Walking through the veggie section of your local food market, everything looks familiar. But some of the fruits and vegetables bear no resemblance to their ancestors from years ago. Many don't taste the same either. Credit can be given to our forefathers who wanted bigger, tastier, and more attractive food.

GMOs, genetically modified organisms, aren’t so new at all, as our food has been tweaked for far longer than we realise.

Carrots weren’t always orange

For hundreds of years, almost all carrots were yellow, white or purple. But in the 17th century, most of those versatile vegetables turned orange. It may have to do with Dutch politics, as Dutch growers at the time cultivated orange carrots as a tribute to William of Orange – who led the struggle for Dutch independence – and the colour stuck, with a thousand years of yellow, white and purple carrot history being wiped out.

Some experts doubt if orange carrots even existed before the 16th century, but they now form the basis of most commercial cultivators around the world. Presumably crosses between Eastern (purple), Western (white, red) and perhaps wild carrots led to the formation of the orange carrot we know today.

Whatever the origins, there are now over 40 different species of carrot, and almost all are orange.

Tomatoes weren’t always red

Tomatoes are another item that have changed, and historically people weren't so quick to eat them. Early varieties of the plant had tiny green or yellow fruit and were used in cooking by the Aztecs, with explorers later bringing them back to Spain and Italy.

A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans – and the leaves actually are - who were suspicious of their bright, shiny fruit. Native versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red.

Although now a staple in those countries, it is said that in the 1700s the tomato was feared and nicknamed ‘poison apple’ because people thought aristocrats died after eating them. But it turned out it was the acidity in tomatoes leaching lead from their fancy pewter plates that was causing lead poisoning.

The old argument is, are they a fruit or a vegetable? The botanical classification is that tomatoes are fruits. Botanically, a fruit would have at least one seed and grow from the flower of the plant. With these definitions in mind, tomatoes are classified as a fruit because they follow these criteria.

The culinary classification is that tomatoes are vegetables. A nutritionist or chef would use the culinary classification system that defines fruits and vegetables in a slightly different manner, basing it on the way the plants are used and their flavour profiles.

Chefs etc would say a ‘vegetable’ usually has a tougher texture, tastes blander and often requires cooking in dishes like stews, soups or stir-fries, whereas, a ‘fruit’ has a soft texture, tends to be either sweet or tart and is often enjoyed raw or in desserts or jams. Tomatoes can be juicy, sweet and enjoyed raw. Yet, we also prepare tomatoes in savoury dishes, which is why we usually classify tomatoes as vegetables.

Tomatoes are part of your 5-a-day whichever definition you select!

Aubergines weren’t always purple

Aubergine is a French word, and they are known as aubergines because of their colour, but eggplants have had several hues including white, yellow, blue and purple, and some even had spines. In fact, the English name ‘eggplant’ comes from the fact that the plants were often white and round and originally looked like white eggs. Eggplant is commonly used as a vegetable, because of its savoury flavour, but like its cousin the tomato, they are really fruits too!

Bell Peppers were always multicoloured

Bell Peppers in particular are commonly yellow, white, green, red - or even purple -depending on their ripeness and variety, and are the mildest of peppers.

But there are hundreds of varieties of capsicum, to use their technical name, some of which look and taste very different, with the Dragon’s Breath pepper being developed to be used as an anaesthetic, but if eaten, it could possibly cause the consumer to go into anaphylactic shock!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan