The best thing about fruits and vegetables? Their diversity!


Five lesser known but surprisingly nutritious fruits and vegetables

We know we’re supposed to eat our greens, but it doesn’t have to be boring – there are many fruits and vegetables, like this cardoon, you may never have heard of that can spice up your meals! ©Jolanda de Jong -Janseni/shutterstock.com

15/12/2020

A vegetable that tastes like bread? A lesser-known cousin of the artichoke? A food that is both a vegetable and a grain?  Who said that fruits and vegetables are boring! In the world of fruits and vegetables, there is much to discover.

Many people know and love the fruits and vegetables that are grown or traded in various parts of the world. However, there are many other fruits and vegetables that have become neglected and underutilised. Sometimes they are overlooked because of changing tastes and trends, lengthy and laborious processing or because other crops fetch higher prices. Some others are not allocated the resources needed for their research, development and promotion. Whatever the reason, the result is that farmers stop planting these ‘forgotten’ crops, which over time, reduces the availability of the plants’ seeds and erodes the traditional knowledge of these plants. 

Underutilised fruits and vegetables, however, are often uniquely adapted to their local environments and can play a vital role in supporting diverse and nutritious diets. They have multiple health benefits that are essential for combating malnutrition and preventing non-communicable diseases. Some underutilised crops actually have great commercial potential and, aimed at certain markets, could be an excellent cash crop for small-scale farmers. 

Diversity, especially of fruits and vegetables, is good for our health, good for the environment and good for livelihoods, so it’s time to make use of and celebrate all our food resources! And what better time than 2021: the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. The United Nations has dedicated this year to raising awareness on the nutritional and health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables, to promoting diversified, balanced and healthy diets and lifestyles and to reducing food loss and waste, particularly of these more perishable foods.

So, to pique your curiosity, here are five fruits and vegetables you might not have heard of…

Left/top: Breadfruit isn’t your typical fruit! It contains so much starch that it even has bread-y texture. ©FAO/J. Trapman Right/bottom: Cactus pears may look spiky and inedible, but they can be eaten cooked or raw and are popular in many regional recipes. ©FAO/Makiko Taguchi

Breadfruit

The Breadfruit tree is a highly diverse tropical fruit tree. Originating in Oceania, it has over 120 known varieties. Breadfruit trees begin to bear fruit after about six years and remain productive for over 50 years. The fruit itself can be eaten raw when ripe or cooked, like you would potatoes, when unripe. The white flesh has a bread-like texture and a chestnut-like flavour, and it contains high levels of starch that can be a good replacement for wheat flour. It is even used in traditional medicine, rubbing it on skin to treat infections.

Cactus pear

Cactus pear is originally indigenous to Mexico, but it is now found across the world in dry areas. Fruits of the drought-tolerant cactus pear are mainly eaten fresh or made into syrups and jams. They provide a good source of antioxidants and vitamins, especially vitamin C. Looking for inspiration on how to cook them? Here’s a recipe for nopalitos, the flat oval-shaped young pads of the cactus pear, with tomatoes and onions.

Moringa 

All parts of the moringa tree – bark, pods, leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers, roots and flowers – are edible. Its leaves, roots and immature pods are consumed as vegetables. Moringa leaves are rich in protein, vitamins A, B and C and minerals, which are highly recommended for pregnant and nursing mothers as well as young children. The plant is excellent for promoting food security – it produces leaves during the dry season and times of drought, offering an excellent source of green vegetables when others are hard to come by.

Moringa is a green vegetable bursting with vitamins – and can even grow in areas of drought, so it’s great for food security in very dry areas. ©Nublee bin Shamsu Bahar/shutterstock.com

Cardoon

Cardoonis a close relative of the artichoke and is used in traditional dishes in Spain, Italy and the south of France. Its flowers can be a substitute for rennet, an enzyme used to turn milk into cheese, and its leaves are considered to possess diuretic effects, improve gall bladder and liver function and stimulate digestion. And it’s handy for the environment too - the seeds can be pressed into oil for biodiesel fuel production.

Amaranth

Amaranth is both a vegetable and a grain! Amaranth leaves are usually picked fresh for use as greens in salads or blanched, steamed, boiled, fried in oil and mixed with meat, fish, cucurbit seeds, groundnut or oil. Amaranth grain is a common snack sold in Mexico, sometimes mixed with chocolate or puffed rice, and its popularity has spread to Europe and parts of North America.It is gluten free and full of nutritious vitamins believed to be good for treating cardiovascular diseases and anaemia. Recipe tip? Putting it together with eggplant and potato makes for a tasty curry. 

All these lesser-known fruits and veggies are great for your health and a fun way of spicing up your home-cooking. So do yourself a favour, seek them out and spread the word! By drawing more attention to them, we can create demand and markets for non-traditional foods, enriching our food systems and helping us end malnutrition and hunger. What better year to do it than the Year of Fruits and Vegetables!


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