Summer tomatoes are great! Not only are they delicious, they’re full of flavonoid antioxidants such as lycopene – credited with lowering the risk of heart disease and cancer – and zeaxanthin, which may protect eyes from age-related macular disease, not to mention vitamin A and carotenes, vitamin C, potassium, folate and vitamin K.
In an ideal world, we would get our nutrients from real food. But as Michael Pollan pointed out in the documentary Food, Inc., that may prove difficult. For
there are no seasons in the American supermarket. Now there are tomatoes all year round, grown halfway around the world, picked when it was green, and ripened with ethylene gas. Although it looks like a tomato it’s kind of a notional tomato. I mean it’s the idea of a tomato.
In fact, conventionally grown, off-season tomatoes have lower vitamin levels than they did just 40 years ago. Rather than being grown for taste and nutrients, they’re grown for their looks and ability to travel.
If you’re looking to get more nutrients for your food dollar year round, this is how you do it:
- Notice what season you’re in and shop it.
Everyone says we should shop in season. There’s good reason for that. When we shop in season, we get food at the peak of its flavor. It’s food that has naturally ripened. Full ripeness also ensures it’s at the peak of its nutrient count. The more time foods spend in transit, the more nutrients and moisture it loses.
But to get the benefits of seasonal food, you sort of have to know what’s growing in your region and when it grows. Here in SoCal, we’re lucky in that so much is available through so much of the year. Just use this seasonality chart as a guide. (Outside of Southern California? Here’s a general guide. To find one specific to your region, just Google “seasonality chart” – without the quotes, natch – plus the name of the geographic region you live in.)
- Know your farmer.
Shopping at farmer’s markets or subscribing to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) option not only gives you the opportunity to communicate with the person who grows your food, it gives you the opportunity to support their work. Plus, if you have questions about growing methods, varieties, what’s fresh now, or even how to cook that alien looking kohlrabi you got in your box, they can help you.
- Avoid irradiation and preservative treatments.
Produce that ends up in grocery stores often gets that little extra zap of radiation to kill germs, irradiation, and a preservative treatment, such as wax. Wax protects fragile produce shipped under refrigerated conditions. Do these treatments decrease nutrient content? No one really knows because no comprehensive study has even been done yet. But hey, why take the chance?
- Indulge in nutrients that won’t break the bank.
When foods are grown in season locally, they tend to be abundant. That abundance usually makes it less expensive, meaning you get more nutrients for your dollar – at least until the crop wanes.
- Put it up!
To maximize the nutrients available in foods grown in season, put it up any way you can. Freezing, dehydrating, and canning are all great options for preserving local and organic food and the nutrients they hold. Preserved food decreases exposure to BPA, decreases packaging, and sugar. By the time winter comes, your larder will be full.
- Don’t get stuck.
If you don’t want to make things sticky, remember tip #2 above. But if you shop the grocery store, pay attention to the PLU sticker each piece of produce sports – a tracking device, if you will, that tells you not only where a particular piece of produce comes from but the growing method used to produce it. On conventionally grown produce, the PLU number is a 4-digit code starting with 4. Organic produce has a 5-digit code starting with a 9, and GMOs have a 5-digit code starting with an 8.
Image by Alicia, via Flickr