Vegetable Makeover

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by mapsbecky


Kale is a vegetable packed with nutrition. Scientists want to develop a new variety of kale that will appeal to more consumers.

Be sure to eat your vegetables!

Most of us have heard this from a parent, doctor, or teacher at some point. The reasons are clear. Vegetables contain nutrients that keep us healthy and can help prevent serious ailments like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Even with these known benefits, nutritionists say that many people don’t eat enough vegetables.

Some people say they don’t like certain vegetables because of their flavors, colors, or textures. Currently, researchers at Cornell University are studying why some people don’t like to eat kale—a green, leafy vegetable. Once they discover why, they plan to breed a new variety that will better appeal to finicky eaters.

A Tastier Vegetable

Phillip Griffiths is a professor at Cornell University who studies horticulture, which includes the science of growing fruits and vegetables. He and his student, Hannah Swegarden, are interviewing seed producers, growers, supermarket managers, and consumers to see what leaf shapes, colors, flavors, and textures people prefer. Swegarden says they want to develop a kale variety that will “appeal to both a consumer’s eyes and taste buds.”

In September, these researchers spoke to people who already enjoy kale. They gave each person six varieties of kale, and then asked them to prepare the plants to eat however they wanted and to record their opinions in a journal. The responses varied. Some complained that some kale varieties were bitter, while others thought some were too tough to chew.

Next, Griffiths and Swegarden will use the responses to develop a list of questions for a survey that will be given to another group of people. This second group will be larger than the first, and will include both people who like and do not like kale. Using the survey responses, the researchers want to breed kale varieties with the shapes, flavors, colors, and textures people prefer. They say it will take about eight years to produce this new variety of kale.

A Vegetable’s Story

Kale has flat or curly dark green leaves which sometimes have a trace of purple. It is sold in bunches of long stiff leaves, tender baby leaves, or sprouts.

Kale is native to southern Europe. It was grown in Greek and Roman gardens as long as 2,000 years ago. Over time, kale cultivation spread through northern Europe and Asia. Until the Middle Ages, kale was the most widely eaten green vegetable in most of Europe, when it was surpassed in popularity by cabbage. Still, kale remained popular in colder areas since it could survive harsh winters.

One place where kale was especially popular was Scotland, a country known for its chilly climate. Many Scottish phrases mention kale, reflecting its importance to the Scottish diet. A kailyard is an old name for a kitchen garden. Cauld kale het up (cold kale heated up), means an old story or style that becomes popular again. Just as Americans sometimes use the words bread or meat to refer to any food, in Scotland, kale can mean food itself.

A traditional Scottish cottage with a kailyard at the Auchindrain Township Open Air Museum in Argyll, Scotland.

A traditional cottage with a kailyard at the Auchindrain Township Museum in Argyll, Scotland.

What’s in the Leaf?

Kale is actually the same species of vegetable as cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. All are known by the species name Brassica oleracea. Brassica is the Latin word for cabbage while oleracea is Latin for vegetable. Although they are the same species, these vegetables each look and taste different because of changes produced by thousands of years of human farming.

Kale is both filling and low in calories, so it can help people maintain a healthy weight. It is rich in vitamins A, C, and K. Vitamin A helps teeth, bones, and skin stay healthy, and is necessary for good vision. Vitamin C helps form skin and blood vessels. It also helps skin form scar tissue after it has been injured. Vitamin K is necessary to make blood clot, or stop bleeding after we are cut.

A tasty way to eat kale is to make kale chips. Wash and dry kale strips. Then, using your hands, toss the strips with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Arrange the coated strips in a single layer on a roasting pan. Have an adult help you roast the strips in an oven at 275°F for about 20 minutes. The finished chips should be crisp, but not brown.

Additional Resources

Read more about the kale study at NPR and Science Daily.

See why kale is so nutritious at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Explore a traditional Scottish farm township at Auchindrain Township.

Images and Sources

Kale Photo: Matthias Süßen
Kale Photo License: Creative Commons 4.0

Scottish Cottage Photo: Kim Traynor
Scottish Cottage Photo License: Creative Commons 4.0