These “Natural” Foods Were Actually Man-Made

Nowadays, health enthusiasts admonish against “man-made” foods that are processed with artificial sweeteners and preservatives. But most modern-day fruits and vegetables are man-made. Some of them rely so much on mankind that, if we stopped planting them, they would cease to exist.

Many of our everyday foods–almonds, collard greens, and wheat–were carefully bred by farmers thousands of years ago. Because it happened back in 6500 BC, most people forgot about selective breeding. But we didn’t. Here are “natural” foods that were originally made by humans.

Bananas Would Go Extinct If We Stopped Planting Them

A woman with a banana demonstrates outside Warsaw's National Museum to protest against censorship

Like the peanut, bananas are also a cross-breed. Over 10,000 years ago, two wild banana species existed: the Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. The Musa balbisiana has sweet, tough inner flesh with too many seeds. The Musa acuminata had a soft inside with a gross taste.

Early farmers in South Asia cross-bred the plants to create the modern banana. But there was one problem: Since bananas don’t have seeds, they’re sterile. Farmers discovered that they could replant the shoots to sprout new trees. However, this means that if we stop planting bananas, they will go extinct.

Collard Greens Such As Kale And Cabbage Were All Man-Made

Man holds a bundle of kale

Over 2,500 years ago, people in the Mediterranean region planted wild mustard to eat. The Greeks and Romans focused on planting mustard with larger leaves, which eventually created kale and collard greens. This selective breeding continued through the 1600s.

Those who planted vegetables with larger leaves invented the first cabbage, whereas thick-stemmed wild mustard became kohlrabi. All of these vegetables grew from wild mustard, which makes them part of the same species, Brassica oleracea. And yes, the original wild mustard still exists today.

Broccoli, Cauliflower, And Brussels Sprouts Come From The Same Plant

Green vegetables - savoy cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, swiss chard.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

More vegetables branched from wild mustard– Broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts all stem from the Brassica oleracea family. In ancient Rome, farmers picked out mustard plants with big flowers and continued to mate them together. These resulted in cauliflower and broccoli.

Forerunners of brussels sprouts began in Rome and were perfected in thirteenth-century Belgium. European farmers cultivated wild mustard varieties with small heads that eventually evolved into brussels sprouts. In the 1940s, a Dutch botanist created purple brussels sprouts by cross-breeding purple cabbages with green brussels.

Oranges Descended From Mandarins

Model holds a sliced orange in front of an orange background

Oranges come in many varieties today, but all can be traced back to a human-made hybrid centuries ago. Orange is a cross-breed between a pomelo and a mandarin. Despite common misconceptions, a mandarin is not an orange–it’s an ancestor of the orange.

Although the origins of orange are unclear, it is assumed to have come from southern China and the former Indochina. Farmers crossed the bitter pomelo with a sweet mandarin to create the citrusy-sweet fruit we know today. Around the 1450s, Italian traders discovered oranges and carried them to the Mediterranean area.

If They Weren’t Man-Made, Almonds Would Kill You

Fresh almonds pour out of a small glass jar

Although the history behind modern almonds is unclear, scientists know that it’s a cross-breed. How do they know? Because wild almonds are fatally poisonous when consumed in large amounts. Also, wild almonds are bitter, whereas our edible almond is sweet.

Historians know that almonds first grew in China and Central Asia before traveling on the Silk Road. While examining the plants from that area, scientists suspected that almond’s origin might be Amygdalus fenzliana. This plant has similar trees, fruits, and seeds to the modern almond. Scientists still don’t know how humans created an edible nut from a poisonous plant.

Cucumbers Used To Look Like Spiky Abominations

Wild cucumbers look similar to the appearance of original modern cucumbers.
JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images
JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images

The cucumbers we know today have been carefully cultivated for over 3,000 years. Early records reference cucumbers from ancient Ur in the legend of Gilgamesh. However, the fruit, Cucumis hystrix, likely originated in India. Wild cucumbers still exist today and have spiny, monstrous-looking fruits.

Records from Pliny the Elder indicate that the Romans strategically cultivated cucumbers. They introduced the plant to Europe, where it continued to be bred by the English, French, and Spanish. The final, modern version of cucumber wasn’t hybridized until the 1800s. Because of its long history, modern cucumbers come in several different varieties.

