You’re probably thinking: Uh, how can I tell if my food is stressed? It’s not like vegetables can come talk to us when they’re feeling panicked (although, emerging research suggests plants let out high-frequency sounds of angst). But it turns out plants do have a physical stress response: bright colors.
According to Sinclair, the more stressed out the food is, the brighter colors it will have. Those pigments, he continues, are evidence of defensive phytochemicals: “Those colors are actually an indicator of other molecules that plants produce to try and survive when they’re stressed,” he explains. “We call these xenohormetic molecules. ‘Xeno’ just means ‘between species,’ and ‘hormetic’ means ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’” Essentially, those xenohormetic molecules make the plants more resilient (thus, increasing their longevity); when we consume those stressed out plants, we’re ingesting those healthy, resilient molecules as well. “It boosts these molecules that give our body that extra boost for longevity,” Sinclair notes.
And according to research, the process also increases those plants’ nutritional value, to boot: One study showed that “wounding” the leaves of plants the same way insects do (which, if you’re a plant, is probably quite stressful) resulted in a higher concentration of antioxidant compounds. That’s not to say you should go stomping on your vegetable garden, but just know that natural stressors that occur more frequently in organic farming (like insects) might actually make the food more nutritious.