Anyone who's watched much British TV will have, at some point, seen a person bringing grapes to a friend or loved one in hospital. The first time you see it, it might just seem a bit odd – but when it pops up over and over again, it leads a lot of people to wonder: Why do British people bring grapes to the hospital?
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Why Do British People Bring Grapes to the Hospital?
The simple answer is this: tradition. Bringing grapes to the hospital is one of those things people have been doing for so long that at this point, many do it without really knowing why.
Someone's in the hospital, you bring them grapes and Lucozade. That's just what you do.
All the same, there's a logic underlying the tradition. It's sort of like driving on the left, which modern Brits do because it's what you do…but it came from the need to keep one's sword hand free when passing strangers on horseback.
For grapes, there are quite a few reasons behind their “traditional hospital gift” status.
Grapes Were Once a Luxury Item
There was a time when grapes were a relative rarity in the UK. Though a handful of wealthy people cultivated them in glass houses, they weren't grown locally at any scale.
Instead, grapes were typically imported from Mediterranean countries like France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, making them rather expensive – certainly too much for the average household to indulge in with any regularity.
At that time, bringing grapes to someone in hospital was a sign of both status and concern for the sick individual.
These days, supermarkets import grapes at scale, and some are even grown commercially in parts of the UK (primarily for wine). They're no longer rare, but the tradition continues.
The Health Benefits of Grapes
In the 19th century, there was a belief that grapes had the power to cleanse and purify the body, especially the blood. It was said that the natural sugars and vitamins could help boost the immune system and aid in the healing process.
In Victorian Britain, it was also believed that after a medical issue, people needed a period of “convalescence” in which they ate only light, easily digested food. Grapes were considered ideal for this, as they were sweet, easy on the stomach, and full of water (thereby aiding in hydration).
These days, we know a lot more about nutrition. Though grapes are undoubtedly a healthy, natural food, we know they don't have any magical healing properties that would make them drastically better than any other fruit or vegetable.
Though each type of grape is a bit different, we know that grapes…
- Are a good source of protective antioxidants like polyphenols, catechins and anthocyanins
- Are a good source of fibre and potassium (and since the lack of movement + changes in routine can cause constipation in many patients, that fibre can be useful!)
- May help eye health due to the presence of resveratrol, lutein, and zeaxanthin
- Are a low glycaemic index fruit, making them a bit easier on the blood sugar
- Are high in water and good for hydration (the Victorians got this one right)
Source: BBC Good Food
While people on certain medications need to be careful about eating TOO many grapes, they're generally considered quite healthy as long as you're not going completely overboard (especially on juice, which makes it easier to consume a lot of the sugar without all the fibre).
Grapes Are Convenient in Hospital
Modern life gives us a lot of convenience foods. From bags of crisps and sweets to slightly more sensible foods like protein bars, there are a lot of easy-to-carry, easy-to-eat foods in the world. Still, if you're visiting someone suffering from some kind of medical issue, it makes a lot more sense to show up with fruit instead of bags of salty crisps and processed sweets.
Few fruits are more convenient than grapes.
- They require no peeling or chopping, and since you pop the whole thing in your mouth, there's no sticky mess to contend with.
- They're small, so a person with low appetite can commit to a single grape without worrying about everything else going to waste (as would be the case with a bite from an apple or banana).
- Though all fruit is perishable, grapes last longer than most berries.
- Unless they're very dark and a person is very messy, there's no need to worry about them staining anything
The only real thing to be careful of is giving grapes to an unattended small child, as they're a minor choking hazard due to their texture and size.
Grapes Are Often Better Than Hospital Food
Traditionally, hospital food has gotten a bad reputation. This is changing as hospitals evolve to acknowledge the important role of nutrition in good health and convalescence, but nobody really raves about the wonders of hospital food (not even in America, where a single hospital stay can frequently cost more than the patient's average annual salary).
Grapes became an attempt to give patients something tasty to supplement whatever bland gruel the hospital provided.
Do British People REALLY Bring Grapes to Hospital Patients in Modern Times?
Yes! This isn't just a TV thing, though it's slightly less common among younger generations. Not all hospitals and medical facilities allow outside plants to be brought in, so that could be part of the reason. It might also be that since many young Brits have been raised on a diet of highly-processed foods, grapes are just not very exciting to their palates.
All the same, you should expect to see a wealth of grapes and Lucozade if you ever visit a busy British hospital ward. It's a charming tradition based on a mixture of care and history, and we hope it continues for many generations to come.