Top | Features

True colors

(article, Tracy Ilene Miller)

[%adInjectionSettings noInject=true]

[%pageBreakSettings maxWords=1000]

In 1990, Alex Paffenroth decided to diversify his 72-acre onion farm in Warwick, New York, and explore new markets. The market he ended up hitting was 50 miles south, at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. Twice a week, spring through fall, Paffenroth filled his pickup truck with staples — corn, lettuce, and potatoes — and drove to Manhattan, where he sold his produce to city dwellers eager to eat country-fresh crops.

In his first season at Union Square, Paffenroth realized that his customers were looking beyond the basics. Yes, they enjoyed farm freshness, but any produce out of the ordinary — such as purple peppers and potatoes — was snapped up at other booths. Paffenroth knew he needed to find a way to distinguish himself.

[%image feature-image float=left width=420 credit="Photo courtesy James Myers, OSU College of Agricultural Sciences" caption="Red on the inside, dark purple on the outside, this tomato was bred for looks and health benefits."]

Fortunately for him, some plant breeders at the time were turning their attention toward vegetables that were stylish as well as tasty. These breeders were developing vibrant veggies that defied the usual color spectrum, sporting such unusual shades as magenta, cheddar, and neon red. 

These flashy vegetables intrigued shoppers at farmers’ markets.

“Everybody likes something new,” Paffenroth says. “And the research I’ve seen in the trade journals and what’s been recently covered in magazines \[shows\] there’s a lot coming on line.”

h3. The pioneering potato

One of the first color-funky veggies to become widely known was the purple potato. Purple potatoes have existed for nearly 4,000 years in the South American Andes and were the food of Incan kings. They have always been popular in Mexico, but most U.S. home growers had to order them from seed catalogs. In the early 1990s, when small farmers started experimenting with heirloom varieties not available in larger markets, these lively spuds entered the U.S. natural-food grocery market. 

At the same time, most regions of the country saw a rise in the number of niche farms sized 49 acres or less. Small organic farms — which specialized in selling to natural-food markets, restaurants, and farmers’ markets — established themselves among those niche farms as sources of heirloom and specialty vegetables. And customers were coming to these farmers for something beyond the waxy, tasteless, and often pesticide-treated produce commonly available in the nation’s retail supermarkets.

[%image bluepotato float=right width=300 credit="Photo courtesy Territorial Seed" caption="Blue potatoes have been around for 4,000 years."]

Since the advent of the purple potato, natural-food groceries and farmers’ markets have diversified; purple potatoes now sit next to bins of pink, red, and blue potatoes. It’s not just their skins that shine; the unusual colors typically tint the potato’s entire flesh as well. Steamed or baked, these potatoes hold their brilliance; boiling, however, tends to dull the blues more than the reds. In the boiler, the reds also tend to hold their firmness better than the blues, which have a mealier texture and are thus better suited for baking or mashing.  

Among the 200 vegetables Paffenroth now sells at the Greenmarket are 22 varieties of potatoes, organized by color. Mixed bags don’t sell so well, he says; the customers have their favorite colors, and they want to be able to take only those home.

h3. The expanding market

Popular demand aside, price has been a factor in determining the availability and prevalence of colorful produce, says Randy Ducummon, a produce coordinator for the northern California region of Whole Foods. Purple artichokes at $3 a pop were attractive to the gourmet but not the ordinary shopper, Ducommon explains, until the drop in price this year to about $1.30 apiece.

“The price variance slowed down the appeal,” Ducommon says. “But this year the cost is a lot more comparable to regular artichokes.” In past years, he says, he’d be lucky if he sold half the 50 cases the stores would buy. This year, with the price point dropping, he cycled through 100 cases a week.

And the selection is only expected to increase as breeders turn out an ever more colorful rainbow of vegetables. Last year, All-America Selections — a nonprofit organization that tests new vegetables and selects winners based on performance in several categories, including taste and appearance — chose the carrot “Purple Haze” as an All-America Winner. The carrot, with its extraordinary purple exterior and orange interior, has become popular with both restaurant chefs and home cooks. An even newer carrot, “Atomic Red,” is now replacing the older hybrid “Nutri Red” because of its improved flavor and a bright red hue that, unlike “Purple Haze,” deepens when cooked.

[%image carrots float=left width=300 credit="Photo courtesy Agricultural Research Magazine" caption="A rainbow of carrot colors."]

Meanwhile, the humble cauliflower has gone gold. The “Cheddar” cauliflower, developed by Cornell University, sports bright-orange heads the color of boxed macaroni-and-cheese powder. And green and purple cauliflower have also settled into market bins.

h3. The engineering motives

For many of these brightly colored vegetables, the exotic shades aren’t just for fun. “Cheddar” cauliflower, for instance, has 25 times the amount of beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) as the white varieties. Breeders are therefore experimenting with vegetable color not just for novelty but for health. 

Color reveals a lot about the chemistry of produce: orange says beta-carotene, red indicates lycopene, and blue signifies anthocyanins. All of these chemical substances are antioxidants, beneficial constituents of fruits and vegetables that combat disease-causing free radicals. Because of these benefits, several universities (some in concert with the U.S Department of Agriculture) are researching and developing colored vegetables. 

