upon cooking," some fruits and vegetables are in fact more nutritional after having been cooked. (See which ones here: 6 vegetables that are healthier cooked than raw.)

13. Pine nuts come from pine cones

In the classic 1970s Grape Nuts commercials, Euell Gibbons gave us all the hints we needed: "Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” Yet did anyone ever stop to think that pine nuts actually come from pine cones? Once you know, it seems entirely obvious, and totally adorable.

14. You can’t put fresh pineapple in Jell-O

I am not sure if Jell-O creations are currently in or out of fashion, but I do know that if you put fresh pineapple in your tower of gelatin, it will not set, thanks to its proteolytic enzymes. When I learned about proteolytic enzymes in one of my food science courses in college, I was totally besotted (I still can not explain why). Also called protease, these enzymes include bromelain (found in pineapple) and papain (found in papaya). They work to help break down protein, which is why they turn protein-rich gelatin into a quivering mess. They are also the active ingredient in meat tenderizers. Exciting, right?! (See why I am the life of a party?)

14 surprising food facts I've learned over the years
As a food enthusiast and a hungry consumer of quirky facts, here are some of the more surprising things I have learned over the years.

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