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Eat seasonal: it's the new black

If you’re reading our site you probably know by now that eating melon in January isn’t in fashion, but we try to go beyond the fashions, and, in this case, even beyond the purely environmental arguments (that of the food miles racked up to deliver you vegetables out of season), to bring you the why behind eating seasonally.

By Kirsten Dirksen

In this article we will try to focus on seasonal, but it is tightly bound with local food, many would say indivisible.

It’s more nutritious

Not so long ago, before air travel assured that strawberries, peaches and watermelon deserved permanent shelf space in the supermarket aisles, we used to eat according to climate. So why should we go retro when it comes to eating seasonally? Let’s forget the environment for a minute and focus on the food: because it’s better for your health.

According to a Japanese study, spinach harvested in winter (it’s growing season in Japan) contained more vitamin C than that harvested in summer. “The average vitamin C content of spinach… is indicated as 20 mg for spinach harvested in summer and 60 mg for that harvested in winter.”

Other studies have found that food grown in season, in particular that which hasn’t been stored, is healthier. According to research on cows, due to the fresh greens they eat in the summer, their milk contains higher levels of the vitamin folate during this season than in wintertime. “A seasonal change in milk folates seems logical considering that folate is an unstable vitamin with highest concentrations occurring in fresh green plants fed to the cows during the summer compared to longer stored winter fodder.”

Even seasonal frozen food beats out fresh out-of-season

One of the most surprising studies to anyone who believes fresh-is-best is that done by the Austrian Consumers Association. Their research proved that vegetables picked and frozen when in season are higher in nutrients than those flown in out of season from abroad.

“The association found that vegetables such as broccoli lost significant amounts of nutrients when imported ‘fresh’, and ended up less nutritious than their frozen equivalent.” A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency explained, “The longer fresh fruit and vegetables are stored, the more nutrients degrade.”

Researchers also found higher levels of nitrates in some of the winter crops tested (Nitrates in produce can be converted into nitrites in the body and many experts advise their consumption should be limited). Conrad Brunnhofer, the Austrian study’s researcher, found nitrate levels more than seven times higher in some fresh vegetable samples compared with frozen. ‘There is more than one reason why I would prefer frozen vegetables to fresh vegetables out of season.’

It tastes better

If you’ve ever eaten a tomato, or a peach, out of season, you know the flavor of the dry, non-juicy substitute for the real thing, and taste tests back up that sensation (*Here we will use farmers’ market produce as a stand-in for seasonal produce, though some farmers’ market wares have been stored or produced in greenhouses, and are not truly seasonal).

Researchers in Davis, California found that consumers generally prefer produce grown locally. “Double-blind flavor trials with nine separate produce items showed a significant preference for farmers’ market over supermarket produce on four items, and equivocal results for the remaining five items.”

Those items where consumers showed a significant preference for the farmers’ market produce were tomatoes, fresh peaches, fresh apricots, and watermelon. With carrots, dried peaches, honeydew melon and golden delicious apples there was no significant preference. The director of the study, Robert Sommer, pointed out that all farmers’ market produce isn’t seasonal and he noted that farmers’ market carrots, which incidentally didn’t rate high in the taste test, fit into this category since they are likely “dug up and then put into storage rather than sold immediately”.

When I asked him for his personal opinion regarding seasonal produce, Sommer says he prefers seasonal arguing that “many items are more flavorful and less processed when in season.”

Where the flavor gets lost

The problem with out-of-season produce is that it needs to be shipped in from where it was in season and in the US that means between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before being sold, according to Local Harvest. To survive this journey, produce must be picked before it is ripe. The problem with this, well, let’s look at the tomato.

Most tomatoes in the US come from Florida, California or Mexico. They are picked at a “mature green” and ripened with ethylene (a ripening hormone derived from petroleum).

Brett Clement of Tomato Magazine argues that this is why their flavor is compromised, “The longer a tomato stays on the vine, the higher its sugar levels and the better it tastes. But ‘tomatoes that are too ripe present difficulties for the food-service industry. Slice into them and all the seeds and juice fall out.’

David E. Smith, a tomato researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Horticultural Crops Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, Md, argues that gassing is not what make tomatoes taste bad, but instead the breed of tomato. When farmers are growing out of season, they choose to plant breeds not selected for taste, but for year-round availability.

Since different varieties of produce are often sent together, shipping also means the handling of produce often falls below basic standards. For instance, tomatoes should be stored above 55 degrees, but are often shipped with lettuce at less than their ideal temperature. According to Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the Florida Tomato Committee, “Cold will absolutely kill the flavor. A tomato produces a flavor enzyme as it ripens. As soon as the temperature goes below 55 degrees, the enzyme stops producing flavor — permanently.”

Varying your diet

One way to assure that you don’t eat the same meals month after month is to follow a seasonal calendar. Robert Sommer, environmental psychologist, author and director of the taste test study cited above, argues that eating seasonally can add variety to your meals and give you something to anticipate as the months change. “There is an ineffable fittingness quality to eating seasonally and regionally… waiting for the local tomatoes to come in. We use pomegranate seeds in salad for tartness and color instead of buying out-of-season tasteless large tomatoes.”

How to eat the seasons

Whether you live Down Under or in Delaware, here are a list of links to help you determine when to make that spinach salad and when to go with romaine instead.