Eat local, eat healthy 8/12
(This article is adapted from the August/September 2012 ShopSmart magazine.)
It’s a lot easier to eat healthy in the summertime. Fresh produce is everywhere—juicy watermelons, peppery radishes, fragrant basil, sweet strawberries, and loads more. And serving the first sweet corn of the season is an event.
The tastiest fruit and veggies often come from your friendly farmers market, grown nearby and trucked in shortly after picking. And here’s the most delicious news of all: Locallly grown food is often more nutritious than your standard supermarket produce.
The farm-to-table movement is huge; suddenly even non-foodies are talking about eating local. Here’s what you need to know to be a smart – and healthy – local-produce shopper this season.
What counts as "local?"
The word "locavore" showed up in the dictionary just a few years ago. It’s often defined as some one who tries to eat food grown within a 100-mile radius of home. But other sources have other definitions.
Whole Foods considers "local" to be a maximum of 7 hours’ drive from one of its stores. The Department of Agriculture doesn’t have an official geographic boundary but characterizes "local" as farmers selling food directly to consumers.
Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Penguin, 2011) and one of the best-known voices of the locavore movement, says he prefers the definition offered by the nutritionist and food writer Joan Gussow, which is food grown within a leisurely day’s journey from the market or from your home.
How to find locally grown food
Farmers markets sell a wide variety of locally produced foods, including meat, eggs, and honey. Go to localharvest.org or the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food website.
Or you can search for a market by zip code at the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website. Most farmers markets are seasonal, operating about six months of the year, but some stay open year-round. If you don’t have any local farmers markets, you can check the Local Harvest site for a nearby food co-op, a year-round store that often sells local farmers’ wares. Some supermarkets carry local food too: Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods are among the big chains stocking food grown or raised nearby.
Many restaurants are following the movement too, making local, seasonal food the stars of their menus. Local meat, seafood, and produce top the list of this year’s hot trends, according to the National Restaurant Association. Some eateries even have their own gardens.
And here’s good news for parents: As of April 2012 the USDA launched the Farm to School program to get more locally grown food into school lunches.
Is local food more tasty and nutritious?
A balanced diet that includes plenty of produce is the best possible way to eat. Surveys at the farmers markets have found that people tend to shop there because they think the food is of higher quality and tastes better. And eating locally grown produce may be the healthiest way to get your veggies, according to a review of 16 studies in the “Journal of the American Dietetic Association.”
Fresh food tends to have more nutrients than food that was picked days or weeks ago, Pollan says. Also, if you buy food in season it will be at the peak of freshness. And it’s real food, says Bill McKibben, a local-food activist and an environmentalist— not processed food with ingredients that are eight syllables long. Or, as Pollan puts it, "There’s no pink slime at the farmers market."
At their peak of freshness and nutrition now are bell peppers, tomatoes, green beans, raspberries, mushrooms, zucchini, blueberries, and much more. To find smart choices year-round, go to the website of the Department of Agriculture and search "in season."
What does the medical research show?
If you ask a doctor what’s the best thing you can do for your health, the answer will probably be to exercise more and to eat more fruits and veggies. Produce is packed with health-boosting nutrients, including the cancer-fighters vitamins A and C, calcium for strong bones and teeth, and potassium to lower blood pressure. Plus, when you’re filling up on health food you’re eating less of the stuff that’s not good for you, like high-fat snacks.
The trick is to eat a wide variety of fruit and veggies. Shop by color—the more hues, the more types of nutrients you’re getting. And deeper colors indicate that you’re getting more nutrients.
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