It may surprise you to learn that Brussels sprouts are a largely man-made food, and that cabbages never naturally grow in this way. Since the 13th century, they have been cultivated in Northern Europe, but it’s only been in recent years that Dutch scientists have perfected the sprout. Let’s learn more.
Early History of the Sprout
Brussels sprouts are a member of the cabbage family, and were probably first discovered in the Mediterranean region of Europe in the 5th century. Because they grow best in cool weather, they became cultivated in Northern Europe during the 13th century, notably near Brussels in Belgium. By the 16th century, they were extremely popular in the Netherlands and the UK.
In the 18th century, the French gave them the distinctive name “Brussels sprouts” when introducing them to their colonies in Louisiana.
Brussels sprouts are naturally high in vitamins C and K, and also contain B vitamins, folate, and trace minerals.
Traditionally, a long cool growing season makes Brussels sprouts more flavorful, and they are sweetest when harvested after a frost. Like other varieties of cabbage, they store well when frozen or kept in a root cellar, which made them an excellent, nutritious, cold-weather crop in the days before refrigeration.
The Downfall of the Sprout
In the 1960s, sprout farmers switched to mechanical harvesting. This made harvesting faster and more efficient, but Brussels sprouts are not ideal for mechanical harvesting. Like cherry tomatoes, Brussels sprouts mature gradually along the stem, with the lowest buds maturing soonest.
In the 1960s, the Sakata seed company introduced a variety of Brussels sprouts designed for mechanical harvest. These new Brussels sprouts were highly productive and beautifully green, with buds that matured at the same time along the length of the stem. This new variety of Brussels sprouts was adopted and cultivated all over the world, increasing the harvest and availability of Brussels sprouts.
However, the new variety was bitter and didn’t taste very good. Because this new variety was now the only widely available variety, and all Brussels sprouts had this flavor, a whole generation grew up disliking Brussels sprouts.
(It is worth noting that the sprout situation is a rare misstep for Sakata, the oldest and most prestigious seed company in Japan, with over 100 years of groundbreaking research and successful hybrids.)
The Dawn of a New Era
In 1999, Dutch scientists at Novartis published a paper that changed everything. Hans van Doorn had identified and isolated the chemical compounds that made Brussels sprouts bitter, identifying the glucosinolates sinigrin and progoitrin as the cause.
While researchers and seed companies around the world began examining their seed banks for Brussels sprouts that are low in these compounds, Novartis was busy developing a low-glucosinolate Brussels sprout that tasted better. Historical varietals were crossbred with the high-yield versions, and a new, sweeter, more delicious sprout was born.
Today, Brussels sprouts are enjoying a massive increase in popularity all over the world. Between 2017 to 2021, the global Brussels sprouts market increased by over 34%, to an estimated value of $224 million USD. In 2020, Mexico overtook the Netherlands as the leading exporter of Brussels sprouts. While the US is the largest Brussels sprouts importer, the UK eats more Brussels sprouts per capita than anywhere else, and it is considered the national vegetable.
The story of the Brussels sprout is the story of human invention, improvement, and cultivation at every level, elevating this humble variety of kale to a global phenomenon and holiday tradition. Thanks to discoveries and refinements of researchers and scientists around the world, this vegetable is more popular than ever, with a global impact on markets and diets. At grapefrute, we help companies make their mark by recruiting the top-tier talent that makes it all happen. Contact us today for more information.