Ugly Fruits and Vegetables Have Hidden Health Benefits

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Don't judge a fruit by its surface! Those not-so-pretty scabs and bumps are actually battle wounds and the sign of a stronger, better, more antioxidant-packed food.

Ugly fruits and vegetables are a popular topic these days, as campaigns appear online and in supermarkets throughout Europe and North America, encouraging people to buy less attractive food. It is part of an attempt to combat the excessive food waste that wracks our planet – an estimated 40 percent of all calories produced for human consumption. Many fruits and vegetables are tossed simply because they do not meet aesthetic standards and supermarkets expect customers not to buy them.

We’ve been told that ugly fruits and vegetables are just as good for us as the pretty varieties, but now there’s good reason to suspect they might even be better for us. The blemishes, dimples, scars, and scabs that appear on the skin and leaves are a sign that the fruit has battled a biting or gnawing insect or surface infection – and won, which means it is stronger for it.

NPR’s The Salt blog explains the research work of Virginia orchardist Eliza Greenman, who has been unofficially experimenting with ugly apples and found they possess a higher sugar content (resulting in tastier, sweeter cider) and higher antioxidant content. She believes it’s the result of stress.

“Though not all pests and diseases are benign, a few common apple infestations are the result of harmless fungi that result in sooty ‘blotch’ (dark patches) and fly speck (black dots), but do not harm taste or texture nor infect humans. These blotches are a result of the plant fighting off environmental insults — relying on its antioxidant defenses to do so.”

The same thought applies to organic produce, which has to rely on its own defenses to protect against pests, rather than chemical assistance, since stress triggers the production of antioxidants. The 2014 Newcastle study found that the more pesticides are sprayed to deter pests, the fewer antioxidants a plant has to produce on its own, resulting in a fruit or vegetable that has 16 to 19 percent fewer antioxidants than organic produce.

Other studies back Greenman’s hypothesis. One study compared the antioxidant contents of healthy and infected apple skins:

“The total amount of phenolic compounds in the infected tissue was 10 to 20 percent higher than in the healthy leaves. Accumulation of phenolic compounds is a post-infection response, and probably their further transformation is a prerequisite for plant resistance.”

Another study found that grape leaves exposed to stressful ultraviolet light had higher levels of resveratrol, the powerful antioxidant found in red wine that's believed to fight heart disease and inflammation, protect nerve cells, and prevent insulin resistance.

So the next time you overlook a bumpy, scabby apple in favor of a perfectly round one, think twice. Not only could you be saving an unwanted apple from the landfill site, but you could also give your own body a healthy antioxidant boost.