Perhaps the best-known plant engineered for its health benefits is the so-called “golden rice,” a genetically modified rice created with genes from corn and a soil bacterium (Erwinia uredovora). Much of the developing world relies on rice as a subsistence food, but rice alone is deficient in vitamin A. Inadequate vitamin A can lead to blindness and even death; by some estimates, more than 140 million people worldwide suffer from this deficiency. Golden rice was designed to produce beta-carotene, which is converted by the body into vitamin A.

But the rice has been controversial. Apart from the unknown health and environmental risks of developing and consuming genetically engineered foods — and skepticism about agribusiness profit-making motives — some analyses have shown that children would need to eat at least four pounds of rice daily to get the recommended daily allowance of beta-carotene.

h3. The tried and true

The unusually colored veggies you’ll see at the farmers’ market have nothing to do with modern biotechnology and everything to do with the oldest form of plant breeding: hybridization. These vegetables are products of the complexities of genetic inheritance, but they’ve been created via conventional reproduction instead of cell extracts. 

Technology is indeed used in modern hybridization, typically to identify the DNA of the parent plants with the most desired traits. But the vivid varieties that are finally selected for market are the result of simple crossings of the plants with preferred characteristics. Unlike golden rice, which features genes from non-rice species, these traditional hybrids contain only the genes they are born with.

[%image orangecauliflower float=right width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Pedersen Farms" caption="Orange cauliflower got its start as a spontaneous mutant."]

Because these colorful vegetables require several generations to grow up and be observed, five to 10 years can elapse before enough crosses and growth cycles of a selected variety yield results consistent enough to invest in marketing. That cheese-colored cauliflower? It dates back to the 1970s, when a mutant orange cauliflower was found in Bradford Marsh, Ontario, Canada. After many crossings, a “market-friendly” variety of the cauliflower — deep enough in color to turn heads — was finally deemed worthy for sale.

But the time lag involved in bringing new varieties to market hasn’t deterred breeders from continuing to develop and introduce more vibrant-colored selections. One reason is that consumers have become highly aware of the health benefits of flavonoid compounds, the water-soluble pigments in produce that, when eaten, function as antioxidants and protect cells in the body from damage. In recent years, studies have shown that these compounds reduce the incidence of cancer, high blood pressure, and heart attacks, among other conditions. Tannic red wine, dark leafy greens, pomegranate juice drinks, white leaf tea — consumers are always looking for the latest ways to eat and drink their way to better health. Pomegranate-juice sales alone increased 40 percent last year.

And so researchers at Oregon State University made a worldwide splash last fall when they revealed their success at breeding anthocyanins into tomatoes, the second-most consumed vegetable (OK, so it’s really a fruit) after potatoes. The new tomato hybrid contains both lycopene, the usual red flavonoid in tomatoes, and anthocyanins, the deep-blue flavonoid found in such dark-pigmented fruits as blueberries. 

The anthocyanin-rich tomato therefore glows like an eggplant, which for many consumers is the primary enticement to buy. And national retailers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are catching on to the trend. Last year, for instance, Trader Joe’s began selling a variety of vivid produce: mixed bags of colored potatoes, a mix of red and yellow carrots, and a Swiss chard called “Bright Lights,” with stems ranging from white and gold to pink, purple, and red.

Lauren Murphy, a student at the University of Oregon who shops at the Trader Joe’s in Eugene, started noting and buying the potatoes and carrots last winter. 

“It’s more fun to eat the colored vegetables,” Murphy says. “I wouldn’t buy them except for the novelty, and the prices are pretty comparable.”


h1. Full-spectrum foods

Other plants with a widening range of colors include radishes (white, violet, pink, and red), beets (red, gold, black, and striped), and  celery (red, golden, and white). 

Good sources of unusual seeds to grow at home include Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed, and Johnny's Selected Seeds.

For general information about the latest in plants, try The World's Healthiest Foods and Our Vegetable Travelers.

Ducommon at Whole Foods says he looks for opportunities to buy these unusual veggies because consumers like Murphy are on the lookout for specialty or interesting vegetables. 

“We have purple kohlrabi for the first time this year, and I looked at them at first and thought I’d never be able to sell them,” Ducommon says. “But I’m moving 60 to 70 cases a week in 24 packs. The quality of these vegetables is 100 times better than they were just five years ago.”

Farmers are getting better at growing the new colorful varieties, and Ducommon sees them dedicating more acreage to these items as stores are more willing to invest in them and customers are beginning to expect them at the market. 

Price, novelty, and nutrition are all combining to increase availability and demand. Paffenroth and Ducommon both say that a barrage of inquires about these unusual vegetables has led them to create detailed signage about the veggies’ nutritional and health benefits. The signage has both satisfied consumer curiosity and helped fuel sales. 

“I don’t know if there are going to be any transformations in the market or if these will become primary products,” Ducommon says. “But I do see more awareness and better quality, and every year we see a couple of additional items that really move off the shelves.”

p(bio). [ "Tracy Ilene Miller"] is a freelance writer and gardener in Eugene, Oregon, who is in constant search of the unusual for her own garden plot and cook pot.

orangecauliflower, l

carrots, l

bluepotato, l

feature-image, l

reference-image, l