Christina Quint, MA, is the sustainability analyst for Inova’s Office of Sustainability. In this role, she provides programmatic support, manages sustainability communication and marketing, and oversees environmental data collection and analysis to ensure optimal operational performance across the Inova system.
Kara Nickerson, RD, PN1 is a Registered Dietitian with over a decade of experience in the fields of weight loss, functional medicine, corporate wellness and fitness, personal training/ performance enhancement specialist and private nutrition coaching. Kara is the WellAware (employee wellness program) manager and WellAware Health Coach at Inova.
What Makes Local Produce Healthier?
In an age of globalized production, our food comes to us from all around the world. Fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products often arrive at our grocery stores following arduous journeys that span weeks or even months. Unfortunately, all that time in cold storage leads to products that have lost a significant portion of their nutrients before they even hit the shelves.
While the exact rate of nutrient loss varies depending on storage and shipment method, nutritional degradation begins soon after harvest. Studies show that 15 to 55 percent of Vitamin C content is lost within one week of harvest—and some vegetables, like spinach, lose 90 percent of their Vitamin C less than 24 hours after they are picked.
Transport time for fruits and vegetables found in the grocery store can vary wildly. Imported produce may spend weeks in cold storage on a refrigerated ship. Large grocery stores store and display produce for several days before you purchase it, meaning that your vegetables could be months old and have a significantly degraded nutrient content. In contrast, local produce is rarely more than a few days old; if you purchase vegetables at a farmer’s market, an independent grocer, or through a CSA, you can frequently find produce harvested that same day.
Nutrient loss during shipping and storage can be offset, to a certain extent, by purchasing fruits and vegetables grown using natural and traditional methods. Production systems that use cover crops, composted manure, or Integrated Pest Management systems, yield produce with a higher initial nutrient content than plants grown in commercial chemical fertilizers. Natural and organic methods encourage plants to develop deeper root systems, allowing for more efficient nutrient absorption, while natural soil contains more nutrients which are released to crops over longer periods.
For maximum nutrition, use the following tips to purchase and prepare your produce:
- Buy local. The less time your produce spends in transport, the more nutrient-dense it remains. The freshest vegetables come directly from the farm, so skip the supermarket. Get your greens from your local farmers market, farmstand, or CSA. Shop at local grocery stores, which often have agreements with local family farms; chain supermarkets get their produce from large distributors which use mass shipping and cold storage to deliver produce from around the world.
- Don’t process your produce until you are ready to use it. Nutrient depletion begins the second you wash or cut your vegetables, so avoid buying or storing pre-cut veggies. To maximize available nutrients, try cooking veggies whole—hold off on cutting and peeling until after cooking for maximum retention.
- When it comes to cooking, keep the most vitamins in your veggies by steaming, roasting, or stir-frying . Avoid boiling—this cooking method leaches nutrients directly out of the vegetables and into the liquid. Unless you retain that liquid to use in a soup or sauce, those vitamins get poured directly down the drain.
- For juice, either make it fresh or avoid it completely. Processed juice gives you all the sugar in fruit with none of the fiber, causing a quick release of sugar that spikes blood glucose levels and which your body treats like any other sugared beverage or soft drink. Commercially available juice is processed, pasteurized, and stored for extended periods, killing any nutritional value in the process. A better option is to make a smoothie using fresh or frozen whole fruits and leafy greens—this gives you access to all available nutrients and a healthy dose of fiber, which ensures slow absorption to avoid blood sugar spikes.