When we hear man-made foods, many of us immediately have GMO alarm bells go off in our heads or start thinking of lab-grown meat and dairy substitutes. The truth is, people have been altering fruits, nuts, and vegetables for thousands of years.
Through selective breeding, we have created many new plants that better fit our needs. In some cases, we developed these hybrids to taste better but, shelf life, growing times, and insect, drought, or disease resistance have also been driving forces behind the creation of hybrid plants.
If you are curious about what man-made foods you may be eating, we offer our list of 21+ man-made fruits, vegetables, and nuts you might not know about.
Almonds are one of the great mysteries of science. Genetic tracing tells us that it is a man-made descendent of the Amygdalus fenzliana (Fritsch) Lipsky. The mystery is how our ancestors developed it. The seed of its parent plant is not only bitter but highly toxic.
Apples come to us from the Malus Sieversii tree, native to the northern portions of Western Asia. The fruits of these trees looked much like modern apples but were much smaller, had an extremely sour or even bitter taste, and were used mainly for medicinal purposes.
3. Baby Broccoli
Baby broccoli is a more recently developed hybrid in the mustard family. It was created in 1993 by the Sakata Seed Company of Yokohama, Japan. A cross between Chinese kai-lan and common broccoli, baby broccoli is sometimes referred to as broccoletti, broccolette, and Italian sprouting broccoli.
The bananas we see in the grocery store today are a crossing of wild Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana banana plants. The acuminata has a medicinal flavor but creamy flesh with few seeds. The balbisiana is sweet and fruity but is seedy, and its flesh often has hard spots. When brought together, these two created what many felt was the perfect banana.
Horticulturist Rudolph Boysen developed the boysenberry on his in-law’s Orange County, California farm in 1923. They were a cross between blackberries and either the loganberry or the red raspberry, but if not for the efforts of Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame, we would have never known it. The original berry was a commercial flop. Knott asked for the rights to grow the new hybrid, and it was his marketing skills that enabled the vine to survive.
Broccoli is one of many hybrids that came to us from the Brassica oleracea or wild mustard family. Greeks and Romans began selective breeding these plants over 2500 years ago, and horticulturists are still working with them today. At some point in the 1600s, people started experimenting with large flower types. One of the hybrids developed during this period is modern-day broccoli.
7. Brussels Sprouts
Brussel sprouts came into being because many people preferred the flavor of young cabbage buds to more mature leaves. This led to back breeding of types with denser heads at a younger age, milder flavors, and more tender leaves.
Romans and Greeks developed cabbages from the wild mustard plant over 2500 years ago, making it one of Western Culture’s oldest man-made plants. What truly makes it a standout is that many other entrants on this page directly descended from these early cabbages. From the cabbage bloodline, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and many different modern hybrids come to us.
Carrots have quite a history. The first known records place them in Persia during the 10th century. These carrots were purple or white in color and had many smaller roots. The Persians selectively bred them until they developed a plant with a single sizeable root.
Why carrots changed color from white or purple to yellow and finally to orange has been lost to the sands of time but is likely just a happy accident that occurred during the First Roman Period. Today, new carrot hybrids are constantly under development.
Cauliflower is another man-made mustard hybrid that comes to us by way of cabbages. It was developed by selectively breeding cabbages with large flowers. Greeks and Romans were known to highly value cauliflower. The philosopher Pliny the Elder even sang its praises in his book “The Natural History,” written during the Early Roman Period.
When Romans began breeding large leaf varieties of cabbages, they added two new offshoots to the Brassica sub-group. One was the highly recognized kale group. The other was the lesser-known collard group. Very popular in the Southern U.S., collards are a completely edible loose-leaf plant, but generally, people only eat the leaves.
Scientists have different opinions about the origins of corn, but all agree that it is a mand made hybrid. Some believe that it came from a Central American grass called teosinte. Others believe that corn is more closely related to rice and is of South American origins. Contrary to popular belief, maize rarely enters the discussion.
Eggplants are one of the most easily recognizable vegetables we have, but they used to be very different. The ancestors of eggplants came in many different colors, including purple, blue, and yellow. Some eggplants even had spines. The earliest known eggplant varieties were white and shaped like an egg; that is how they got their name.
Grapefruit traces its history back to 1693 when West Indies plantation owner Captain Shaddock crossbred oranges with pomelos. In 1750 grapefruits first appeared in Europe and at that time were called ‘forbidden fruit.’ It wasn’t until 1814 that John Lunan, a Jamaican planter and magistrate, coined ‘grapefruit.’
Kale is widely recognized as a superfood and is a beautiful way to annoy our kids, but if it weren’t for the Romans’ and Greeks’ love of manipulating nature, it wouldn’t exist today. They first started to cross large leaf examples of the Brassica sub-group and gave us this magnificent leafy green.
Many people believe that a mandarin is a type of orange, but the opposite is true. Crossing mandarins with pomelos gave us oranges. The exact history of the mandarin is unknown, but it is a widely held belief that farmers developed them in Southern China in the 1st millennium BC.
Stated simply, every orange variety we have today has its roots in the original crossing of pomelos with mandarins. Created by farmers in southern China, oranges were one of the earliest citrus hybrids created. From then till now, to be considered an orange, a fruit’s genetic roots have to be traced back to this first melding.
People have been cultivating peanuts for over 10,000 years. The earliest known examples of peanut cultivation come to us from the Andean valleys of Bolivia and Argentina. Most of the varieties grown in the United States, though, can be traced back to the work of one man, George Washington Carver. One of the twentieth century’s best-known agricultural scientists and environmentalists, Carver developed dozens of pest and drought-resistant types of peanuts.
Tangerines are not a hybrid orange; instead, farmers created tangerines by back breeding different strains of mandarins. To be considered an orange, a fruit must trace its history back to both mandarins and pomelos. The pomelo never entered the picture when tangerines were under development.
Scientists were developing strawberry hybrids as far back as the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that what we consider a modern strawberry first appeared in France. French botanist Antoine Nicolas Duchesne is credited with creating modern strawberry on July 6, 1764, when he crossed a female Fragaria chiloensis with a male Fragaria moschata.
Tangelos are considered a type of hybrid orange. Tangelos are a cross between a pomelo and tangerine, which was derived from mandarins. This makes tangelos a second phase orange hybrid. As mentioned before, to qualify as an orange, a fruit must have genetic material from both mandarins and pomelos.
Through selective breeding, tomatoes have gone through many changes, and the Aztecs who initially cultivated them would not likely recognize samples from today. The original tomatoes that Cortez brought back to Spain were much like yellow cherry tomatoes, only more petite. They were the size of peas.
Watermelons are one of our oldest cultivars, with historical data taking us back over 5,000 years. As might be expected, people have bred many changes into them over such a long period of time. The original watermelons were not much bigger than today’s apples, very seedy, and had pale, almost white, flesh.