What Is A Heirloom Food?

December 2, 2012

I bet you have encountered oddly shaped black carrots in the produce section of your supermarket before, and wondered why anyone would buy those instead of the regular, tubular, orange variety.
Heirloom foods, such as black carrots, can look dramatically different from the “regular” ones you’re used to. Different to the point that sometimes it might get “scary”.
What you shouldn’t do, however, is to look away.
Heirloom foods are a rather flavorful, colorful, and tasty version of foods you already enjoy. Chances are you’re going to like the heirloom version just as much the “regular” one, maybe even more. If that isn’t enough, heirloom foods bring diverse and precious nutrients to your table.
So you definitely shouldn’t look away; reach for them instead.

What is an heirloom food?

If you look up in the dictionary, an heirloom food is defined as

Something of special value handed on from one generation to another
A horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals
A cultivar of a vegetable or fruit that is open-pollinated and is not grown widely for commercial purposes. An heirloom often exhibits a distinctive characteristic such as superior flavor or unusual coloration.

In layman’s terms, an heirloom food is a plant (either vegetable, fruit or legume) that was commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which is not widely cultivated in today’s large-scale agriculture.
There are many varieties of carrots, tomatoes, apples, beans, etc., but only few of them are grown for commercial purposes in today’s world.

Some historical background

Let’s take for instance carrots. This noble vegetable has long been known to be orange in color.
I would say that at least 99% of the Western population believes that carrots have always been only orange. However, originally carrots were black, white, and yellow.
It was only in the 17th century that the Dutch growers breeded the orange carrot as a tribute to their Prince, William of Orange, who fought for Holland independence; and for some unknown reasons the orange color stuck.
When it comes to other heirloom foods the history is less chivalrous. Some cultivar of those plants were just easier to cultivate and more resilient to diseases than others, and thus “conquered” the market in spite of the weaker ones.

Why you should give heirloom foods a go?


The first reason to eat more heirloom foods is to please your tastebuds.
Some cultivar of heirloom tomatoes tend to be much sweeter than their “regular” relatives.
The now notorious San Marzano tomatoes can be as sweet as a strawberry, when perfectly ripe. That’s why they're the preferred choice in Italy for making the tomato sauce used on pasta and pizza.
Black carrots are much more hearty and sugared than their orange relatives. I won’t go as far as saying that they taste better, but they certainly bring new flavor and color.
Heirloom apples tend to be more tart than the current versions you find in the stores. They also have much cooler names such as Northern Spy, Baldwin, Rhode Island Greening, Arkansas Black, Bellflower or the Esopus Spitzenburg. The latter is reputed to have been the favorite variety of Thomas Jefferson, who planted several of its trees at Monticello.

Health benefits

As mentioned earlier, heirloom foods bring important nutrients to the table.
For instance, the darker shade of black carrots is due to a pigment that contains copious amounts of anthocyanins. These are a powerful antioxidant which are reputed to be free radical scavengers, as well as inhibitors of LDL cholesterol.
Furthermore, a study noted a correlation between anthocyanins found in black carrots and the treatment for neurological dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s disease.
With heirloom tomatoes, studies are ongoing. However, a new study suggests that the heirloom orange-colored tomatoes provide a form of lycopene (a disease-fighting antioxidant) different from that contained in the deep red “regular” tomatoes. This new type of lycopene may be more readily used by our bodies.
It was similarly found that purple/greenish heirloom tomatoes contain a further form of lycopene, just as important as the others for health.

Support local and smaller farms

Consuming heirloom foods can also be a way of promoting the growth of local farms. Large-scale farms don’t usually grow heirloom foods, so when you buy them, you’re probably supporting a local/smaller business.
Furthermore, if you’re one of those individuals concerned with the so-called diet localization, then heirloom foods should be your preferred choice.


If you’re curious about heirloom foods keep an eye out at your grocery store or farmer’s market for different looking veggies and fruits. When you spot them, get some and give it a try.
Just use them as you would do with the regular ones, or experiment new recipes. I’m sure you’re going to fall in love with them!

The Iron You