Power Up Your Produce This Summer
6 ways to squeeze even more nutrition from the season’s fruits and veggies
It comes in a rush: Suddenly, the farmer’s market, the supermarket and your own garden are ripe with so much produce it’s an embarrassment of colorful riches.
Summer’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables entices most of us to eat more produce, which means reaping nutritional benefits that can be harder to come by in winter. But you can get even more health perks with some savvy shopping, storing and prepping.
1. Be a locavore
When fruits and vegetables have been grown nearby, they're likely to be more nutritious. That’s because produce that’s harvested for shipping is often picked before it’s fully ripe.
When fruits and veggies are allowed to ripen fully in the field or on the vine, they may contain more nutrients, according to Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. For example, levels of vitamin C in red peppers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches and papayas are higher when they’re picked ripe from the plant.
Mechanically harvested produce often winds up bruised, which can spur nutrient loss. Look for locally grown fruits and vegetables in your grocery store or hit up a nearby farmer’s market.
2. Know when to go organic
Organic produce isn’t necessarily more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. But certain fruits and vegetables are more likely than others to retain residue from pesticides when organically grown. These include nectarines, peaches and sweet and hot peppers, according to an analysis by Consumer Reports scientists.
The same analysis found that conventionally grown blueberries, cherries, raspberries and watermelon contain lower levels of residue. According to the Environmental Working Group, these summer favorites are also low in pesticide residue: avocados, sweet corn, onions, asparagus and eggplant.
3. Err on the side of heirloom
According to a University of Texas study of 43 garden crops (mostly vegetables but also melons and strawberries), modern farming has taken a toll on nutrients in produce, especially protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamins B2 and C. Today's broccoli may contain less than half of the calcium it did in 1950.
When an heirloom variety of a fruit or vegetable is available, go for it. It may be pricier, but you may get more nutritional bang for your buck — and probably better taste to boot.
4. Give fruits and veggies their own space
As they ripen, many fruits give off ethylene gas, which can speed up spoilage of other produce that’s nearby. These fruits include apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, peaches and plums. If you put them in the fridge, keep them separate from vegetables.
Always store perishable produce, including strawberries, lettuce, mushrooms and herbs, in the fridge at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, advises the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
5. Cook this, not that
Your body absorbs certain nutrients from some veggies better when those veggies are cooked. Case in point: Researchers have found that lycopene in tomatoes is more easily absorbed by the body when the tomatoes are cooked. (Lycopene is a nutrient believed to lower the risk of heart disease and some cancers.) While this doesn’t exactly elevate ketchup to the status of vegetable, it does mean that you can boost the nutritional value of tomatoes by exposing them to heat.
By all means enjoy those juicy heirlooms raw in salads or on sandwiches or layered with fresh mozzarella. But also consider sautéing cherry tomatoes halves or simmering plum tomatoes in a sauce.
Whatever cooking method you use, opt for olive oil: Studies have found that compared to other oils, such as sunflower, olive oil greatly increases the absorption of lycopene.
Other vegetables that benefit from being cooked are asparagus, carrots, spinach and mushrooms. Note that cooking method matters: Steaming and boiling are better than, say, frying, according to research at the University of Parma.
6. Mix it up
Some foods are more nutritious when eaten together than when eaten alone. Keep these power pairs in mind when you’re tossing a salad, planning summer menus or reaching for snack:
- Greens and eggs. In a Purdue University study, young men who ate three scrambled eggs with a salad consisting of romaine lettuce, baby spinach, tomatoes, carrots and Chinese wolfberry (more commonly known as goji berry) absorbed significantly more — three to nine times more — of the nutrients known carotenoids from the salad than those who ate a salad with one and a half eggs or no eggs.
- Berries and… berries. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and others are packed with antioxidants of different types. By eating several berry varieties at once you can reap more cancer-fighting benefits.
- Spinach and lemon. A squeeze of lemon juice on dark greens such as spinach and arugula makes the iron in the veggies easier for the body to absorb. Sour on lemons? You can also up the iron with foods high in vitamin C, like oranges, red peppers and broccoli, according to the Mayo Clinic.