I’m back to our Healthy Eating Made Simple series today with a follow-up post to last week’s look at fruits and vegetables. As I mentioned in the first post on produce, I think we can all agree that fruits and vegetables are fantastic foods to have in the diet, no matter the particular dietary plan you follow. Today we’ll get into some of the details of fruits and veggies.
The fruit and veggie part of healthy eating is easy, but the which, how, and where of produce can become a little confusing. Is organic always necessary? Are canned vegetables better than no vegetables? Should I eat my fruits and vegetables raw? What’s the big deal with farm markets? I’ll share my thoughts on these topics, and you can weigh in with yours, too.
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Organic vs. Conventional
Organic foods are becoming more and more popular and available nationwide due to increased consumer demand. Most people, through common sense, prefer to buy foods that aren’t coated or laden with artificial ingredients, pesticide residues, and genetically engineered ingredients. The organic label guarantees (to an extent) a substantial degree of “realness“, you may say. It’s a lengthy, involved, and generally expensive process to gain organic certification, and you can read about the specifics here.
Organic comes with a very practical catch, though. It’s generally more expensive, and in some cases hard to find depending on your location. If your family is like mine, your budget is an important part of your meal planning, and organic might seem like an impossibility. If you don’t call a big city home, then you may also have a hard time finding much organic food in your local grocery store.
Many families have found a good compromise by focusing their organic purchases based on the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen+ list put out by the Environmental Working Group. This list rates fruits and vegetables based on the amount of pesticide residue left on produce so that consumers can know which food items are better to choose as organic foods.
In our home, I try to choose organic for foods that aren’t peeled, like lettuce, carrots, greens, and pears, as well as going by the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen+. I don’t regularly buy organic bananas, melons, onions, or citrus fruits (though I will if I need the zest) unless they are on sale. I also don’t burden myself with guilt when we can’t buy a certain food as an organic item.
Fresh vs. Frozen vs. Canned
Generally speaking, fresh or quickly frozen fruits and vegetables are a better choice because they’ve been through less drastic processing and are closer to their natural state. In order for a food to be canned, it goes through very high temperatures and/or pressure. Frozen fruits and vegetables are generally just blanched (quickly cooked in boiling water or steamed) prior to freezing, or frozen without any other previous processing.
A good rule of thumb is to choose fresh produce when it is in season and available, frozen when it’s not, and canned if you can’t find the food fresh or frozen. Tomatoes are a common exception, though. Heat, such as what is used during canning, can make the nutrient lycopene more available to the body, making canned tomatoes a convenient and nutritious choice.
If and when you buy canned fruits or vegetables, always read the ingredients label so that you can be aware of added ingredients. Choosing glass jars or at least BPA-free cans is a good idea, too.
Raw vs. Cooked vs. Fermented
There is much debate around the cooked vs. raw foods issue, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Some health enthusiasts preach an all-raw diet, while others prefer to cook most of their foods. Who’s correct?
I’m not sure there’s a right answer. Different studies show that cooking may destroy certain beneficial compounds in fruits and vegetables but also raise different ones.
My personal take is that variety and tradition just makes sense. What do I mean? I mean that we eat a variety of fruits and vegetables both raw and cooked every day. Sometimes the tomatoes we eat are raw and sometimes they are cooked, and I like raw salads and cooked kale. I also take into consideration how a particular food has been traditionally prepared through the years. Potatoes aren’t a traditional raw food item, some foods have been enjoyed cooked and raw for centuries, and others just make sense to enjoy raw.
Fermented fruits and vegetables deserve a mention, too. Though not widely available in stores, they are fantastic foods to make at home and benefit your body with all sort of probiotics. Sauerkraut is a popular example.
The Local Benefit
Finally, sourcing local produce is a wonderful way to enjoy tastier and more nutritious fruits and vegetables, often for a lower price and with fewer chemical residues. When food hasn’t traveled thousands upon thousands of miles, it can be harvested when actually ripe and not artificially ripened with potentially harmful sprays or gasses. This fresh, ripe food usually has fuller flavor and more developed nutrients as well.
The best source of local food is your backyard, whether through gardening or foraging. Farm markets and CSAs are also excellent ways to get local fruits and veggies at a great price while benefiting your neighboring farm communities. Local Harvest is an excellent resource to find small farmers in your area.