We are so lucky to live in an abundant time where we can enjoy any fruit or vegetable any day of the year. Long distance transportation guarantees that we will always have tomatoes available for our salads, or avocado for our smoothies or even strawberries to dip in chocolate and have it as a snack or as a romantic snack.
However, it is rare that we know where our ingredients come from and although that is not a bad thing at all. Knowing the seasonality of our ingredients and eating fresh produce as close to the time of the year they grow benefits our health, the environment and our wallet! Oh, and they do tend to taste better! That is a great benefit don’t you agree?
I am not saying you should but growing your own herbs or some vegetables can also help get closer and understand better the natural circle of life of plants. There are also psychological benefits to taking care of plants. In a study, 40 older women aged 79.5 ± 8.09 years were monitored and the researchers recorded significantly lower blood pressure and anxiety levels, and that participants were more comfortable and relaxed after taking care of plants.
Gardening is not just for elders, researches also argue that the less time we spend in nature, the more health and behavioural issues arise, especially for children. Daily contact with the natural environment can benefit health in the long term affecting depression and anxiety symptoms, birth weight, diabetes and obesity, circulatory and heart disease and contribute to longevity. Gardening or taking care of small plants in the house is actually a cost effective health intervention.
So if you have never considered it, definitely time to do so :). We deviated just a little bit but I think it was worth it, and let’s get back into it.
BENEFITS OF EATING SEASONALLY
Seasonal produce is more nutrient dense & tastes better
A study monitoring the content of vitamin C in broccoli throughout the year, found that the content of vitamin C was affected by seasonality, and not if the broccoli was organically grown or not. So, during fall which is broccoli’s season, the amount of vitamin C was twice as high as during spring.
Including seasonal produce in your diet ensures that you also benefit from components that contribute to wellbeing and longevity. What I mean by that…Let’s take quercetin which is a food component that can prevent lifestyle related diseases. It is considered one of the most abundant antioxidants in the diet and plays an important role in helping your body combat free radical damage, which is linked to chronic diseases. In a study of Japanese population, researchers determined the quercetin content in foods available in the market during June and July in or near a town in Hokkaido. The estimated quercetin intake was similar during summer and winter. Quercetin was mainly ingested from onions and green tea, both in summer and in winter. However, vegetables, such as asparagus, green pepper, tomatoes, and red leaf lettuce, were good sources of quercetin in summer.
Something to keep in mind also is that to meet global demands of local and large-scale production, produce undergoes processes that disturbs the natural rhythms of growing and ripening. This process is called post-harvest treatment which is used to slow down maturation and ripening and includes:
physical treatment such as heat, irradiation and edible coatings. These affect the flavour of the final product. When crops are transported, they must be harvested early and refrigerated to avoid spoilage and then heated to induce ripening before the produce is sold and this process alters the texture and taste of the final product that ends up on your plate.
chemical treatment such as antimicrobials, antioxidants and anti-browning, which again assist in keeping the products in tact for the display in shelves and
This ensures that the farmers meet the demand all year around, but at the same time, despite the different ripening agents used, fruit & vegetables qualities appear to show that naturally ripened produce tastes and smells better than non-naturally ripened produce. A great example is the banana which is one of the fruit categories that was studied. The research on this was published in 2019 in the International Journal of Food Science. I will provide the link under this video and in my blog for you to check it.
Seasonality is not limited to plants but affects the nutrition content of other products as well. A great example is dairy products. In 2018, a UK study looked into the effect of season on the content of iodine and selenium in cow milk in Northern Ireland creameries between May 2013 and April 2014. A note here, milk is the most important source of iodine in the U.K. and Ireland. According to this study, season had an important determining effect on the iodine content of cow’s milk, where iodine concentrations were highest in milk produced in spring compared to autumn months. There were no such differences found in the content of selenium.
Seasonal produce is good for your wallet
You probably noticed that the price of fruit and vegetables fluctuate throughout the year. This is not a surprise because the price does change according to supply and demand. When a food is in its season, there is a higher amount of it available and also there tends to be no additional cost for long distance transportation, ending up being cheaper than when it is grown and sold out of season. This means that eating seasonally can save you money, meaning you pay less for a higher quality product! This is the true meaning of being healthy on a budget! How cool is that?
If you are interested in more tips on how to be or eat healthy on a budget, make sure to check the below video for tips.
Eating seasonal produce is friendlier for the environment and supports local farmers.
Eating seasonal food supports sustainable consumption patterns according to Macdiarmid in an article published by Cambridge University, especially when the produce consumed is based on local seasonality as the environmental cost is lower. One main reason is that local food needs to travel small distances thus it has less impact on the environment as gas or fuel emissions occur at large during long distance travel.
Some storage techniques that are used today, such as drying, salting, and smoking, date back to ancient hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies and use relatively low energy inputs. However, newer technologies such as canning and compressed-gas refrigeration, require much greater energy inputs, and specifically compressed gas refrigeration such as freezing, which requires continual energy input (figure 1).
Figure 1: Energy use for food storage (in kilocalories per kilogram [kcal per kg]) (source: Hammond et al, 2015)
In figure 2, you can see graphs that show the shelf life of representative food items, with and without the use of storage technology. The time to spoilage varies widely for untreated food, from less than a day in fish to over a month in root vegetables, such as potatoes, to many years in grains such as wheat that have been naturally dried on the stalk. The increase in shelf life that results from the use of storage technology varies widely by the technology used.
Figure 1: The shelf life of representative food items, with and without the use of storage technology (source: Hammond et al, 2015)
And I know that it is not always possible to eat seasonally, especially if you would like to add a variety of fresh produce in your diet to meet your caloric and nutritional needs, but you can always choose to eat 3 out of you 5 vegetables in season to support the environment, your local farmers, your wallet and your health.
HOW DO I KNOW WHAT'S IN SEASON?
If you are based in the US, you can check seasonalfoodguide.org, where you can choose your state, and time period and get the list of local produce.
For the rest of us, a good seasonality chart is LEON seasonal chart (Figure 3), where you can see seasonal fruit and vegetables but also herbs, fish and others including meat.
Figure 3: Extracted from Leon: Ingredients and Recipes by Allegra McEvedy, published by Conran Octopus on October 13 (source: The Guardian)
Spring offers cauliflower, asparagus, peas, spinach, blood oranges, apricots, chives, basil.
Summer offers a variety of berries such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and also courgettes, radishes, aubergines/eggplants, mint, and basil.
In autumn we can eat more apples, blackberries, grapes and figs as well as squashes and pumpkins, leeks, thyme and oregano.
And winter brings pomegranate, rhubarb, cranberries, brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, sage, and rosemary among others.
You don’t have to change your habits drastically and get overwhelmed but you can start by including more of those seasonal fresh produce when you visit your local grocery stores, that’s what we do. We also tend to buy from local farmers markets which helps us understand easier what is in season as there are ample amounts of seasonal produce, thus supporting the local economy and doing our small part for the environment.
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