Weird Nature: Is “Ugly” Produce the Next Big Thing at the Farmers’ Market?

September 20, 2013

Why are the heriloom tomatoes at left "cool-looking" and the apples at right "blemished"? Photo: Jon Fisher

On a recent trip to the farmers’ market, I bought everything I needed, and was just eyeing the remaining stands to see if anything caught my eye.

I spotted some really cool looking apples from Waterpenny Farm that I’d never seen before, and was surprised to realize that they were interesting looking simply because they had not been sprayed at all (no fungicide or insecticide, not even “organic” pesticides).

That got me thinking: while unsprayed produce tends to be funny looking, funny looking food is “in” these days!

Could we make fruit with blemishes cool?

With the various food channels, and all the great food writers, foodies are always on the prowl for novelty at the market. From purple carrots, to watermelon radishes (red flesh with green skin), to all types of tomatoes (red/yellow stripes, green stripes, purple, black, yellow…), food with a different appearance can be fun, as well as a sign of its origin (usually from a small farmer).

I even recently bit into an apple my wife bought because it was squat and a weird yellow hue on the outside, only to discover pink flesh on the inside!

Unsprayed produce holds many surprises. Photo: Jon Fisher
Unsprayed produce holds many surprises. Photo: Jon Fisher

Not only is “new food” trendy these days, so is healthy and unprocessed food. As Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes) famously noted, apples are often dyed and waxed, so that “it’s like eating a candle.”

The idea of a totally “natural” apple with no pesticide, no wax or dye, no anything should be appealing to consumers as well. While organic produce does emphasize a holistic approach to controlling pests, most consumers are unaware that they do still use pesticides with a natural origin, including copper-based fungicides and pyrethrum.

Finally, many people put a premium on the environmental footprint of their food. One reason farmer’s markets are so popular in big cities is the emphasis on locally grown food (usually because it is perceived as being better for the environment) as well as organic options.

Since unsprayed produce should reduce problems with soil degradation and water quality caused by pesticide use, that could be an appealing way to market it. I don’t know how many crops can practically be produced without pesticides (without low yields or food waste), but it’s at least worth a full analysis of the environmental costs and benefits.

I wish I could end by saying that the apples were the best I’d ever had, and that complex flavors leapt out at me as I bit into them. That would be an exaggeration, but they certainly were plenty good: crisp, tart, and flavorful (perfect for apple pie).

Plus, the lack of wax did make for a more appealing skin texture. I found one tiny worm in one of the apples (I cut the apple up since I’m not brave enough to eat apple worms), a few brown spots, and scraped a few black spots off of the skin of each apple with my fingernail. I’m not sure how many people can get over the “ick factor” of eating fruit that may have some pest damage, but given the popularity in eating bugs on purpose (e.g. grasshopper tacos) it doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.

I plan on buying more of these when I can, and perhaps at my next dinner party, I’ll try introducing them as some new exotic varietal and see if that makes them more appealing than fruit with some minor insect and fungal damage.

Jon Fisher

Jon Fisher is a senior conservation scientist for the Center for Sustainability Science at The Nature Conservancy. He is leading efforts to put rigorous science front and center in our sustainable agriculture work, and finding ways to improve sustainability through corporate practices and public policy. More from Jon

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  1. I should note that the second photo of the pink-fleshed apple is NOT an unsprayed apple, just another example of a funny-looking trait (pink flesh) being seen as desirable and exciting rather than weird or creepy.