by Russ Cerocke, Farm Manager
Is it the chocolate? the candy canes? Or, is it the cookies and the hot, freshly baked pies? Well yeah, those things are pretty sweet. But sweets in the wintertime are nothing new. Some of you may be surprised to know that our holiday season sweet-tooth has origins far beyond our infatuation with corn syrup and refined sugar. High fructose corn syrup, a common sweetener, was first introduced to the food and beverage industry in the 1970’s (1). Refined table sugar, which is used in most homemade holiday cookies has a little longer history, first being refined in India roughly 2500 years ago (2). Now, 2500 years is no walk in the park, but in the grand scheme of human existence, it is still just a drop in the bucket. So, what was the question? Ah, Yes! What makes winter so sweet? Well, let me tell you.
Before the beginnings of sugar as we know it, Mother Nature had a hand in getting us hooked on the sweet stuff. Nature is amazing, you will never hear me say that enough. Just like all other living things, plants need to prepare for winter just the same. What do all living things need in winter? Shelter from the cold, and food. Since plants can’t move, they provide shelter from the wind for themselves and other plants nearby. However, our plant friends still need to find creative ways to keep from freezing all the way through, other than warm blankets and cocoa that is. So how do they do it?
By getting sweeter of course! Not all plants need to survive the winter; annual plants do it by making seeds that can freeze until it is warm enough to sprout. Perennial plants store starches in thick root systems and stems for the long haul. But biennial plants, those are the ones who bring the sweetest treats.
In order to survive cold winters, biennial plants, those that grow vegetatively one year and then flower and seed the next, store starches in their roots to process over the winter and then use early in the spring when they wake up and flower. As the temperatures drop in the fall, biennial plants and some perennials can increase their sugar concentrations by converting starches to sugars, which lowers the freezing point of the water in their living cells. Now, don’t think that an extra serving of ice cream will keep YOU from freezing, although the calories wouldn’t hurt.
Since we are talking about ice cream, it is a perfect example of the sweet processes happening in plants over the winter. The reason ice cream and other frozen treats can be in the freezer without turning into solid ice is in large part due to the amount of sugar they contain. Depending on the sugar content of the food, some frozen snacks will not freeze until they reach 29 degrees or less (3), even though the freezing point of water is 32 degrees. A clever move for whoever created frozen snacks, but the credit really goes to mother nature. Thanks to her, biennial vegetables like carrots, brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, turnips, and other winter roots, are those plants that have learned in time to sweeten up before chilling out. So, if you were wondering why you are absolutely smitten with our winter vegetables, now you know. Ours taste sweeter, because they are. Enjoy!
Here We Grow,
- PubMed. Straight talk about high fructose corn syrup, what it is and what it isn’t. 2008. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19064536/
- . The History and Future of Sugar and How it is Produced. 2020. https://www.mygermantable.com/the-history-and-future-of-sugar-how-it-is-produced/
- Exploratorium. Are the Products in our Home Freezer Actually at Different Temperatures? 2002. https://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/icooks/12-02-02.html