To develop a new variety of kale tailored to American
palates, plant researchers are surveying consumer attitudes on the leafy
green. Study participants took home the six varieties of kale pictured.
The takeaway so far? "Be less like kale."
Kale is getting a makeover, and the very essence of kaliness may hang in the balance.
To develop a new variety of kale tailored to American palates, horticulture professor Philip Griffiths of Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Science and graduate student Hannah Swegarden
are soliciting consumers' kale reflections — the good, the bad, and the
ugly. The scientists face a philosophic question for the ages. Asks
"How far can you push a consumer's concept of what kale is, before it's not kale anymore?"
Kale, like many other vegetables, has been bred with agricultural
practicality in mind, selected for virtues like drought- and
disease-resistance. But Swegarden says those traits don't necessarily
translate into a better taste and appearance, qualities that matter more
to consumers. Griffiths has been working with kale for years, so he and
Swegarden decided to see if they could develop strains to seduce
farmers and consumers alike.
As the first step in their
research, the scientists organized a focus group in September with 14
people who self-identified as liking and consuming kale. They sent the
participants home with six different kale types varying in shape, color,
texture and taste. The kaleblazers prepared each kale variety as they
wished and recorded their impressions in journals. (Yes, kale journals.)
After two weeks, the participants came together to discuss their
feelings about kale for three hours. "By the time they came in, they
were really knowledgeable," says Swegarden.
for days, the participants had lots of feedback. But some of their
recommendations took aim at traits central to kale's identity. For
example, the participants liked the idea of a softer, less fibrous leaf.
"It's difficult to do that because that's changing the plant a lot,"
says Swegarden. In addition, she says a softer plant might be more
susceptible to insects.
Kale's iconic bitterness also came onto the chopping
board. "It was an association all the consumers made," says Swegarden.
"But not necessarily a positive."
Swegarden, whose perfect piece of kale is a slow-braised green
leaf with a pink stem, says the initial focus group was formed to
identify kale questions for further research, rather than establish a
comprehensive dataset of opinions. The scientists will use the focus
group feedback to create a survey, which they'll distribute to a wider
population of consumers.
They're likely to encounter some strong opinions. "I hate kale," says Aaron Gurley of Wichita, Kan. "It tastes like garbage."
kind of indifferent about it," says Zach James of New York City. "I've
made a kale smoothie before, and that was pretty good. But mostly
because I put berries in it."
Kale naysayers will have to wait a
while longer before a new breed of kale gets a chance to convert them.
Because of the time required to grow and reproduce kale, it will likely
be at least eight years before a new variety hits the shelves, says
In the meantime, there's another option for those who want a softer, less bitter leaf: romaine.