The Benefits of Eating Locally Grown, Seasonal Food

Even during the coldest months, we can up our health ante by eating locally grown, seasonal food.

  • Flavor winter meals with warming spices from around the world.
    Photo By Shutterstock
  • Eat locally grown produce, even in the depths of winter.
    Photo By StockFood

Eating a diet that follows nature’s rhythms is one of the biggest fads to hit the mainstream since the term “locavore” was coined in 2005. You can find evidence in the explosion of farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants everywhere from California to Maine proudly featuring just-picked produce week after week. But eating this way is far from a passing trend; it’s just good sense, and it’s how everyone ate not so long ago—before heart disease, diabetes and obesity had managed to wheedle their way into every corner of North America.

The benefits of eating locally grown, seasonal food are many—it’s ultimately cheaper and better for small farmers and your community’s economy, and it’s a great way to keep in step with the natural world. Perhaps more compelling, though, eating seasonally is an especially excellent way to boost nutrition.

Best Flavor, Best Nutrition

Most fruits and vegetables reach their nutritional peak around the same time they ought to be harvested—which, conveniently, is also when they taste the best. The redder a red tomato is, for example, the more beta-carotene it contains. Same goes for peppers: As the pepper progresses from green to red, a bell pepper gains 11 times more beta-carotene and 1 1/2 times more vitamin C.

Most foods begin to lose nutrients almost immediately after this point, too. Spinach and green beans lose two-thirds of their vitamin C within a week of harvest, according to the University of California, Davis. Another study revealed that frozen peas retained more nutrients than fresh peas that weren’t eaten quickly after harvest. The USDA’s nutrient retention report (“Table of Nutrient Retention Factors”) actually declares frozen fruit to be more nutritious than fresh fruit in most cases, because the former is typically frozen just after harvest rather than being shipped far away, losing nutrients over several days.

So we know fresh-from-the-source is best. And we also know that papayas sitting on a grocer’s shelf in Idaho in December are far from it. That “fresh” produce you’re buying has traveled days or weeks on its journey from far-away harvest to the store near you. And that often means it’s been harvested before it hit that important nutritional peak, to boot. Take the delicate peach: If picked before it’s ripe, a peach will continue to soften after being plucked, but it’ll never ripen any further. Picking produce before it’s ready to be eaten is a sacrifice farmers must make if their produce is intended for long-distance shipping and extended shelf life. But long-distance shipping isn’t a concern for producers who sell their food to their neighbors. The best way to get superfresh food in winter (if you don’t grow your own cold-hardy garden) is to buy it directly from local producers.

Invest in Your Health

Another nutritional bonus of buying from local farmers is variety. Small-scale farmers don’t have to select crops strictly for traits like durability and yield. They can instead choose crop varieties for any number of desirable traits, from sweetness and vitamin content to funky shape, bright color or resistance to local pests. They are also more likely to offer specialty plants such as broccoli raab and Jerusalem artichokes, because farmers’ market customers are more likely to try niche products and the farmer has the benefit of being right there to explain how to cook it. The farmer’s ability to experiment gives us the opportunity to create a varied diet that changes throughout the year.

Steve Flanagan
12/25/2012 6:41:09 PM

Somebody snuck venison into the list of winter vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

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