Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Part 2: Produce

Part 2: Produce Based on the book “What to Eat” by Marion Nestle

What is fresh? Fresh is relative. The FDA says “fresh” foods have to be raw, never frozen, or heated, and with no added preservatives. But even “fresh” fruits and veggies are often subjected to processing before they reach the grocery store shelf. In grocery store  terms “fresh” refers to food that spoils faster than others. It does not mean foods were picked earlier that day or even that week. You will want to know where your produce comes from. Knowing this lets you make some guesses about freshness, taste, and nutritional value. The flavor of fruits and veggies certainly depends on freshness, but it also depends on the variety and the production methods. Grocery store raspberries are a case in point. At a pick your own, varieties burst with flavor but also burst when picked. Driscoll raspberries are bred for perfect berry architecture and the ability to withstand thousands of food miles and are picked before they are fully ripe. They look and taste like raspberries but the flavor lacks the intensity and complexity of eating them freshly picked (or a few days prior). Commercial growers consider taste as only one desirable characteristic among others such as shape, size, firmness, color, and resistance to pests. Shelf labels for packaged foods tells you the price and cost per weight or volume. When it comes to produce, however, you practically have to do a cost-benefit analysis before you can buy something as simple as a head of lettuce. On a per pound basis, the precut salad cost 4x as much as the intact heads. Is the convenience of not having to clean and chop lettuce worth that much? Maybe, but it would be nice to know the actual cost before you buy. What about organic produce? The most attractive feature of organics to the food industry is this: customers are willing to pay more for organic foods. It is easy to understand why any big food company would want to get into this business, but it doesn’t always mean better. Then we have that suspicious wax on fruits and veggies, it's normally coated in food safe wax to maintain freshness and is common in citrus fruits, apples, peppers, cucumbers and the like to replace the natural waxes that get washed off in processing. One type used is carnauba wax from palm trees better known as the wax used on your car and for polishing furniture. Wax retains the water in fruits and veggies and protects it against bruising, prevents mold growth, and extends the time that fruits and veggies last on the shelf without spoiling. From the point of view of the grocery store, the high shine gloss makes produce look fresh and attractive. Here is the deal: if you eat any fruits and veggies at all you get nutrients you cannot get easily from other foods. These foods are loaded with substances that do good things for health. Fruits and veggies are the main sources of Vitamin C, folate, and beta carotene, and they provide half the fiber in American diets (the other half come from grains). They also contain varying phytonutrients, the chemicals in plants that singly and together protect against disease. The author concludes that all fruits and veggies have something good about them, even though some have more of one good thing and others have more of another. That is why we nutritionists are always telling you to eat a variety of foods. It's the mix that is most beneficial and most protective. But produce is so expensive! Well, it is not the absolute cost of produce that seems so high but its cost per calorie. You get a lot more calories for the price of hamburgers and french fries than you do for carrots, not least because the government subsidizes the production of corn and soybeans, the basis of cheap corn sweeteners and vegetable oil. Marketing is an important barrier. American food and beverage producers spend 36 billion annually to advertise and market their products but practically none of this goes to promote fruits and veggies, a few million a year compared to the tens of hundreds of millions used to promote any soft drink, candy bar, or cereal. The companies that grow fruits and veggies get about 18 cents of every food dollar you spend on them. The other 82 cents goes to everyone else in the game: the companies that store, truck, package, display, promote, and sell produce. What's more there is no easy way for the companies to add value to fruits and veggies and so increase their profit margin. Tomatoes are tomatoes no matter their brand. From a health perspective fruits and veggies are good to eat whether they are organic or not. If the price of organics is a barrier go ahead and keep buying conventional produce instead. Conventionally grown produce offers plenty of health benefits to people. Does price matter? Of course it does! The price of organics is more of a political choice. When you choose organics you are voting with your fork for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil, and cleaner water supplies—all better in the long run. When you choose locally grown produce you are voting for conservation of fuel resources and economic viability of local communities along with freshness and better taste. Once you consider such things the choices in the produce section are much easier to make. The priorities are: 1. Organic and locally grown, 2. Organic, 3. Conventional and locally grown, 4. Conventional.