Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dr. Veg-love, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Seasonal Produce

I’ll be honest: when I started researching this article, I assumed 90% of it would focus on cash. Specifically, I thought the money saved from buying in-season fruits and vegetables would far outweigh any other benefit.

Man alive, was I wrong.

Between Google and Nexis, it took approximately 2.2 seconds to discover that snagging chronologically-appropriate produce has massive political, nutritional, emotional, and environmental perks. What’s more, it tastes better. And that’s gotta count for something.

So, without further ado, nine reasons you should raid crops from the seasonal section:

It costs WAY less. Simple economics here: an abundance of anything lowers its price. Plus, because in-season produce is often grown domestically, overseas transportation costs are cut. All told, this means you can save between 10% and 50% on beans, greens, and all the in-betweens. Need proof? Check your berry section, where writer Briony Harmer notes, “strawberries in November … will cost nearly three times more than what you would have paid in June."

It tastes better. When fruits and vegetables are imported off-season, they’re often harvested prematurely, because that way they hold up better in transit. Once the food arrives here, it’s then sprayed with ethylene gas to ripen it artificially. By the time it reaches grocery stores, you’ll see decent color, but the flavor blows. See for yourself: eat a plum tomato in winter, and write down your thoughts. Try another one at the end of the summer. Odds are, the winter tomato will taste like air in comparison.

It’s better for the Earth (probably). The expert consensus is that an average pound of produce travels about 1500 miles. Imported off-season crops can raise that number significantly since they’re coming from all over the world. That scrumptiousness has to be shipped somehow, and it’s usually via truck, train, plane, or boat, all of which consume energy and add to pollution. To give some perspective, in England, “importing just a kilogram of strawberries from America is the equivalent of running a 100 watt light bulb for a week.” Buying seasonal produce can help offset the waste.

(That is, unless you buy this alarmingly convincing article from the New York Times, which pokes some pretty big holes in the transportation argument. Still, it concedes, “the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.”)

It’s healthier. Off-season fruits and veggies tend to lose their nutritional punch over time, since they’re shipped long-distance for weeks and months. As the London Observer reports, “freshly dug potatoes have about 21mg vitamin C per 100g which falls to 9mg after three months of storage.”

What’s more, that produce may not have started out on equal footing to begin with. A 2002 Japanese study found that Vitamin C and carotene are “significantly influenced by the cropping season,” meaning that a carrot grown in winter is missing half the carotene it would have had in the summer. For some reason, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, and broccoli are particularly affected by this, while “sweet peppers, celery, and kiwifruit [are] fairly stable.”

It’s less poisonous. You probably won’t croak eating off-season produce from abroad, but there’s a good chance it harbors more toxins than its in-season counterparts. Why? Well, according to the BioDiversity Project, “Many countries have neither the pesticide regulations nor the labor safety practices that are the law in the U.S., so there's no telling what is on or in your imported fruits and vegetables.” That added flavor you detect? It’s the bitter taste of uncertainty.

It’s in better condition. “Handling and storage … is one of the main problems in the deterioration of produce. From the way the grower packs it, to the loading and off-loading in the truck yard, to the handling in the markets, it all contributes to knocks and bruises that will quickly affect the quality of the produce,” says the Canberra Times. If you’ve ever flown cross-country, you can relate: the further something travels, the worse shape it’s in when it arrives at its destination.

It can be frozen or canned for future use. Imagine having a sweet, delicious blueberry in the middle of March. Now imagine that same piece of fruit hasn’t lost an iota of vitamins, minerals, or flavor because it was iced right after being picked. NOW imagine you’re not spending $6 on a pint of blueberries from the farthest corners of the planet, because you bought it for $2 six months ago and had the forethought to shove it in your freezer. Okay, you’re done imagining. Pat yourself on the back and eat a blueberry.

It’s politically correct (and not in an annoying way). This is a bit difficult to summarize, but I’ll give it a shot: essentially, Third World farmers make more (but not a lot of) money importing specialized off-season produce to richer countries than by growing food for themselves. According to Briarpatch, this not only “threatens the extinction of [their] local crops,” but leads to hunger and “[slavery] to international commodity prices.” Meanwhile, local farmers are hosed by big-name suppliers who purchase cheaper goods from abroad. Buying seasonally benefits everyone more in the long-run.

It’s a mental trigger for the good times.’s Rebecca Pratt makes a fabulous point: “[Food is] tied to the special days and seasons of our lives: sweet, luscious watermelon paired with the memory of fireflies and fireworks; fragrant hearty soups that temper winter’s chill; sweet young vegetables that accompany spring’s first warm day.” Think about it: on Christmas, do you crave gazpacho? When Easter rolls around, do you drool over the light, airy taste of parsnips? Food is key to socialization, and in-season fruits and veggies can play major parts in our memories.

Of course, none of this information is any good unless you know what produce is ripe at which times. The guides at Food Network, Nutritiously Gourmet, and Cornell University are all good places to start. Consumo felice!
  • “Buy Organic and Locally Produced Foods,”
  • Dowden, Angela. “The food that's travelled 35,000 miles to reach your plate,” The Daily Mail (London). September 2005.
  • Harmer, Briony. “How to become a vegetarian without increasing grocery bills,” 2002.
  • “How Food Finds its Way to Your Plate,” Talk of the Nation. NPR Radio. November 2006.
  • Lempert, Phil. “The squeeze and sniff test: Tips on how you can pick out fresh fruits and vegetables,” April 2002.
  • McWilliams, James E. “Food That Travels Well,” New York Times. August 2007.
  • Monks, Helen. “How to buy food that doesn't cost the Earth,” The Independent (London). April 2006.
  • “Pass the fresh test,” Canberra Times (Australia). August 2006.
  • Pratt, Rebecca. “Seasonal Foods Exceptional Flavor & Nutrition that Fits in Your Budget,”
  • Ross, Alicia and Beverly Mills. “Save Money: Buy in Season.” Dallas Morning News. July 2007.
  • “Seasonal Vegetables in Temperate Countries,” Food & Fertilizer Technology Center for the Asian and Pacific Region. January 2001.
  • Watson, Julia, “Eat To Live: Buy seasonally, eat healthily,” UPI. Jaunary 2006.
  • Wiebe, Nettie. “Who's cooking the food system? Globalization & the struggle for food sovereignty,” Briarpatch. February 2007.

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Jenn @ Frugal Upstate said...

Great Article!!!!

Kris said...

Thanks, Jenn. Your fruit kabob one was very cool, as well.

Laura G said...

Thanks--you inspired me to go find out what's seasonal now. But two of the links (Cornell and Deliciously Gourmet) are broken. I don't know if you maintain links in archived blogs or not, but here's a link that might work if you do: