11 Facts About Your Christmas Veg That You Probably Didn't Know (Including Why You Hate Sprouts)


Don't like sprouts? Finally there's a scientific reason why.

Experts at the University of Warwick's School of Life Sciences compiled the list to celebrate being ranked second in the UK by the Government for agriculture, food and veterinary research earlier this month.

The catalogue of vegetable facts, providing food for thought for those tucking into a traditional Christmas meal, also confirms that parsnips do benefit from a sharp frost.

1. Don't like Brussels sprouts? Blame your genes

"There are many people who can't stand Brussels sprouts," says Dr Graham Teakle, from Warwick Crop Centre, "and that's because of variants in a gene called TAS2R38, one of the receptors on your tongue responsible for perceiving bitterness.

This particular receptor perceives the flavour compounds in Brassicas known as glucosinolates. The PAV 'taster' variant increases the sensitivity to the glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts, causing an unpalatable response, while the AVI variant is referred to as the non-taster form. People with two copies of the 'taster' variant are sometimes known as supertasters."

2. Carrots were not always orange

"First cultivated in Asia, carrots were originally white and purple," says Dr Charlotte Allender, who works alongside Dr Teakle at the Crop Centre. "But changes in the genes controlling pigment production were exploited by farmers and plant breeders to give us the orange carrots we know today, along with less familiar colours such as yellow, red and black."

3. University of Warwick researchers are working on a Vegetable Genetic Improvement Network

The initiative aims to assist plant breeders to deliver improved, more sustainable varieties of brassicas, lettuce, onions and carrot able to cope with reduced quantities of pesticides, fertilisers and water.

4. Boiling destroys the anti-cancer properties of vegetables

Paul Thornalley, professor of systems biology at Warwick Medical School, found that the standard British cooking habit of boiling vegetables severely damages the anti-cancer properties of many brassicas such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and green cabbage. "If you want to get the maximum benefit from your Christmas vegetables then boiling is out. You need to consider stir-frying, steaming or microwaving them," he advises.

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5. A cauliflower is not a flower

"It's actually proliferation of several million meristems," says Dr Teakle. "A meristem is the growing tip of a plant shoot from which all other plant organs develop. Cauliflower is unique in being the only plant to do this."

6. Some vegetables can be "bred" like dogs

Dr Teakle explains: "The highly variable shapes of cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and kales are different forms of the same species - Brassica oleracea - and can be inter-crossed with each other. Brassica oleracea is sometimes referred to as the 'dog' of the plant world."

7. Carrots can help you to see in the dark

"The orange colour of carrots is due to a compound called beta-carotene," says Dr Allender. "Beta-carotene is needed to produce vitamin A, which is converted to the retinal pigment used by your eyes to detect light. One of the symptoms of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness - so you could say carrots really do help you see in the dark."

8. Brassicas are a source of antioxidants

Dr Teakle says: "The characteristic flavour of Brassicas is due to a family of chemicals called glucosinolates. These are plant defence chemicals that are stored in cells in an inactive form known as a 'mustard oil bomb'. When herbivores feed on the plants, the cells break open causing the mustard oil bomb to release the glucosinolates.

These then come in contact with the enzyme myrosinase which converts the flavourless glucosinolate to highly reactive forms that are the active defence compounds. It is these that provide the brassica flavour. Many also have antioxidant and other health benefits and medical trials are being performed to verify the range of these benefits."

9. Parsnips get sweeter in the cold

"They used to be used as a sweetening agent," Dr Allender says, "because they develop a more pronounced sweet taste after being stored in the cold. This is caused by the conversion of carbohydrates to sugars. Parsnips are also an excellent source of many nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and potassium as well as dietary fibre."

10. Peas and beans are good for your garden

"If you want a better garden, grow peas and beans," Dr Teakle advises. "They are good to grow as, because they are legumes, they work with a special soil bacterium called Rhizobium and are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen which helps to fertilise your soil."

11. There's a vegetable that tastes of carrots and parsnips

Like carrots? Like parsnips? If the answer to both questions is yes, you might want to try root parsley, which combines characters of all three crops. Dr Allender notes: "Carrots, parsnip and parsley are members of the same family of plants, the Apiaceae, which also contains other vegetables and herbs such as celery, fennel and coriander."

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