by Seamus Heaney
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
Botanists define the difference between a fruit and a vegetable this way; a fruit is anything that develops from the flower of a plant and the a vegetable is anything we eat that comes from another portion of the plant like leaves, stems, roots or stalk. Of course plant breeders have ingeniously discovered genes that allow for seedless grapes, seedless watermelons and all matter of seedless fruits, but as a whole, most fruits can be identified by containing seeds. So what are nuts? In most cases they are the seed and we would classify them as a fruit. Even peanuts, which flower above ground have a unique adaptation where the fertilized flower sends a unique structure below ground to form the fruit, which we think of as the peanut hull with the fruits inside.
So why are most fruits sweet? There are several reasons; either energy for the developing plant or enticement for transport by birds or animals, transport beyond what would normally happen if it fell to the ground where it would compete with the mother plant. Why are some vegetables sweeter than some fruits? It all comes down to what mixture and concentration of sugars are contained in the plant. There are three primary sugars in plants, sucrose, fructose and glucose. Sucrose consists of one fructose molecule and one glucose molecule. Fructose is the sweetest on our tongues, sucrose next and glucose the least. All three are the building blocks for carbohydrates that fuel the energy cells need for all living organisms. In the graphic below, tomatoes, a fruit, have the lowest concentration of sugars, while sugar beets, a vegetable, have the highest, so its impossible to paint with a broad brush, saying fruits are always sweeter than vegetables, as plant selection over time and modern plant breeders have been able to select for varieties that maximize the value of the plant for which its used. In northern latitudes most granulated sugar is made form sugar beets, whereas in the rest of the world it is made from sugar cane. Which is better for the environment and cheaper to raise? Hands down, sugar cane. Without a strong lobby and without government subsidies, sugar beets and the sugar industry in North America and Europe would cease to be able to compete with cane sugar produced more sustain-ably and far cheaper.
What is high fructose corn syrup? A by-product of the ethanol industry, this concentrated sweetener has become endemic in processed foods as a cheap, sweet alternative to granulated sugar. HFCS (which is produced from corn starch through industrial processing) contains 45% glucose and 55% fructose. Whereas granulated sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Some types of agave nectar contain 90% fructose and 10% glucose. Glucose and fructose have different metabolic fates, so in theory consuming one over the other could lead to differences in metabolic health. For example, glucose is absorbed from the intestine into the blood and is and taken up into muscle, liver, and fat cells in response to the release of insulin from the pancreas. In contrast, fructose is metabolized in the liver and does not increase blood glucose or insulin levels. But since glucose and fructose travel together in the foods and beverages we eat, we need to consider their effects holistically. In reality health impacts are less around the types of sugars we eat, (including lactose) and more around the quantity of sugars we consume. The negative health impacts on weight gain and increased incidence of type II diabetes have more to do with the hidden calories in sweetened drinks and the larger portion sizes that have dramatically risen as a marketing tool over the past several decades, than the type of sugar contained in them. The advantage of eating fruits and vegetables over processed foods, is the additional fiber, nutrients and the way the sugars are packaged that make it easier for our bodies to process and digest. In the end just buy some blackberries and enjoy them. Its one of the glorious staples of August.
by Margaret Atwood
In the early morning an old woman
is picking blackberries in the shade.
It will be too hot later
but right now there’s dew.
Some berries fall: those are for squirrels.
Some are unripe, reserved for bears.
Some go into the metal bowl.
Those are for you, so you may taste them
just for a moment.
That’s good times: one little sweetness
after another, then quickly gone.
Once, this old woman
I’m conjuring up for you
would have been my grandmother.
Today it’s me.
Years from now it might be you,
if you’re quite lucky.
The hands reaching in
among the leaves and spines
were once my mother’s.
I’ve passed them on.
Decades ahead, you’ll study your own
temporary hands, and you’ll remember.
Don’t cry, this is what happens.
Look! The steel bowl
is almost full. Enough for all of us.
The blackberries gleam like glass,
like the glass ornaments
we hang on trees in December
to remind ourselves to be grateful for snow.
Some berries occur in sun,
but they are smaller.
It’s as I always told you:
the best ones grow in shadow.