Plant foods have an incredible range of tastes and aromas. The smell of a fresh apple or the taste of a ripe tomato have been entrenched in our minds as very distinctive and specific sensations.
The diversity of texture found in plant foods is also something that is quite unique. Plant foods may have a crisp, granular or creamy texture. The combination of texture, aroma and taste often leads to a unique sensation in plant food consumption.
A new wave of research is addressing the newly developing interest in heath-based foods. Molecular biologists, biochemists, botanists and medical researchers are linking in with plant breeding programmes to develop new varieties of fruit and vegetables that are tailor-made to produce higher levels of health-related phytochemicals.
New phytochemical-enhanced products such as broccoli, tomato, oranges and berries are currently being evaluated for commercial exploitation.
This paper discusses some of the products that are being produced, the driving forces behind their production and the phytochemicals targeted and the problems that must be addressed if this new approach in human nutrition and health is to be of benefit to consumers.
Foods derived from plants, such as fruits and vegetables, have been the backbone of human nutrition since the beginning of time. Hunting and fishing supplemented diets with protein-rich foods but nutrition was predominantly based on the availability of plant foods.
The importance of various plant foods in the development of some civilizations and economies has been well documented: maize in the Americas, potatoes in parts of Europe after their introduction from the Americas, and wheat in Australia.
Plant industries are still the backbone of cultures and economies in almost every corner of the world and production figures support the fact that plant industries are still regarded as the most important source of nutrition.
Nutrition parameters found in plant foods vary between crops but there is a consensus that plant foods can supply most, if not all, of the essential components for human nutrition. These components were discovered slowly by trial and error during human history, a classic example was the prevention of scurvy in seafarers.
When fresh fruit and vegetables were missing from their diet, they learned that products such as pickled cabbages and citrus, rich in vitamin C, could prevent the manifestation of this dehabilitating dietary disease.
As early as the turn of the century scientists learned that diet not only affected nutrition but also had an effect on health and well-being. But it was not until 1933 that a direct relationship between consumption of fruit and vegetables and diseases such as cancer was shown.
Fruit and vegetables not only have become the backbone of local agricultural markets but also play a major role in international trade. Competition for local and international markets is driving extensive research and development to produce new cultivars.
Until recent times research has concentrated on producing new varieties that store longer, yield better, look better, taste better, suit local climates, display disease and pest resistance and suit processing technologies.