It’s not a myth that fresh food is better for you. And since local food is fresher, it’s better for you too. Okay, we definitely owe you the Paul Harvey on this, and there is certainly more to the story. If you have ever enjoyed fresh squeezed orange juice, or eaten a fresh tomato straight from the garden, you know how great it tasted. Local food is definitely fresher, and fresher food just tastes better, and that’s a given which has been discussed. But what about the nutritional value of local food, is that any better for you? The safe answer would be “it depends.” That is because there are so many variables that you can throw into the equation. To name a few: the specific variety of the produce, the methods used to grow it, how it was treated, when and where it was harvested, how long and where it was stored, the distance it had to be transported, the average length of sunlight exposure per day in respect to the pH level of the soil . . . Okay, we get the picture. It’s easy to use the answer “it depends” and still be correct, that’s always a safe bet, but you don’t earn extra points with answers like that. Forget about fancy explanations, and just give us the truth. Well, if you want better nutrition, local food is hard to beat.
You may have heard of studies by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) or other research groups dismissing the claim that fresh food, particularly produce, has more nutritional value than its frozen or canned counterparts. Believe it or not, this claim actually IS TRUE, given the right set of circumstances, of course. You see, when the studies were done comparing the nutritional value of canned foods and frozen foods to fresh foods, they found that the nutritional value was approximately the same. However, there is another major variable that they failed to consider as a constant: LOCALITY (or the distance between where food is grown and where it is consumed). A shorter distance is more favorable, because when the distance increases, so do the number of variables in the equation, and the impact of those other variables as well. Before we discover why that is important, we should analyze the facts.
In 1998 the FDA released its findings comparing fresh fruits and vegetables to frozen ones of the same variety, and it was looking at produce purchased from the same location, such as a grocery store. Frozen produce is typically harvested at peak ripeness, blanched in hot water or steam to kill bacteria and prevent enzymes from degrading the food (which also degrades certain vitamins soluble to water), and then flash-frozen, which keeps the produce locked into a relatively nutrient-rich state. It is then finally shipped to its destination at the grocery store. The “fresh” vegetables, which as we mentioned in part 2 of our blog series, are often harvested well before they are ripe, which means they don’t even get to fully develop an optimal nutritional profile, as they would if they were left on the vine. They are also shipped to the same grocery store, but unlike the frozen produce, they are exposed to heat and light, which causes nutrients to break down even faster. The tests were run and the nutritional values were approximately equal, suggesting that fresh food does not hold a nutritional advantage over frozen food. Fact or myth?
Alright, let’s clarify a couple things before we expose the truth. First, we know that the nutritional qualities in produce and other foods break down gradually after it is harvested. Freezing the food tends to greatly slow down the process of degeneration, but it also causes some initial nutrient damage to the food when it is blanched. Next, when speaking about the fresh produce at stores, we know that it is prevented from ripening to its full extent, and subsequently begins its journey with fewer nutrients. Add onto that, it must be transported great distances (which takes time), where the nutritional value slowly declines, except that it is often exposed to light and heat, which accelerates the process. There we have two separate experiences of the produce (fresh and frozen), and yet they result in the same finish. Fresh produce starts with less nutritional value, loses some slowly, yet it ends up with the same amount as frozen produce, which had more nutrients to begin with, and lost some due to processing. Interesting, this circumstance seems strangely familiar.
Well, if you believe that there are certain cosmic laws that govern the universe, then you are probably familiar with many of the various faculties of logic that can be used to unveil the answers (Like in 7th grade, when your teacher kept telling the class how algebra can be used to explain anything in the universe). Yes, math is one of them, and you can certainly apply it here as well. Back on the topic of nutrition in produce, you can see that fresh produce and frozen produce have the same nutritional value, as in the example of the study (The two equations are set equal). In this circumstance, it is the truth. However, the “fresh” produce wasn’t very local (That’s right, we said locality played a role in this). If it were local, it would be much fresher, as it would have been allowed to reach optimum ripeness (That would change the equations from being equal). The local farmer would have harvested the produce right when it was at its best, and then taken it directly to the local market to sell (Ah, now we see how that variable can change everything). Why? Well because that’s what appeals to consumers (Or because math tells us so). It’s fresher. It tastes better. It looks better. And guess what else: it’s better for you too.