Is Bigger Better?
December 13, 2004 10:18 PM   Subscribe

In Korea, the thinking seems to be 'the bigger the piece of fruit or vegetable, the better'. In western countries where I've lived, the opposite tended to be the case -- people seem to value the little tender baby ones the most. Is this merely fashion, or is there any nutritional basis to the preference, either way?

People blithely pay up to a 100% premium for great bloody mutant pears or apples, for example. It drives me nuts, especially when I try to convince my wife that the little guys are sweeter and better for you. But I'm not sure if that's actually true. Thus my question.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken to Food & Drink (9 answers total)
That's a very interesting question. I think it really depends on the specific fruit or vegetable. I know in Chinese food, smaller tends to be better - the immediate examples that come to mind are baby bok choy (bai cai in pinyin), and baby peapod stems (dou miao). But if you ask me it really depends on the item. As for nutritional value, I have no idea.
posted by swank6 at 11:40 PM on December 13, 2004

I don't have a cite handy, but I do remember reading that modern testing of the nutrient content of broccoli and other vegetables showed a decline per serving from previous generations (1950's?). I think the proposed culprit was higher water content in an otherwise identical item, making it bigger while spreading out the same level of nutrients over a larger volume.
posted by NortonDC at 12:38 AM on December 14, 2004

Best answer: It seems like it would come down to a couple of variables:
1) Where in its growth cycle does the plant achieve the maximum amount of nutrients for its size?
2) If we are considering "baby" fruits and vegetables or simply smaller versions of adults.
3) If the fruits and Veggies got that big on their own or were prompted/modified/in any way unnaturally prodded to grow that big.

The first point is pretty difficult to determine without nutritional testing but for our purposes let's use anecdotal human observation: we seem to prefer fruits and veggies in most cases when they are "ripe." This suggests that this is because they have reached the nutritional and taste pinnacle. This makes the assumption that flavor=nutritional value. This is a shaky assumption that may or may not be true but it's an interesting place to start.

In the case of "baby" fruits and veggies I'd say the nutrients are less because the parent plant has had very little chance to stock the little seed pod with the nutrients it needs to survive the harsh and cruel world. These seem to be favored in the west because of their tenderness, not for any specific nutritional value. When dealing with two "ripe" fruits and talking about size, if I had to choose between a larger ripe tomato and a smaller equally ripe one I'd choose the smaller because it would be more likely to combine the traits of youthful tenderness and mature flavor.

If we are talking about fruits and veggies that have been modified to be smaller or bigger than their "heirloom" brethren, I'd say steer clear. Something has to be sacrificed to increase/decrease the size variable and most likely it's flavor and/or texture because it's rarely color or "shelf life."

To convince your wife, why not try the old "coke or pepsi" blind taste test. Cut a bit of fruit from the biggie apple and also from a regular sized one. See if she can distinguish between the two. Try it a couple of times. If she consistently picks the bigger then perhaps the Koreans are on to something and you are stuck buying big produce for the rest of your life. If she can't tell the difference perhaps she can be persuaded to purchase more of the regular size in the future.

Good luck!
posted by tinamonster at 8:10 AM on December 14, 2004

I think a big part of this would be the differences between "eastern" and "western" growing techniques. If I'm shopping at Safeway or something, I would usually pick a smaller, deeper red tomato over a large but paler red tomato because the smaller ones tend to have more flavor. At a natural foods type place, I would get the biggest one of a batch because they would all be similarly flavorful. I have no idea in Korea, though. My typically clueless American view would be that Korean vegetables wouldn't be the mass-produced, pumped-full-of-water variety you get here in large supermarkets. If that was the case then larger might be just as good as smaller. No matter what, I agree that I would never think a larger vegetable would be better than a small one, just equally good in some cases.
posted by modofo at 9:53 AM on December 14, 2004

I most of the fad value lies in marketing.

The veggie value likes in botany.

First off, some fruits/veggies are at their best when they reach a certain size -- or, rather, prior to reaching a certain size. Cole crops (cabbages) don't taste good when they're mature enough to produce seeds. Therefore, small and compact is better. (Brussels sprouts are a good example.)

Curcurbits (cukes and squashes) -- they don't have to ripen. A cucumber can be picked at any size and will taste like a cucumber (viz. cornichons). But once the plant begins to mature -- i.e., the seeds inside begin to mature -- the plant gets bitter.

This leads me to believe that a baby squash doesn't have any more inherent nutritional value than a full-grown one. It has marketing value, though, because it's damn cute.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:28 AM on December 14, 2004

("lies" in botany...)
posted by mudpuppie at 11:29 AM on December 14, 2004

What does this say about mesculin, which is mostly baby greens (though I think it normally includes some naturally small adults, no?)

Am I wrong that it's more nutritious than, say, typical mixed greens?
posted by abcde at 12:37 PM on December 14, 2004

Spicy Mesclun = baby greens for two reasons. One, harvesting younger (smaller) plants means waiting less time before recouping your investment. Greens grow quickly and seeds can be continuously resown, therefore increasing production.

Two, spicy salad greens get spicier as they mature. Full grown red mustard greens (common in mesclun mixes)would be pain-inducing to most american consumers. Think wasabi x 5.

I can't find nutritional data on baby greens, but I think it's logical to deduce that their vitamin content doesn't change as grow, except proportionally, because the plants don't change colors much as they mature. That's usually a good way to tell with food crops.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:00 PM on December 14, 2004

Response by poster: Interesting answers. Thanks all!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:20 PM on December 14, 2004

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