GENEVA — It's a sight that would have pleased Pantagruel, the 16th-century giant dreamed up by French writer François Rabelais. A horde of mini-vegetables, more numerous and diverse, are taking the world's kitchens by storm. For many years, we have grown accustomed to baby carrots and cucumbers, not to mention baby corn. But here come mini eggplants, peppers, avocados or even fennel.

Until now confined to the tables of chic restaurants, mini-vegetables are increasingly sneaking onto supermarket shelves.

The Swiss supermarket chain offers a wide range of products and services, such as, but not limited to, okras or asparagi, produced in Switzerland, Spain or overseas. The retail company does not release sales numbers but notes that most mini veggies are sold during the holidays. A few offerings, however, such as peppers or cucumbers, are now popular all-year-round.

Driving the trend is the demand from vegetarians and vegans looking for novelty. But consumers also note the practical side.

Driving the trend is the demand from vegetarians and vegans looking for novelty. But consumers also note the practical side.

"Vegetable snacks, such as carrots or cucumbers, are ideal for between two meals or for children. You can carry them around in a bag," notes Aurélie Deschenaux, a spokesperson for food distributor Migros. "Baby vegetables, like baskets of cauliflower or romanesco, are perfect for single people or small families because it allows you to cook different vegetables at the same time without having too many leftovers." It's also worth noting that they generally don't need to be sliced or peeled.

What about producers? Matthieu and Marco Cuendet, fourth-generation farmers in Bremblens, near Lausanne, have more than 200 types of vegetables to offer. Their father initiated this production three decades ago, working hand-in-hand with several top area chefs. Over the years, the family farm developed a clientele made mostly of "fine restaurants." But now, the number of private customers, who can purchase their products online, at the farm or in local markets, is also growing.

Matthieu Cuendet doesn't want to share his trade secrets. But according to specialized websites, there are three ways of obtaining baby vegetables. One can either harvest earlier (eggplants), or sow closer together. But there are also particular types of plants, either found in the nature or by cross-breeding.

A food vendor sells tiny gourds. — Photo: a2gemma

Questions of nutritional value remain.

"Contrary to fruit that needs to ripen, mini vegetables already have everything," says Cuendet. "Its nutritional quality is therefore probably as good as that of the bigger ones, if not better because of the concentration."

But Muriel Lafaille Paclet, a nutritionist at the Lausanne University Hospital, cautions against such non-scientific declarations. "We cannot claim anything without further analysis, but to harvest a vegetable before it's fully grown, as well as tight sowing, can also have an impact on its nutritional quality because they will lack nutrients. This can lead to a lower amount of vitamins and minerals. Treatments, washing, light exposure and transport can further alter the product, not to mention the impact on the environment."

Still, Paclet does agree that anything that can increase the consumption of vegetables is good for overall nutrition. But remember that a recommended portion of vegetables is 120 to 150 grams. That's a lot of baby carrots.

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