Vegetable Myths, Legends and Outright Lies

By Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair, Horticulture Section, Cornell University, Cornell AgriTech. This is part of a series of columns that he wrote about vegetable gardening during the pandemic that ran Spring-Summer 2020. Read more articles from 2020 | Read later articles in this series.

August 28, 2020

With summer ending soon, I thought it would be fun to talk about myths and mistaken beliefs about the vegetables we grow.  Let’s start with potatoes.

Myth 1: Green potatoes are deathly poisonous.

Potatoes and tomatoes are in the nightshade family which includes some toxic members.  When European explorers brought the crop back from the new world, many were reluctant to grow or eat them.  Nightshade members contain solanine, a glycoalkaloid toxin.  The toxin is found in the green parts of nightshade plants, leaves, stems, and in tubers exposed to light.

Legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh, in an effort to promote potatoes, gave plants to royal gardeners in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.  Her cooks threw away the tubers, and being good English cooks, boiled up the greens for a feast to celebrate the new crop.  That in turn  made everyone in the royal court very sick.

Needless to say, it took some time for potatoes to be accepted in England.  Today it’s best to keep tubers in the dark to reduce greening but it would still take up to 5 pounds of green potatoes to make you sick.

Myth #2:  Carrots make you see better.

We were all told to eat our carrots because they’re good for our eyes and can improve our vision. There is some truth to it.  Carrots are loaded with vitamin A, which is important for normal vision.  So if you have a vitamin A deficiency eating carrots may help you see better. But very few  people in the developed world are vitamin A deficient.

This myth came about during World War II when Britain’s Royal Air Force developed a secret new radar technology. This allowed targeting of German bombers before they reached the English Channel.  The Brits, not wanting the Germans to know about this new technology, spread a false story.  They claimed their success was due to British pilots eating large amounts of carrots giving them superior night vision.

We’re not sure if the Germans believed it.  But the idea was popularized in the press.  Posters and ads were posted with the slogan, “Carrots keep you healthy and help you see in the blackout.”  And it’s an idea that is still popular today.

Myth #3: You can tell the sex of peppers by counting their lobes.

A  weird myth making the rounds is that you can tell a male bell pepper from a female by the number of lobes.  Four lobes is a female and three or less are males.  Not true.  A pepper is nothing more than a ripened ovary.  The number of bumps is related to the variety and the growing conditions and not the sex of the fruit.

Sex does play a role in asparagus.  Plants are either male or female and at least in the asparagus world, male plants are preferred.  Although both will produce flowers, females also produce small red berries filled with seeds.  This takes resources from the plant and over time can result in smaller spears.  Plus, all those berries fall off the plants and produce lots of asparagus volunteers – not something you want.

Myth #4: Fresh vegetables are always healthier than frozen or canned.

It depends.  Nutritionally, vegetables are at their peak the closer they are to maturity.  So, vegetables from your garden or the farmer’s market – if picked at their peak and eaten right away --  are about as nutrient dense as you can get.

Fresh vegetables that are purchased in the middle of winter were picked less mature so they can be shipped thousands of miles to the grocery store.  In addition to the early harvest reducing initial nutrient levels, even more are lost in transport.

Frozen vegetables are typically picked at peak maturity and processed within hours.  The processing consists of  quick blanch in hot water, a quick cool down and into the freezer.  Canned vegetables may have salt added  but otherwise are also quickly processed.

Processing can reduce vitamin content of some commodities but may increase others.  For example, lycopene in tomato products is concentrated compared to fresh product.

Myth #5: All our processed vegetables come from California.

Nope.  New York farmers grow  more than 50,000 acres of processing vegetables – sweet corn, peas, beans, beets, carrots and even sauerkraut.  So, you may even be supporting local growers when you buy processed veggies in the winter. And processed veggies are almost always cheaper than their fresh counterparts, especially in winter.

This week in the garden:

Remove old plants from the garden that are no longer productive.  They can serve as a source of disease for more productive plants. Heavy rains followed by lots of dry weather is leading to more tomato fruit cracking. Try to keep soil moisture uniform and pick cracked fruit quickly.