Here’s Why Grapefruit Doesn’t Exist In Some Places

Person holds sliced grapefruit in the sand

Unlike the ancient man-made fruits on this list, grapefruit first appeared in 1693. One man, known only as “Captain Shaddock,” brought pomelo seeds from Indonesia and planted them near his Jamaican sweet orange trees. Unintentionally, the plants cross-bred and created the modern-day grapefruit. Until the nineteenth century, grapefruits were called shaddocks.

Europeans received grapefruits in 1750 when Reverend Griffith Hughes encountered what he called “the forbidden fruit.” In 1823, the fruit arrived in the United States, where it was mistaken for a pomelo until 1837. Scientists didn’t look into its true origins until the 1940s. Because it’s so recent, some countries in the world have never witnessed a grapefruit.

Chickens Have Yellow Legs Because Of Humans

Cocks and hens participate in a beauty contest at Chuanloo Manor
Visual China Group via Getty Images
Visual China Group via Getty Images

Yes, domesticated chickens are a result of human meddling. Although humans didn’t invent the chicken, they did breed it into its modern image. Research in a 2008 volume of PLoS Genetics suggests that chickens descended from red junglefowl (Gallus gallus). That’s why chickens can (and do) interbreed with junglefowl.

Have you ever wondered why chicken’s skin is yellow, while most other birds’ legs are black or grey? This is because humans bred chickens to have that gene. Scientists debate over where the first domestications began, although it either came from China in 6000 BC or the Indus Valley around Central Asia.

Lemons Came From Oranges, Not The Other Way Around

Man standing amidst a lemon tree.

As you can probably guess, most citrus fruits are related. Even more of them are hybrids of one another. Just as this is true of the orange, it is true of the lemon. Although lemon’s origins are unclear, scientists believe that they came from Assam in northern India. They evolved (whether natural or man-made) as a hybrid between the sour orange and citron.

Lemons entered Europe during the second century AD, but they weren’t widely cultivated. By the 700s, the fruit entered Persia and spread throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Lemons didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the nineteenth century.

Wheat Was Almost Impossible To Bake Before

Woman walks through a wheat field in Argentina

Historians aren’t sure whether wheat was intentionally selected or not. However, domesticated wheat is larger and tougher. Wild strains are a lot easier to shatter, so it’s difficult to cultivate it. Based on archaeological dating, the first wheat likely grew in modern-day Turkey and Syria in 8800 BCE. But it wasn’t regularly cultivated until 6500 BCE.

The ancient Greeks and Egyptians farmed wheat through careful crop rotation and soil care. According to DNA analysis, the first identifiable bread wheat sprouted in Macedonia in 1350 BCE. Because wheat self-pollinates, there aren’t many hybrids outside of France, South Africa, and the US.

Carrots Were Not Always Orange

Pupils from Millfields Community School help themselves from the bowl of fresh organic carrots, cucumbers and celery
Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images

The carrots we see today look nothing like natural carrots. Orange carrots descended from the yellow carrot, which derived from white or purple carrots. The earliest-known ancestor dates back to Persia in the tenth century.

According to historical accounts, natural carrots were either purple or white and had smaller roots. Persians selectively bred carrots to develop larger roots and, eventually, one single root. As the breeding continued, carrots transformed from yellow to orange. Farmers still selectively breed carrots today to improve their color, size, and flavor.

Strawberries Used To Be A Lot Smaller

A couple eat strawberries sitting on a river on a sunny day in Berlin
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images

Modern strawberries developed in France during the eighteenth century. They grew from natural wild strawberries, which are smaller with a sweeter aroma. Since the 1300s, the French tried to cultivate bigger strawberries through cloning. But these attempts didn’t succeed until centuries later.

In 1764, French botanist Antoine Nicolas Duchesne bred a male Fragaria moschata with a female Fragaria chiloensis from Chile. Before then, scientists didn’t realize that plants had males and females. Later, American and British botanists perfected the modern strawberry, which is 20 times larger than its natural ancestor.

A Lot Of Rice Today Is Hybrid, Unlike Earlier In History

Photo illustration demonstrates how to eat rice with Japanese etiquette

Rice does grow in the wild, but it began as a wild grass, Oryza rufipogon. According to research, both tropical and Asian rice were domesticated roughly 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. In fact, almost all forms of Asian rice stretch their roots back the Pearl River Valley in China.

Rice didn’t reach the Americas until the sixteenth century, despite becoming an Asian staple food in 1000 BC. Because of the worldwide demand for rice, scientists began developing hybrids. In the 1960s, Chinese scientist Yuan Longping invented the first hybrid rice. Today, plenty of stores sell hybrid rice because they’re 34% more profitable than native rice.

