Does local food give us a nutritional edge?

by Shauna Schultz, RD

We’re fortunate to live in a community with so much healthy, locally grown produce. While there are many benefits to eating food that’s in season and locally grown, are local foods actually more nutritious? The answer is many-sided, as the nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables — local or not — depends on many factors. That said, eating locally definitely has advantages when it comes to nutrient density, and research supports the health benefits of locally grown produce. Let’s explore the factors that contribute to its superior healthfulness.

Ripeness. Local fruits and vegetables are picked at peak ripeness, while many of those headed for the supermarket are picked before maturity in order to survive harvesting and travel. Naturally ripened plants boast more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. For example, their vitamin C content was found to be higher in tomatoes, red peppers, peaches, and apricots, according to a review of literature by Kathleen Firth of the Harvard School of Public Health.

zucchini noodles recipeVariety. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables comes naturally when you eat local. When you base your choices on what’s available seasonally, you tend to eat more different kinds of fruits and vegetables, which give you a broader spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

Processing and transport. Mass distribution calls for durable fruits and vegetables that can withstand mechanical processing, storage, and transportation. This comes at a price, as the nutrients start to diminish after picking (especially since plants are harvested before they’re fully ripe). Produce may then experience further stress from damage, improper storage, and exposure to uncongenial temperatures. Because eating locally shortens the time from farm to table, many of these liabilities are avoided.

Growing methods. Nevada County is lucky to have small-scale farms that practice organic growing methods. These methods further benefit nutritional quality in several ways. Sustainable practices and cover crops help nourish the soil, so that roots grow deeper and plants can take up more nutrients. Also, when synthetic fertilizers are taken out of the picture, plants experience a beneficial kind of stress that stimulates them to produce healthy phytonutrients to protect themselves. The benefits of improved nutrient density and phytonutrients are then passed on to us!

As you can see, there are many nutritional benefits to eating locally grown fruits and vegetables — so why not challenge yourself to eat as locally as possible? Not only will you be supporting your local economy and helping the environment, but your food will taste better and give you a nutritional edge. To eat locally, just look for the signs indicating locally grown at BriarPatch, visit a farmers market, join a CSA, visit a “u-pick” such as Food Love Farm, or grow your own garden.

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