While the aim of the nutrition game is to max your fruit and vegetable consumption in any way you can, if you can add as much locally grown produce to your plate, then you’ll likely help your health even more.
“Locally produced foods are often fresher because they don’t need to go those long distances in transport,” Dr Katherine Kent, University of Tasmania postdoctoral research fellow, tells Coach.
“[Farmers] can really harvest those foods closer to their peak ripeness and … when fruits and vegetables are allowed to ripen to maturity on the tree, that’s the time the fruits and vegetables generally contain more nutrients.”
Eating seasonally changes the way you eat, so you’ll be having mangoes and berries in summer and brussels sprouts and cabbage in winter.
“Leafy greens are best in the spring. The broccoli ‘flower’ and tomato ‘fruit’ are best in summer,” argues clinical nutritionist Dr Josh Axe in his article Eating Seasonally for Better Nutrition and A Better Worl
But Dr Kent says it’s not so much eating certain foods at certain times of year that brings the health benefits – it’s the fact that when produce is left to mature on the plant, its nutrition is enhanced.
In particular, Dr Kent says it’s the flavonoids that are in higher concentrations in fresher produce.
“Flavonoids are naturally occurring compounds that protect the plant against environmental stressors,” she explains.
“A high consumption of flavonoids is linked with protection against a lot of chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and dementia.”
When fruit and vegetables are picked before they’re ripe, Dr Kent says their flavonoid count is less.
“What damages the flavonoids in foods is when they are picked too early and are not ripened on the tree and when they are in cold storage for a long period of time,” Dr Kent explains.
“Pumpkin and other root vegetables contain large amounts of stored nutrients for [autumn] and winter.”
What if you can’t access decent local produce?
While the flavonoid count might be higher in freshly picked produce, public health nutritionist Dr Amanda Lee says trying to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible is the most important thing you can do for your health.
“The most important thing is that you have a varied diet of the basic five food groups and you don’t eat too much junk,” she says.
“If you’ve got a good variety locally that’s fantastic because generally fruit and vegetables that are available locally will have a higher nutrient composition. But you can’t just live on [locally grown] carrots alone.”
It’s interesting to note that frozen produce is potentially just as flavonoid-packed as freshly picked, so that can be a good way of accessing your favourite produce year ’round.
“Freezing vegetables doesn’t seem to have a negative affect on the flavonoid content of foods,” Dr Kent says.
“We want to consume foods that are fresh, first and foremost, but as a backup, frozen foods are still high in flavonoids.”
That said, frozen produce is often shipped from long distances so if your carbon footprint is your seasonal eating motivation, then frozen produce probably may not nail the brief.
The broader benefits
Our health is not the only benefit of eating locally grown produce – there are often environmental and local economical factors to consider.
“[Eating locally] helps stimulate the local economy by giving money back to farms,” Dr Kent says.
“[You also get] a lot of connectedness with your food. You can ask growers questions about farming practices and make informed decisions about how that food was grown and produced and ensure it aligns with your personal ethos.
“There is also a social aspect with shopping for local food or going to farmer’s markets – it can promote good community interaction. So there are those aspects of your health that are also important, in addition to nutrition.”