Tomatoes Weren’t Red Until The 1900s

Two people hold a bowl of fresh tomatoes from a garden

Tomatoes are native to Southern America and date back to at least 500 BC. According to historians, the Aztecs cooked and ate tomatoes that were small and yellow. In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors brought these tiny “golden apples” back to Europe, where they spread through Britain, China, and Italy.

But the red tomatoes that we eat today didn’t exist until the mid-twentieth century. Scientists wanted to create a sweeter, better-tasting tomato. So they mutated the “u” phenotype and cross-bred tomato breeds to create a uniformly red tomato. You can still buy yellow tomatoes today, although they aren’t as popular.

Modern Soybeans Are Often Genetically Modified

A worker displays soybeans imported from Ukraine at the port in Nantong, in China's eastern Jiangsu province
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Like many foods with pre-writing history, soybean’s history is largely debated. Evidence for soybean domestication dates back to 7000 BC in China, but scientists aren’t positive where it came from. The closest living relative is Glycine soja, a legume from central China. Researchers believe that farmers began selecting seeds from Glycine soja roughly around 2000 or 1000 BCE.

Many believe that soy fermentation is new, but it’s not. There’s evidence for soy milk and tofu dating back to 220 AD. Even so, modern soy has been genetically modified since 1996. As of 2017, 82% of American soybeans were genetically modified.

How Maize Evolved Into Corn

Child boy eating hot corn on a holiday in the city.
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

Would you believe that corn initially looked like a pinecone? The corn that we know today wouldn’t exist without the farmers of central Mexico. Around 9,000 years ago, the ancestor of corn lived as the wild grass teosinte, better known as maize. Most historians believe that people in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico first domesticated the plant.

Throughout the centuries, the Olmec and Maya cultivated maize to produce several cobs per plant. It eventually grew elongated into the corn we know today. After the Spaniards arrived in the late fifteenth century, they brought corn back to Europe and popularized it there.

How The Boysenberry Created An American Theme Park

Person holds fresh boysenberries

Boysenberry fans often mistake the fruit for a relative of the blackberry. In reality, it is a hybrid of the blackberry and (most likely) a loganberry. In the 1930s, American farmer Robert Boysen began experimenting on his farm in Anaheim, California. Fellow farmers Walter Knott and George M. Darrow of the USDA headed to Boysen’s farm to see his experiments.

The farmers found Boysen’s dried out new berry, which was likely a cross between a raspberry, blackberry, dewberry, and loganberry. Darrow and Knott revived the berries and baked them into pies, a business which eventually became Knott’s Berry Farm.

The Modern Peanut Is A Hybrid

Opened paper bag of peanuts from Dăbuleni, Romania

Modern peanuts formed from the efforts of early humans and our buzzing friends, the bees. Over 10,000 years ago, two varieties of peanuts existed: the Arachis duranensis in Bolivia and Argentina and the Arachis ipaensis in Bolivia.

Geographically, both plants were so far apart that they couldn’t cross-breed naturally. According to researchers, early settlers carried Arachis duranensis seeds from the Andean valleys to modern-day Bolivia. Even then, humans didn’t mix the plants; the bees did. Bees cross-pollinated both peanut plants, which eventually resulted in the modern peanut we know today.

The Pigs We Eat Were Not Always Pink

Piglets in Yunnan , China
Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Today, pork comes from domesticated pigs. But these pigs weren’t always pink; they are domesticated descendants of the Eurasian wild boar, Sus scrofa. According to the journal GENETICS, these boars entered the Chinese diet 9,000 years ago, and they introduced the boar to Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Research indicates that farmers domesticated pigs twice, once in China’s Mekong valley and once in modern-day Turkey. Scientists believe that the modern pig comes from a cross-breed between the European and Asian boars. Through selective breeding, farmers created an animal with more fat and pig-like traits to domesticate.

Tangelos Have Confused People For Hundreds Of Years

Bowl filled with tangelos, the largest fruit in the mandarin family

Tangelos have confused people for years. Not only are they confused with oranges and mandarins, but they also come in several different varieties. Most commonly, a tangelo stems from a mix between a pomelo and a tangerine, which is where the fruit got its name.

The first tangelo is believed to originate from Southeast Asia. Over 3,500 years ago, insects cross-pollinated Duncan grapefruits with Dancy mandarins. However, modern tangelos sprout from the USDA’s breeding program in the early 1900s. This experimentation resulted in two major varieties: the Orlando tangelo and the Minneola tangelo.