Your Vegetables Know What Time It Is

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy / ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

The fruits and veggies in your crisper right now might look pretty dead, but they’re actually still alive—and they’re keeping track of time.

Some parts of plants can continue certain metabolic functions even after being separated from the rest of the plant. A new study conducted by plant biologists at Rice University and the University of California found that internal clocks of some harvested vegetables and fruits continue to function and that the time of day we try to eat them has some effect on what we get out of it.  

Over the course of day and night, harvested fruits and vegetables continue to perceive and respond to light, so their biological clocks keep running and they can change their biology to meet certain demands. Some plants, for example, begin building up defense hormones and metabolites early in the day in preparation for the daily attacks from plant-eating bugs. At dusk, the levels of these chemicals decrease rapidly. This matters to us because these products can influence the flavors of produce, and some of them are known to have anti-cancer properties.

The researchers found that even after harvest, cabbage and other vegetables and fruits in the lab maintained this sort of schedule when exposed to light and dark cycles.

Timing the preservation, preparation and consumption of produce to coincide with the peak storage of certain biochemicals, the researchers suggest, might enhance their flavor and nutritional value.

“For example,” the authors write, “cabbage stored under 12 [hour] light-dark cycles may provide as much as 2- to 3-fold more 4MSO phytochemical [compounds that research has identified as anticarcinogens] if the cabbage were ingested 4 to 8 [hours] after initiation of the light period than if the cabbage were stored under constant light or darkness.”

One veggie schedule question sadly left unaddressed in the study is whether or not the celery stalks at midnight