Getting the Most Out of Your Fruits and Veggies

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Recently I received the following question and thought it was great fodder for a blog post.

“How fast do fruits and vegetables lose nutrients after they are picked, or do they lose them at all? I notice when we buy local, like from Blue Sky Organic Farm, everything tastes so much fresher and sweeter. I assume that is because everything you buy in their store is picked fresh that morning. So does the time a fruit or vegetable is harvested to the time you consume it have a different nutritional value?”

This is a great question! The short answer is “yes.” But it deserves a bit more explanation. Lots of factors affect nutrient content of produce, from the time it is in the ground to the time it meets your mouth.

Circumstances Before and After Harvest

Even before harvest, many variables influence a plant’s nutrient content. These include plant variety (known as cultivar), soil quality, weather conditions, and growing methods. After harvest, many other factors influence nutrient composition including handling, transport, storage, and cooking methods.

Imagine a Gala apple that grew in the central region of Chile, was picked early to reduce the chance of bruising on the plane ride to America, and then sat on the home counter for a week before being consumed. Compare that to a Red Delicious that grew in Washington State, was picked at peak maturity, and traveled by truck to the local market where it was eaten as soon as the consumer bought it.

As you can see, we are not exactly comparing apples to apples, as the idiom goes (even though we are).

All Nutrients are Not Created Equal

Beyond all of this, degradation of individual nutrients varies. For example, vitamin C (a water soluble vitamin) is sensitive to oxygen, light, and heat. The B vitamins (also water soluble) have sensitivity to heat and light too. On the other hand, more inert nutrients such as minerals and fiber tend to hold their levels through aging and processing.

Fresh, Frozen, or Canned?

Various processing methods also affect nutrient content. For example, in canning, vegetables are exposed to high temperatures. Vitamin C can decrease by 10-90% through this processing, but minerals and fiber are shown to go unchanged.

Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually flash-frozen soon after they are harvested. They are blanched first (thrown in hot water for a short time) which likely results in minimal loss of nutrients. If kept at proper temperature, frozen products can be maintained for up to a year.

Even the way we prepare the produce at home affects the nutrient content. For example, boiling vegetables will allow some of the water-soluble vitamins to leach out into the cooking water. But sometimes processing and cooking can enhance a nutrient, as is the case of lycopene in tomatoes.

Maximize Nutrient Content

Fruits and vegetables usually taste best and have the most nutritional value when they are harvested at peak maturity. The ideal situation would be consuming the produce right after it is picked. One of the best ways to do this is to grow your own fruits and vegetables, but not everyone has the space, time, or green thumb for gardening. If you live in the Phoenix area like me and want to give it a go, check out this Vegetable Planting Calendar from the UofA Arizona Cooperative Extension to know when to plant and when to pick your goodies. The next best thing to growing your own is probably a visit to your local farmer’s market.

When you get your produce home, treat it right. The best scenario for nutrient retention is gentle handling and storage in high relative humidity in the refrigerator for most fruits and veggies. Check out this helpful chart from UC Davis for specific storage tips.

An Important Reminder

Remember that whether your fruits and veggies are right from your garden or straight outta the can, the most important part is that you eat them! Aim to get five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each and every day. Here are some examples of what makes a serving: ½ cup of chopped vegetables or fruit, 1 cup of leafy greens, 1 medium fruit (size of a baseball), or ½ cup of fruit or vegetable juice. Make them part of every meal, trying to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies. Vary the type and preparation throughout your week, hitting the entire color spectrum (red, yellow/orange, white/tan/brown, green, and blue/purple) so you are sure to get a variety of nutrients.

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