The burdens of malnutrition, protein and micronutrient deficiency, and obesity cause enormous costs to society. Crop nutritional quality has been compromised by the emphasis on edible yield and through the loss of biodiversity due to the introduction of high-yielding, uniform cultivars. Heirloom crop cultivars are traditional cultivars that have been grown for a long time (>50 years), and that have a heritage that has been preserved by regional, ethnic, or family groups. Heirlooms are recognized for their unique appearance, names, uses, and historical significance. They are gaining in popularity because of their unique flavors and cultural significance to local cuisine, and their role in sustainable food production for small-scale farmers. As a contrast to modern cultivars, heirlooms may offer a welcome alternative in certain markets. Recently, market channels have emerged for heirloom cultivars in the form of farmer–breeder–chef collaborations and seed-saver organizations. There is therefore an urgent need to know more about the traits available in heirloom cultivars, particularly for productivity, stress tolerance, proximate composition, sensory quality, and flavor. This information is scattered, and the intention of this review is to document some of the unique characteristics of heirloom cultivars that may be channeled into breeding programs for developing locally adapted, high-value cultivars.
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