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Most of us won’t think twice about the scientific make-up of our Christmas dinner but there’s more to that plate of festive food than meets the eye!


Experts at Warwick University ’s School of Life Sciences are sharing their vast vegetable knowledge in a bid to help families truly appreciate this year’s festive feast.


Don’t like Brussels sprouts? Blame your genes

“There are many people who can’t stand Brussels sprouts,” said Dr Graham Teakle, from Warwick Crop Centre, “and that’s because of variants in a gene called TAS2R38, one of the receptors on your tongue responsible for perceiving bitterness. This particular receptor perceives the flavour compounds in Brassicas known as glucosinolates. The PAV ‘taster’ variant increases the sensitivity to the glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts, causing an unpalatable response, while the AVI variant is referred to as the non-taster form. People with two copies of the ‘taster’ variant are sometimes known as supertasters.”


Carrots weren’t always orange

First cultivated in Asia, carrots were originally white and purple. Dr Charlotte Allender, who works alongside Dr Teakle at the Crop Centre explained changes in the genes controlling pigment production were exploited by farmers and plant breeders to give us the orange carrots we know today, along with less familiar colours such as yellow, red and black.


Researchers are developing better vegetables

Researchers at the University of Warwick are working on a vegetable genetic improvement project which aims to assist plant breeders to deliver better varieties of brassicas, lettuce, onions and carrot which can cope with reduced levels of pesticides, fertilisers and water to increase sustainable food production in the future.


Boiling destroys anti-cancer properties of vegetables

Paul Thornalley, professor of systems biology at Warwick Medical School found that the standard British cooking habit of boiling vegetables severely damages the anti-cancer properties of many brassicas such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and green cabbage. “If you want to get the maximum benefit from your Christmas vegetables then boiling is out. You need to consider stir frying, steaming or micro-waving them,” he said.


A cauliflower is not a flower

“It’s actually proliferation of several million meristems,” said Dr Teakle. “A meristem is the growing tip of a plant shoot from which all other plant organs develop.” Cauliflower is unique in being the only plant to do this.


Some vegetables can be ‘bred’ like dogs

Dr Teakle explains: “The highly variable shapes of cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohl rabi and kales are different forms of the same species – Brassica oleracea – and can be inter-crossed with each other. Brassica oleracea is sometimes referred to as the ‘dog’ of the plant world.”


Carrots can help you to see in the dark

The orange colour of carrots is due to a compound called beta-carotene which is needed to produce vitamin A. . Dr Allender siad this is then “converted to the retinal pigment used by your eyes to detect light. One of the symptoms of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness - so you could say carrots really do help you see in the dark.”


Brassicas are a source of antioxidants

The characteristic flavour of brassicas is due to a family of chemicals called glucosinolates. These are plant defence chemicals that are stored in cells in an inactive form known as a ‘mustard oil bomb.’ When herbivores feed on the plants, the cells break open causing the mustard oil bomb to release the glucosinolates. These then come in contact with the enzyme myrosinase which converts the flavourless glucosinolate to highly reactive forms that are the active defense compounds. Dr Teakle said: “It is these that provide the brassica flavour. Many also have antioxidant and other health benefits and medical trials are being performed to verify the range of these benefits.”


Parsnips get sweeter in the cold

“They used to be used as a sweetening agent,” said Dr Allender, “because they develop a more pronounced sweet taste after being stored in the cold. This is caused by the conversion of carbohydrates to sugars.” Parsnips are also an excellent source of many nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and potassium as well as dietary fibre.


Peas and beans are good for your garden

“If you want a better garden, grow peas and beans,” advises Dr Teakle, “they are good to grow as, because they are legumes, they work with a special soil bacterium called Rhizobium and are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen which helps to fertilise your soil.”


There’s a vegetable that tastes of both carrots and parsnips

Like carrots? Like parsnips? If the answer to both of those questions is yes – you might want to try root parsley which combines characters of all three crops. “Carrots, parsnip and parsley are members of the same family of plants, the Apiaceae, which also contains other vegetables and herbs such as celery, fennel and coriander,” said Dr Allender.


Over 1000 samples of different Brussels sprout seed varieties are held at The Warwick University’s stores. These and other vegetable seed samples are conserved and made available to plant breeders and researchers across the world.


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