Recognition of Fruit and Vegetables as Healthful: Vitamins and Phytonutrients

in HortTechnology

Plants are the foundation for a significant part of human medicine and for many of the most widely used drugs designed to prevent, treat, and cure disease. Folkloric information concerning traditional remedies for disease has had inestimable value in establishing familial and cultural linkages. During the 20th century, modern medical science in the U.S. and other developed countries ushered in a new era focused on synthetic medicines. Even though many of these compounds were based on natural compounds found in plants, the drive towards synthetic pharmaceuticals created a knowledge gap concerning the health functionality of plants, crops, and food. Paralleling this development, biochemists and nutritional scientists pioneered the discovery of vitamins during the early decades of the 20th century. This research paved the way for dietary guidelines based on empirical data collected from animal feeding trials and set the stage for the current emphasis on phytonutrients. Three primary stages characterize the use of fruits and vegetable in human health. The first stage concerns the observation that many fruit and vegetable crops were originally domesticated for their medicinal properties. Making their way into the diet for this purpose, fruit and vegetable crops remained on the fringe from a culinary point of view. The second stage began when the role of vitamins became more widely understood, and fruit and vegetable plants were quickly recognized as a rich source of certain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. At this point, they became more than just an afterthought in the diet of most U.S. citizens. Cartoon icons such as Popeye made the case for the health functionality of leafy greens, while parents schooled their children on the virtues of carrots (Daucus carota), broccoli (Brassica oleracea), and green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). This renaissance resulted in large increases in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption across the country, a trend that continues to this day. The third phase can be characterized by the recognition that fruit and vegetable crops contain compounds that have the potential to influence health beyond nutritional value. These so-called functional foods figure prominently in the dietary recommendations developed during the last decades of the 20th century. In recent years, surveys suggest nearly two-thirds of grocery shoppers purchase food specifically to reduce the risk of, or manage a specific health condition. Evidence abounds that consumers, including Baby Boomers, choose foods for specific health benefits, such as the antioxidant potential of vegetables, suggesting high levels of nutritional literacy. Clinical and in vitro data have, to some degree, supported the claims that certain foods have the potential to deter disease, however much research remains to be conducted in order to definitively answer specific dietary-based questions about food and health.

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e-mail ilgoldma@facstaff.wisc.edu.

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