Thursday, October 13, 2011

Enjoying the bounty of local foods

Late summer and early fall is the time of year that many ‘foodies’ wait all year for: harvest season.  Local foods are available in abundance and there’s so much to enjoy: berries, plums, apples, corn, beans, lettuce, cucumber, zucchini and more.  Fresh fruits and veggies are popping up in farmer’s markets, in supermarkets and in our own backyards.  Most of us have had the opportunity to enjoy the splendour of a meal made out of food picked fresh from someone’s garden or purchased fresh from a farmer’s market.  The flavour and texture of the food is exquisite and we wonder why all food can’t taste this good.  Not only does local food taste better, but it is also healthier, containing a higher amount of nutrients than food shipped from far away, which was often picked before it was ripe.

The nutritional value of fruits and vegetables continues to increase, as they grow and ripen.  However, when food is picked prematurely, before it has had the chance to naturally ripen, it will not have the full complement of nutrients, especially valuable phytonutrients, than if it was picked and eaten when fully ripe.  Phytonutrients are biologically active compounds that are found in all plant food, and they develop in plants, as the food ripens.  Phytonutrients are the substances that give plants their colour, flavour and disease resistance and have been found necessary to sustain and promote life in plants.  Some examples of phytonutrients include flavonoids, indoles, phytosterols, carotenoids, lycopene and beta-carotene.  Phytochemicals have been found to be powerful disease fighters, acting as antioxidants and as detoxifying substances, by stimulating our enzyme systems or activating our hormone production.  Some phytonutrients are powerful modifiers, modifying the body’s reactions to various compounds such as allergens, carcinogens, and viruses – thereby acting in anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-viral and anti-carcinogenic ways.

The nutrients in food also begin to diminish after it’s been picked.  This is why fresh produce that sits around begins to shrivel, turn brown, go soft or grow mould.  The more time that passes between when the food is picked and consumed, the fewer nutrients it will have.  This is why eating local foods in season is so important nutritionally.  When food is brought in from further away, several days pass between the time that the food is picked and appears in our supermarkets. There are a number of steps involved to get food from the farmer to our dinner table: first it is stored, packed and then shipped, set up for display and finally purchased and then once we bring it home into our kitchen, it will often sit for a number of more days before we consume it.  Thus, the more we can minimize the amount of time that food sits and waits to be eaten, the more nutritional value we will get from our food.

Finally, foods that are locally produced are also often treated with fewer pesticides and chemicals – as these are unnecessary to artificially ripen the food.  Buying food direct from the farmer also allows the consumer to ask questions about how the food was produced, when it was picked and what types of chemicals or pesticides were used on the food.  This puts more power in the hands of the consumer, as they are given the ability to make truly informed choices.  Local farmers are also more willing to try and meet the needs and desires of their customers and may make changes to the way they produce their food, if there is enough consumer demand. 

Since local fresh food is not as abundant year-round – freezing produce is a great alternative to eating locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.  Freezing preserves a high level of nutrients in fresh foods, as the low temperatures greatly slow the process whereby foods lose their nutrients.  Most fruits and vegetables can be frozen, although it may slightly alter their texture.  However, frozen berries are fantastic in smoothies and shakes year-round, and corn and most other vegetables can also be frozen, slightly cooked or raw (depending on the vegetable) and then popped into stir-fries, soups or stews during the winter months (frozen kale is also a great addition to smoothies). 

So – go down to your local farmer’s market and enjoy all the bounty that the season has to offer.  As if there weren’t already enough benefits to eating locally – it’s also much better for the environment, cutting down on the greenhouse gases that are emitted in the transportation of food from its source to your kitchen.