Do you know what produce is in season in your area at the moment? Once upon a time, people ate certain foods only when they were readily available, accessible and in season. These days, however, thanks to modern food processing techniques and worldwide distribution, we can find almost any food on our grocery shelves throughout the year. The result? Grocery aisles look very similar regardless of the season.
Technology enables us to eat the same fruits and vegetables throughout the year, but that doesn’t make this the optimum way to nourish our bodies. Eating the same foods year round with little variety may even increase our susceptibility to food intolerances and allergies.
Many scientists, researchers and natural health experts think eating the right kinds of foods at the right time of year is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. Seasonal foods reconnect with the organic cycle that nature intended for us. Our ancestors ate seasonal food because they didn’t have a choice. We, on the other hand, can make the informed, educated choice to eat only foods grown seasonally.
Growing conditions change from spring to summer and then again from fall to winter. For the greatest freshness, flavour and nutrient value, it’s important to know which foods are locally grown and in season.
In spring, focus on tender, leafy vegetables such as Swiss chard, spinach, kale, dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, fresh parsley and basil.
In summer, fill your diet with light, cooling fruits such as berries, strawberries, apples, pears and plums. Traditional Chinese medicine says summer vegetables should also be light and cooling: summer squash, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Summer spices and seasonings include peppermint and cilantro.
Fall brings the autumn harvest and warming foods such as sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips and garlic, while warming spices and seasonings include ginger, peppercorns and mustard seeds.
Winter calls for really warming foods. Foods that take longer to grow are generally more warming than foods that grow quickly. All of the animal foods fall into the warming category, including fish, chicken, beef and lamb, as well as eggs, corn and nuts.
Some vegetables and fruits – such as apples, onions, carrots, cabbage, beets, mushrooms and potatoes – are good buys most of the year. Whatever the season, be creative! Let the natural backdrop of spring, summer, fall and winter be your guide.
Developed by the Environmental Working Group, the Dirty Dozen is a list of fruits and vegetables most highly contaminated with pesticide residues. If you are unable to purchase only organic produce, this list will help you minimize your intake of pesticide residues by avoiding the foods listed. The EWG’s simulation of consumers eating high and low pesticide diets showed it is possible to decrease exposure to pesticides by 90% by avoiding those foods most highly contaminated and selecting the least contaminated. (www.ewg.org/foodnews/)
Also, try to use organic products when consuming tea, coffee, chocolate, rice and dairy products (milk, cheese, eggs and butter), as well as meat products if your finances allow.
The Dirty Dozen
The Least Contaminated
How do you know if food that’s labeled organic really is? Here’s a general rule about those numbers on the stickers attached to fruits and veggies:
A 1997 study conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture in London, England found differences in the nutrient content of pasteurized milk in summer versus winter. Iodine was higher in winter, while beta-carotene was higher in summer. The research discovered these differences in milk composition were primarily due to differences in the diets of the cows. With more salt-preserved foods in winter and more fresh plants in the summer, cows produced nutritionally different milks during the two seasons. A Japanese study found threefold differences in the vitamin C content of spinach harvested in summer versus winter.
Eating in season can save you money. The sheer abundance of seasonal local produce makes it less expensive: it’s the basic law of supply and demand. Also, there’s no comparison when it comes to freshness and flavour.
Think of the packaged herbs you see in grocery stores during the winter: usually a few limp, black-specked, moldy leaves for quite a cost in contrast to the bright green, crisp herbs you can find seasonally in grocery stores and local farmers’ markets.
In winter, fresh produce is either grown in a hothouse or shipped in from other parts of the world: both affect the taste. Compare the dark red, vine-ripened tomato still warm from the summer sun to a hothouse tomato purchased in winter – barely red and lacking in flavour.
During the summer and fall, local grocery stores are full of fresh produce grown in Ontario, Canada and the U.S. In the winter, be aware of where fresh produce is coming from and make wise choices. Frozen organic might be a healthier choice.
Transported crops must be harvested early and refrigerated so they don’t rot en route. They may not ripen as effectively as they would in their natural environment, and as a result, they don’t develop their full flavour and nutrients.
It’s hard to be enthusiastic about eating six to 10 servings a day of flavourless fruit and veg; it’s even harder to get your children to be enthusiastic!
By eating freshly harvested produce, you rotate your foods, thereby preventing the development of food intolerances. You also reap the health benefits of a diet that is diverse and naturally detoxifying: seasonal foods have much higher antioxidant content than non-seasonal.
For example, in traditional Chinese medicine, spring is associated with the liver, one of the body’s primary detoxification organs. Spring is also the time when dandelion and other bitter greens, which support the liver and its function of cleansing the blood, are fresh and readily available.
Recent research has shown strawberries to be surprisingly fragile, perishable and delicate. Scientists took a close look at storage time, storage temperature, storage humidity and degree of ripeness. On average, two days is the optimal time for strawberry storage without major loss of vitamin C and polyphenol antioxidants. It’s not that strawberries become dangerous to eat or invaluable after two days; it’s just that longer storage time results in more nutrient loss.
Because of our limited growing seasons, it’s virtually impossible to eat locally and in season 100% of the time. If you can, grow your own. You’ll know exactly what went into growing those foods and you can enjoy them at their peak the day they are harvested. If gardening isn’t your thing, try to make weekly visits to a local farmers’ market.
To find out what’s harvested seasonally in your area and to find farmers’ markets near you, visit www.localharvest.org. When you eat seasonally, you support local farmers and the sustainability of the entire economy.
Seasonal eating reduces the number of food miles your food travels before it reaches your table. The more you eat local, the less chance you will consume food flown half way across the world, in effect consuming that much more fuel.
We must reclaim our dinner table and health from the food industry. Did you know:
Yes, Gandhi! He said we should never mistake what is habitual for what is natural. Case in point: some countries are very poor, yet they eat extremely well – small amounts of animal protein with an abundance of vegetables.
So try to eat in season and eat clean. Common sense and scientific research concludes that if we want healthy bodies we must eat the right foods: real; in season; whole; local; fresh; unadulterated; unprocessed; and chemical, hormone, and antibiotic-free.
There is no role for foreign molecules such as trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, or for industrially developed and processed food that interferes with our biology at every level. Bon appetit!
Shawn M. Nisbet, RHN, CFA is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Certified Fitness Consultant & Nordic Pole Walking Master Instructor. Tel: 416.804.0938. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.shawnnisbet.com.