Understanding Food Terms - What Does "Heirloom" Mean?

You look down at your menu and part of the description says that you will be having heirloom tomatoes tonight. That sounds delightful because heirloom vegetables are better for you; you know this because someone had told you this before. Your dining mate opted for a salad made with heirloom beans as well - how perfect that you both are getting your fill of healthful vegetables. However, do you really know what that term means? Is it just a buzzword to blindly follow and believe in these days? I confess that I have a love for heirloom tomatoes too but knowing how many hundreds, if not thousands, of tomato varieties exist, it has been perplexing why that detail on varietal is overlooked (is it a Merlot tomato? Black Plum?). Heirloom tells me nothing about flavor profile but rather just about how the vegetable was grown. We did our research to dig up the truth about heirloom and wanted to share our findings with you. Here is the answer for the question, "What does 'heirloom' mean anyway?"

Let's start with what you already know. Just about everyone's interpretation, including the authorities on this subject matter, of "heirloom" is that the plant must have been pollinated without human interference. The propagation occurs naturally whether via wind, bees, or something else but overall, no human intervention during the growing period. Open pollination is key to the definition, and maybe you knew this already. So what are the other types of plants that aren't pollinated by nature? Those would likely be the ones you buy and enjoy most. Those are hybrids which have been bred through human influence and kept alive by diligent human attention.

Before World War II, the variety of plant foods grown for human consumption was wider than what it is now but the persistent desire to have everything you wanted at any time created a downgrade in variety and uptick in consistency. The demand for food and specific types to be available all year rapidly grew in the years after WWII so mass production was inevitable. The commercial vegetable market was where money was to be had, and supply needed to be quickly stocked. Eventually, demand bred the necessity for reliable hybrids. Regardless of the season, you were able to find what you wanted somewhere. Since mass production is unreliable when considering just heirloom growth, specialization of crop types was put into place so only a select few varieties were grown. These had to be tolerant and resistant to drought, frost, pesticides, and decay during shipping. The agricultural world became an arena where quantity was valued over quality, and past concerns such as nutrition, flavor, and abundant variety were no longer on farmers' minds.

Hybrid Crops: Pros and Cons
A hybrid crop is not necessarily exclusive from the term "organic," an explanation for another lengthier post, but it is definitely not naturally pollinated. It can be organic but just as easily, another hybrid crop can be a GMO. That can be confusing to some but think of the term "hybrid crop" as just meaning "not heirloom." It encompasses a wide spectrum of plants. The growth of the vegetable market can be attributed to the widespread propagation of these whose advantages are that they have

  • large yield
  • predictable harvest time
  • consistency in appearance
  • shelf life longevity for transport and on display

but disadvantages include

  • very little biodiversity, making them prone to diseases/viruses/insects (hence heavy pesticide use)
  • low nutritional value
  • energy intensive practices such as shipping nationwide instead of locally
  • dependency on seed suppliers

Heirloom Crops: Pros and Cons
Though heirloom crops were the original plant crops, the older varieties became harder and harder to find as hybrid crops took over the market. It wasn't until a growing interest in cooking and food sourcing trended that heirloom gardening started to rear its head in a slow comeback. The precious heirloom varieties that were still being kept alive became coveted; enthusiasts and restaurants began to nurture those back to life to bring flavor back into their meals. Hopefully all of the places where you see this term used are being truthful about their sourcing. Like hybrid crops, heirloom crops have both pros and cons as well. Their advantages are

  • high nutritional value
  • more prominent, natural flavors
  • more pronounced textures
  • wider biodiversity, making them more resistant to diseases/viruses/insects
  • less machinery/pesticide needed
  • fewer expenses such as transport and outside vendors
  • longer harvesting season
  • community support of local farmers

but disadvantages include

  • unsuitable for large-scale production
  • varying ripening times prevents mechanical harvest
  • short shelf-life so will spoil during shipping and storage
  • inconsistent color and appearance, decreasing marketability

To sum it up, heirloom just refers to an old variety (hence the name) of a plant crop that has been wildly pollinated rather than artificially or intentionally by human influence. They seem most ideal for home gardeners who may be focused on strong tastes and textures in their garden and are able to handle (or even prefer) smaller yields for a longer period of time. After all, they can just harvest what they are able to eat and not worry about wasting food. Once an heirloom variety has grown accustomed to a particular climate and soil condition, it can start to outproduce a similar hybrid crop in that area. Even if it does not outproduce its counterpart, heirloom crop can help you rest easy because it will naturally be more disease and insect resistant overall based on its greater range of biodiversity.

If you are not a gardener but merely a consumer, don't fret if your food is not marked as heirloom. If it is marked heirloom, maybe you should think about asking what varietal the plant is. That will definitely give you a more accurate sense of flavor profile, texture, and whether or not the restaurant knows what it is sourcing.

Photography and research by Duc Duong.