On the Table

On the Table: Seize summer's chance to eat local fruits and veggies

CorrespondentJuly 9, 2013 

Wait no longer to take advantage of the season. Start piling on the fresh produce this week.

It’s one of the great pleasures of summertime – the availability of so many fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, in the supermarket and maybe even in your backyard. The food just tastes so good.

Consider the flavor of a backyard tomato picked during the summer to one you’ve bought at the supermarket in December and you know what I mean.

And it’s not just the flavor that’s so much better this time of year.

Nutritionally, there are benefits to eating fresh produce, too. While many factors can ultimately affect the nutritional quality of the foods you eat, here are a couple that can give summertime selections the nutritional edge:

• Vine ripening. Produce that’s allowed to ripen fully in the sunshine has a better chance to reach its full nutritional value.

For example, research has shown that tomatoes and red peppers that are picked when they are fully ripe contain more vitamin C than those picked sooner.

In contrast, produce that’s destined to be shipped cross-country is often picked before it’s fully ripe, since it has to be able to withstand several days in transit. Ripe fruits and vegetables are more fragile and prone to damage and spoiling if they’re not eaten sooner.

• Less transit time. Once a bell pepper or carrot has been picked, its nutritional value begins to decline. The longer it sits in a truck or on the supermarket shelf, the more nutrient loss there may be.

When you buy local, the food didn’t spend days getting to you.

But if nutrition doesn’t sell you on eating more produce now, maybe the flavor will. Vine-ripened foods taste better, often because they are sweeter.

Think of the flavor of a ripe strawberry or cantaloupe compared to one that’s still partly green.

Also, farmers growing fruits and vegetables for a local market are more likely to invest in heirloom varieties prized for their flavors, rather than focusing on varieties developed to withstand shipping.

So don’t wait. You’ve got a couple more months to take advantage of the season. It’s time to start eating bell peppers, lettuce, carrots, radishes, watermelon, cantaloupe, green onions and zucchini.

Enjoy them for what you can taste, and also for what you can’t.

Suzanne Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management and nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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