Trendy, Ugly Veggies Pack a Health Punch

Trendy, Ugly Veggies Pack a Health Punch

Summer’s hottest food trend: Weird-o veggies and fruit, from wrinkled heirloom tomatoes and strangely shaped carrots to gnarly Jerusalem artichokes. They’re turning up in farmers’ markets and local grocery stores, providing a nourishing flood of nutrients, fiber and healthy phytochemicals.  

We hope the increasing availability of these exotic looking foods will help you learn to accept the not just “supposed-to-be-weird” varieties, but the less-than-perfect fresh fruits and veggies supermarket chains now throw away because consumers mistakenly think there’s something wrong with them.

We’ve gotten so used to overly-managed produce (it looks like it’s had plastic surgery!) that we shy away from un-manicured pieces. We throw away carrot-topping greens, broccoli stems and less that perfectly-round and evenly-colored oranges because we’ve been taught they have no value.

Not so fast! Eating fresh “ugly produce” -- and its nasty bits -- fuels the good-guy bacteria in your digestive system and that’s a big deal. Those bacteria help promote a strong immune system, a healthy weight, comfy digestion and may protect against depression, diabetes and even aging. Those unattractive parts are loaded with digestible and non-digestible fiber that good-for-you gut bacteria love to dine on. In addition, many types of produce are loaded with compounds called xyloglucans which beneficial bacteria also like to eat.

Joining the ugly veggie movement helps the planet, too. You’re investing in agricultural diversity when you buy tasty vintage apples, sweet little local strawberries, old-fashioned melon types and other deliciously eccentric fruit and veggie varieties that ‘factory farms’ won’t grow.

Five ways to embrace ugly produce, deliciously and easily:

#1: Use the weird bits. Stop tossing broccoli stalks, kale stems, beet greens and tough cauliflower cores. Sure, you’ve got to cut off the bad spots and dirty ends, but use the rest by making slaw or adding pureed bits to soups or chopped bits to stir-fries. Mince carrot tops and add to chicken soup for a real flavor boost. Steam or sauté beet greens and stems. Or try slicing cauliflower cross-wise to create “steaks.” Brush with olive oil and garlic, then grill. You’ll get all the flavors you love and the nutrition you need -- and you’ll save money!

#2: Don’t snub three-legged carrots or bent zucchini.  Unless they’re bruised or past their prime, fruit and veggies with imperfect shapes or colors are perfectly fine. And follow the advice of a French supermarket chain’s wildly popular, 2014  “Inglorious Fruit and Vegetables” campaign: Chop’em, mash’em or toss’em in soup. As one advertisement put it, “A Hideous Orange…Makes Beautiful Juice.”

#3: Try a truly hideous vegetable. Jerusalem artichokes, aka “sun chokes”, look like potatoes with a self-esteem problem, but this ugly veggie adds juicy crunch to salads. Celery root is wildly hairy; but the veggie inside makes a tasty soup! They may temporarily increase your gas, but they increase your bacterial diversity, and unless you’re an elevator operator, diversity wins that competition for your health. These strange veggies are all sources of inulin -- a fiber that’s a gourmet feast for good bacteria in your digestive system.

#4: Buy local. Local produce may not look as perfect as grocery-store goods, but often it’s fresher and riper. Being picked at ripeness and sold quickly often makes it a more nutritious and tasty choice. Another tip: Chat up growers at local farm markets; some raise their crops via organic methods even if they don’t have an official “organic” designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

#5. Pair ugly fruit with gorgeous chocolate or wonderful red wine. So what if the peaches are lopsided or the strawberries aren’t perfectly formed? Slice and serve with dark chocolate and no one will notice. Turns out good bacteria in your digestive system break chocolate down into compounds that cool inflammation and pamper artery walls. Red wine (in moderation, of course) provides polyphenols that encourage the growth of good bacteria while discouraging the bad guys, keeping your personal microbiome in balance. Now that’s beautiful!

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

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