With the advent of modern agricultural practices, it is easier than ever to get the produce you want—when you want it. But there are downsides to eating store-bought produce. Early harvesting, transportation, and refrigeration can cause significant nutrient loss in fruits and vegetables.
The produce we buy in stores now has lower vitamin and mineral content than it did 50 years ago. So how can consumers make sure they’re getting the most out of their fruits and veggies?
Drawbacks of Fresh Store-Bought Produce
To get produce to consumers at the correct ripeness, producers harvest crops before they’ve had a chance to fully ripen on the vine. This keeps the produce from reaching its full nutritional potential. The rough, often mechanical handling of produce can also compromise nutrients. The average produce item then travels 1,500-2,500 miles to the grocery store. This transportation usually requires refrigeration, which presents its own problems.
Different fruits and vegetables need different temperatures for maximum nutrient retention. And even at ideal temperatures, all produce slowly loses nutrients over time. Because produce trucks are often transporting a variety of produce, a single temperature is used for all the cargo.
Frozen and Canned Veggies a Bit of a Better Bet
On the other hand, frozen and canned vegetables are left to ripen on the plant and processed shortly after harvest, leaving less time for nutrient loss. Canned foods then lose nutrients more slowly than fresh foods because they are not exposed to oxygen. Frozen foods lose fewer nutrients because of minimal exposure to heat. But once stored they lose nutrients more quickly than canned foods because of oxidation. For these reasons, the nutritional content of frozen and canned produce is often comparable to that of fresh produce. In some cases, the canning or freezing process can preserve some of the produce’s nutritional value, making it a better choice than fresh produce.
Homegrown Food Has Most Benefits of All
Growing produce at home eliminates many of the problems faced by commercially produced fruits and vegetables. Most produce varieties at your local grocery store are bred for their ease of transportation and shelf life, not for nutritional content. And when growing your own food, you can choose from thousands of seed varieties for the best nutritional value and flavor.
Because you are growing produce for your own needs and not for the demands of the market, you can plant and harvest produce at the optimal time. This freedom also means you can give your plants the proper amount of fertilizer, sun, and moisture. And because fruits and vegetables are usually hand-picked and eaten the same day you harvest them, there is no rough handling or transportation time to allow nutrients to deteriorate.
The Produce for Better Health Foundation recommends consumers eat a variety of fresh, frozen, and canned products. Many variables contribute to the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables. Growing food at home gives you the most control over these variables.
But it’s rare that someone can singlehandedly grow every produce item they want to eat. Food co-ops are a good way to support local farmers and get more nutritional, and usually less processed, produce. To learn more and find a food co-op near you, visit http://www.coopdirectory.org/directory.htm.
Writer Megan Smith Mauk grew up in Texas, where she developed a reverence for all forms of life. In college, she became co-chair of the environmental coalition. She now lives with her husband, and their dog and cat, in Virginia.