12 Facts About Your Christmas Veggies

Medically Reviewed by Keith Barnard, MD on December 23, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 23, 2014 -- Scientists have compiled a list of fascinating facts about the vegetables that many of us will be heaping on our plates this Christmas.

A forensic analysis of our festive fare may be far from our minds as we baste the turkey and strain the Brussels sprouts, but experts at the University of Warwick's School of Life Sciences in the U.K. say there is more to our commonly cooked vegetables than we might realize.

Also, those living in dread of those Brussels sprouts can take some comfort in the knowledge that there might be a good reason why they seem so unpalatable.

Here are the 12 facts of Christmas veggies to mull over in the kitchen.

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

Many people can’t stand Brussels sprouts because of a gene variant that affects how they perceive bitterness, says the University of Warwick’s Graham Teakle.

People with the variant are more sensitive to the pungency of the plants, causing an unpalatable response.

2. Carrots were not always orange.

"First cultivated in Asia, carrots were originally white and purple,” says Warwick’s Charlotte Allender. “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 developing better vegetables.

Researchers at the university are working on the Vegetable Genetic Improvement Network project to help plant breeders deliver improved varieties of cruciferous vegetables, lettuce, onions, and carrots.

4. Boiling destroys anti-cancer properties of vegetables.

Boiling severely damages the anti-cancer properties of many cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and green cabbage, says Paul Thornalley, professor of systems biology at Warwick Medical School.

"If you want to get the maximum benefit from your Christmas vegetables, then boiling is out," he says. "You need to consider stir frying, steaming, or microwaving them."

5. A cauliflower is not a flower.

"It’s actually proliferation of several million meristems,” Teakle says.

What is a "meristem," you might ask? "A meristem is the growing tip of a plant shoot from which all other plant organs develop," he says. "Cauliflower is unique in being the only plant to do this."

6. Some vegetables can be "bred" like dogs.

The highly variable shapes of cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and kale are different forms of the same species and can be inter-crossed with each other, Teakle says.

7. Carrots can help you to see in the dark.

"The orange color of carrots is due to a compound called beta-carotene,” Allender says. "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. Cruciferous vegetables are a source of antioxidants.

The characteristic flavor of cruciferous vegetables comes from a family of chemicals called glucosinolates, Teakle says. When eaten, the glucosinolates become defense compounds.

"Many also have antioxidant and other health benefits, and medical trials are being performed to verify the range of these benefits," Teakle says.

9. Parsnips get sweeter in the cold

"They used to be used as a sweetening agent because they develop a more pronounced sweet taste after being stored in the cold," Allender says.

"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 fiber."

10. Peas and beans are good for your garden.

"If you want a better garden, grow peas and beans," Teakle says. They help to fertilize your soil.

11. There’s a vegetable that tastes like both carrots and parsnips.

If you like carrots as well as parsnips, you might want to try root parsley, which combines characteristics of all three crops. Carrots, parsnips, and parsley are members of the same family of plants, which also contains herbs such as celery, fennel, and coriander, Allender says.

12. The University of Warwick stores 1,000+ samples of different Brussels sprout seed varieties.

Allender leads a team responsible for the UK Vegetable Genebank seed collection. It contains more than 1,000 samples of different varieties of Brussels sprouts.

These and other vegetable seed samples are conserved and made available to plant breeders and researchers around the world.