The Surprising Reason Fruit Picked Off City Sidewalks Is Healthier Than What You Buy at a Natural Foods Store
Let's tell a tale of two apples. The first looks perfect in every way: It was grown in an orchard, cleaned off, shined up, and now sits in a pyramidal display at your favorite grocery store, where it's sold at about .60 per pound. The second apple is a bit rougher around the edges: It's growing from the branch of a small tree planted in a city sidewalk near the park, exposed to all of those nasty fumes and pollutants in urban air. It costs nothing—except, of course, the audacity to pluck it from the branch and keep walking.
Given the choice, you'd probably opt for the first apple. But new research from Wellesley University shows that the second apple—yes, the one dangling in dirty city air—is actually more nutritious than the one in the store. How 'bout them apples? (Sorry—had to.)
The finding is a result of a recent collaboration between Wellesley researchers and the League of Urban Canners (LUrC), a fruit foraging organization based in the city of Somerville, MA.
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LUrC wanted to find out whether urban fruit they picked for canning and preserving contained any unwanted contaminants—especially since city soils can often have high levels of heavy metals like lead. So they gathered 66 samples of apples, peaches, cherries, herbs, and more, and sent them off to the Wellesley lab for testing. The fruits were analyzed peeled, unpeeled, washed, and unwashed, to account for all forms of potential contamination.
The results showed that urban fruit does not pose a threat for serious lead exposure—even if it was grown in soil with lead, the fruit did not appear to take it up. Even more surprising? The urban fruit was actually more nutrient-dense and had a wider range of nutrients than store-bought fruit. Specifically, urban apples and peaches had more than 2.5 times the calcium of commercial varieties. All urban fruits had higher levels of iron, too, and some (but not all) street-picked fruits had more manganese, zinc, magnesium, and potassium than their supermarket counterparts.
"When [fruits] grow in a commercial setting, the soils can become quite impoverished," Wellesley geoscience professor Dan Brabander said in a press release. "In the urban setting where the trees sampled tend to be older, perhaps they are able to shuttle micronutrients from a wider and more diverse range of horizons."
MORE:9 Summer Fruits That Taste Like Candy
But he also offers a word of caution: Since local soil and pollution conditions vary, you can't eliminate all risk from eating city fruit. If you do decide to dig in, make like LUrC and always ask permission before harvesting on public or private land. Or just take a moment to bask in the realization that—for once—the healthier option is also the cheaper one. That's what we're doing, anyway.
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