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What do Heritage and Heirloom Mean in the Context of Food?

“Heirloom” and “heritage” have become a part of our regular conversations, but the terms have been getting tossed around rather too lightly. What do they really mean?

Let’s get down to it!

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Heirloom refers to produce and seeds. They have been “cultivated” over many years for their unique traits that are distinct from their commercial counterparts. They require a commitment to saving the variety of something that already exists, meaning if you plant an heirloom tomato, you would save the seeds and replant so it grows true to form in the same variety. Heirlooms rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind for production. If you want that same mouth-watering yellow tomato that you use for your tomato galette, you know you will be getting the same variety each time you plant with those seeds.

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Heritage, on the other hand, refers to animals. Similar to heirlooms, they are bred with the same lineage from one breed through natural mating processes. This creates unique characteristics that vary from mass-produced breeds. Think of it this way: let's say you want to adopt a dog, but you want it to be a purebred bulldog. You’d look at its lineage, first. It has to come from a full line of bulldogs in order to qualify. The same idea applies to heritage animals.  

Both heritage and heirloom foods are created how they traditionally were made, before the rise of the industrial agricultural movement and mass production of food around WWII. Their processes are intended to preserve the agricultural biodiversity that comes through this long lineage, usually 50+ years. It is in true form of the survival of the fittest- the crops and animals that are the strongest are the ones that create heritage and heirloom varieties. There is no use of hormones, pesticides or other chemicals. Because of this, they can normally withstand harsh weather, disease and other qualities that can support and increase their rich nutritional profile.

So next time you need produce or meat, vote with your dollar. Will you pick heritage and heirloom foods, or food from the mass production industry? I know my choice what will be.

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