Summer 2019 has been jam packed with activities. In spite of the heat (and torrential rains) it feels like it's gone by with lightening speed. Nevertheless much was accomplished and, most importantly, a lot of good food has been consumed.
In every blog post I try to address a topic which I receive a lot of questions about. This time I will focus on nutrition and try to untangle the yarn of organic vs. local vs. conventional (aka shipped from afar) groceries. Is organic more nutritious? Is tastier a sign of healthier? Is it worth paying 30-50% more for organic produce? Can you tell that fruits and vegetables are organic by taste alone? Apart from having fun at the local farmer’s market, is the food there better for you?
In order to answer any of these questions I first looked at many review articles published in medical journals. Sadly there are not enough rigorous studies about the impact of nutrition in both disease prevention and health indexes, as the variables are too many to account for. But I did come up with a few “gold nuggets” which I would love to share with you.
Research shows that “time is the enemy of nutrition” and that the time that elapses between when a vegetable is harvested and when it is served at the table is the biggest enemy of nutritional content whether the produce is organic or conventional. Loss of vitamins in fresh produce is astounding: seven days after harvesting levels of vitamin C dropped significantly, in carrots 10%, spinach 75% and green beans 77%, as an example. A produce laden truck takes more than seven days to cross the country. Moreover breaks in the “cold chain”, as when the produce is not kept at the strictest temperature controlled environment during packaging and loading, expedite the nutrition decrease. Roughly every hour at room temperature is equivalent with a day in the refrigerator. Nutrition (such as calcium, iron, vitamin A and thiamine) is also affected when produce is bred to increase yield, and picked unripe to resist long term transport. In other words the produce of our parents’ generation, when this technology was not possible, was more nutritious than most of what we buy at the store today.
Is organic more nutritious? Original studies showed that organic produce was not much healthier than conventional produce, though better designed, more recent studies showed organic to have higher levels of antioxidants, vitamin C and phenolic compounds. Nutrition is not necessarily what organic is all about. It is primarily about the environment - chemicals used, erosion, depletion of topsoil, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. Nevertheless many organic farmers apply stricter standards to harvesting and transportation methods, allowing fruit to ripen on the vine and assuring that shipments arrive at the store in no more than 48 hours. Taste, however, is about what is going on in the plant itself. There is much debate among both agronomists and gourmet cooks whether organic actually tastes better. I leave it up to you to do your own “controlled study” with different kinds of produce, and let me know what you think.
Where does this leave us now? I think there is no argument that we should seek out locally grown produce, regardless of whether it is farmed by strict organic standards or not. Local farmers don’t need to store and transport their fresh produce. Usually they pick and sell within a couple of days. They sell only in season and don’t breed for “early” or cold resistant crops. Buy produce which is in season. For once “cheaper is better” as produce which is in season is more abundant and less expensive.
Interestingly enough frozen fruits and vegetables also tend to keep their vitamin content intact if freezing occurs immediately following picking.
So head out to that farmers’s market and enjoy!!! And during the cold months hit the freezer section of your store with less apprehension.