The Health Benefits of Buying Fresh Foods

There are many reasons people like to shop at their local farmer's market, but more and more, consumers are focusing on the health benefits of buying fresh, local produce in-season. Wait a minute, you may be thinking to yourself, the farmer's market might be more fun to shop at, but is buying a zucchini or a cantaloupe straight from your local farmer any healthier for you than buying the same fruit or vegetable at your nearest supermarket? Here are several reasons why the answer to that question is a resounding yes!

Nutrients Ripen on the Vine ...

Fruits and vegetables must ripen on the vine (or the tree) in order to develop their full complement of nutrients. Once picked, the nutrient composition diminishes rather than increases, meaning fruits and vegetables harvested early never reach their optimum potential. If you buy direct from local farmers, you know the produce has been plucked at it's peak, and you'll be getting the full spectrum of nutrients.

... And Wither on the Shelf

While those tasty looking berries you see at your local farmer's market were most likely harvested within the last 24 hours, the same can't be said for the produce at your local supermarket. Typically, the fruits and vegetables sitting on grocery store shelves were picked at least 4 to 7 days before arriving at the store, and transported an average of 1500 miles. Add even longer times and distances in the case of foods imported from other countries. Once in the store, the food may sit on the self for more than a week.

The freshness gap between farmer's market and supermarket produce is also a nutrition gap. Because the food in supermarkets has to survive at least a couple of weeks after being picked, it is harvested early, long before the optimum nutrient value has been reached. Just as importantly, once food begins to sit around, nutrients began to break down. Valuable vitamins such as A, C, E and the various B-vitamins all degrade during shipping, and continue to deteriorate while waiting in the store anywhere from days to over a week for someone to buy them.

Whole Foods and Phyotnutrients

Everything we've just talked about with regard to nutrients also applies to phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are chemicals found in plants which possess antioxidant properties, enhance the immune system, and help protect against cancer, among other direct benefits. Equally important is their role in helping you gain the full benefit from the vitamins and minerals you consume. This complex interaction of nutrients is why you gain much greater health benefits from eating a balanced diet than by trying to meet your nutritional needs by taking supplements.

Two of the best known and most widely studied phytonutrients are carotenoids and flavonoids, but there are many others. Phytonutrients also provide color and help enrich the flavor of foods. Excellent sources of phytonutrients include fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Because each of these foods contain different phytonutrients, eating a variety will give you maximum health benefits. Many nutritionists urge you to "eat the rainbow," meaning you should eat many different colored fruits and vegetables, because the different colors indicate the presence of different phytonutrients. Needless to say, most processed foods are abysmally lacking in phytonutrients.

Shopping Habits, Eating Habits

People who shop at farmer's markets are also more likely to eat a higher proportion of whole foods in their diet, and fewer processed foods. Why is this important? Because only 1/4 of adults in the United States eat an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, according to a study by the USCDC. Studies have shown that getting your recommended intake of fruits and vegetables decreases your risk of stroke, cancer, and diabetes, while improving your cardiovascular health, among other health benefits. Conversely, eating a greater percentage of processed foods in your diet appears to increase your risk for a host of ailments.

Just what are the USDA recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable intake? Two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables per every 2,000 calories is the absolute minimum you should consume. More is better. Why are people more likely to meet this recommended quota if they shop at farmer's market? Probably because you see a beautiful array of delicious whole foods at these markets, and you're encouraged to taste them beforehand. Meanwhile, what gets most of the premium shelf space in supermarkets? Heavily processed foods full of chemical additives, all packaged to look attractive to the shopper. It's no wonder that people who shop at farmer's markets eat healthier. However, this isn't the only reason.

Food Safety

Transporting produce, especially over state or international boundaries, often requires irradiation, in which the produce is subjected to a burst of radiation for the purpose of killing bacteria. Produce shipped over long distances is also frequently treated with wax for preservative purposes. While there are no official FDA studies saying that either irradiation or waxing of produce indicates a health risk for humans, many people are concerned about changes in the food composition resulting from irradiation, and ingesting small amounts of wax may not be harmful in itself, but it certainly isn't recommended as part of a good health regimen.

In addition, it's actually possible to inspect the conditions on the farms and of the vehicles used for the shipping of local produce. If you want to see for yourself that the food you buy is being treated in a safe and sanitary manner, buying local is the way to go.

The Taste Advantage

You are going to eat more of a food if it tastes delicious than if it tastes bland. The farmers who sell their produce at farmer's markets are able to offer varieties bred for taste, instead of an ability to endure shipping and remain on store shelves for a longer period of time. In addition, it's not just nutrients and phytochemicals that are at their highest levels when the produce is fresh and ripe. The naturally produced sugars that help produce optimal taste also peak at this time, and deteriorate when the food lingers on store shelves. So you're going to have a much more enjoyable eating experience if you buy local, and that in turn encourages you to eat wholesome food more often.

If you're truly concerned about eating better for good health, buying fresh produce at your local farmer's market is one of the most important things you can do to improve the quality of your diet. Combine the immediate health benefits with a tastier variety of foods and the pleasures of shopping in an open air market, and it's easy to see why more and more health conscious consumers are making farmer's market produce a staple of their diets.