Discover how to make the most of the seasons freshest produce, and which foods you should be eating now with Charlotte Willis’ comprehensive guide to seasonal eating…
Before the rise and domination of the modern supermarket, the availability and variety of fresh produce was wholly determined by one of our favourite topics of conversation – the great British weather. In those days, now-commonplace culinary rituals such as blending a fresh green juice using ingredients including cucumber, kale, spinach and apples together would have been unheard of, as there was no way of reliably sourcing each of these ingredients throughout the year.
With more and more people turning to a plant-based diet in the hopes of maximising health and nutrition, we can all be guilty of assuming our basketfuls of delicious produce sourced by large-scale shops and grocers from all areas of the world are the most nourishing and fresh options available to us. However, nutritional science suggests more traditional seasonal eating practices from yesteryear may exceed these conventional supermarket offerings and hold the secret to getting the best from your 7-a-day.
What is seasonal eating?
Eating according to the seasons involves incorporating a large proportion of local and nationally grown produce, including fruit, vegetables, salads, staple crops and herbs, into your diet. These crops are grown at specific times of the year by British farmers and vary in availability from season to season.
Recently, there has been a shift in buying patterns emerging from sustainable communities in Western America – having shunned their local convenience stores, many vegans are now sourcing fresh and local produce from farmers markets and independent grocery shops. These retrospective consumers have sparked the imagination and interest of nutritionists, health enthusiasts, Michelin-starred chefs and vegan communities alike on UK soil. But why should we be looking to more old-fashioned eating patterns when it comes to our greens?
Listening to our bodies
Have you ever wondered why we crave fresh, sweet-tasting fruits and salads in the summertime, while for many of us, just the thought of winter conjures up images of warming, hearty soups and stews? Put simply, our bodies’ nutritional needs vary with the changes of the season due to our fundamental biological and nutritional connection with the environment.
It makes sense that we devour bright and vibrant produce in the warmer seasons of spring and summer, aligning our cravings and eating patterns with the produces’ growth patterns and ability to supply us with optimum levels of healthy nutrition.
In winter, seasonal staple foods, such as potatoes and wheat provide longer lasting carbohydrate energy reserves to see us through the cooler months. Fungi and mushrooms sprout in autumn, providing essential vitamin D to our bodies as daylight hours lessen, and leafy greens including kale and cabbage offer key minerals such as iron and folate for prime nutritional support throughout the winter.
Nutritional science consistently shows the benefits of consuming seasonal produce in the diet. One study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition (2008) compared the vitamin C content in organically, conventionally and seasonally grown broccoli at the same stage of ripeness and freshness from varied supermarkets in Northern New Jersey, USA. They concluded that broccoli collected out of growing season (May in the USA) contained half the amount of the vitamin C as the same variety when picked during its prime season of growth. Quite surprisingly, the seasonality of the broccoli affected the vitamin C content of the samples more significantly than whether or not the crop was organically grown.
Similar findings have been replicated when looking at the carotenoid pigment concentrations for seasonally picked versus out-of-season spinach and endive. These naturally produced pigments indicate when we should harvest and consume the crop to ensure the maximum nutritional advantages, such as levels of antioxidants and phytochemicals.
By eating the majority of your fresh produce according to seasonal availability, you also introduce a new and exciting variation to your diet. Altering eating habits to coordinate with the seasons means your vegan cooking is no longer confined to the same routinely consumed fruits and vegetables.
“If you eat with the seasons rather than eating the same 15 things all year round, the variety you receive will mean you end up with a greater range of nutrients in the body,” explains Maria Griffifths, from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition.
This changeable diet leans itself towards culinary creativity in the kitchen, experimenting with alternative flavour combinations and tasting new and previously unfamiliar varieties of produce when they are at their peak freshness and palatability.
Supermarket suppliers utilise mass-growing techniques, providing high-demand crops with artificial heat, light and water to mimic the environment of their optimum growth season. All these factors contribute to global energy demands and place a strain on dwindling valuable resources. What’s more, pesticides are often more heavily used on crops grown out of season due to irregular pest activity caused by man-made growing conditions. Storage of fresh produce post-harvest is another key factor in nutritional losses, with many crops being housed in large fridges or barns for many weeks. During this time, vitamin and mineral levels begin to degrade and the nutritional qualities of the produce reduce.
After purchasing your weekly staples from a supermarket, you’d be forgiven for unknowingly owning a fridge-full of foreign-imported produce. It is commonplace for supermarkets to import produce such as tomatoes, salad vegetables and bean varieties from international growers in order to meet consumer demand. It goes without saying that this is extremely unsustainable for the environment. And, what’s more, it adds extra shipping costs to the produce found on our supermarket shelves.
Prior to export, crops are often harvested before they reach peak ripeness (and nutritional quality) to allow for maturation during shipping time. Some produce including citrus fruits are also coated with waxes or preservatives to prevent degradation. Furthermore, damage and bruising during such large-scale transport further exacerbates nutritional losses.
How to go against the grain
- Search out local farmers markets and vegbox schemes
It’s hard to believe the first modern farmers market started just 27 years ago in Bath – and now there are more than 600 markets currently to be found over the UK. At these markets, not only can you be assured your produce is seasonable, but that it is locally grown and helps sustain local communities.
- Look out for Red Tractor produce
Most often found in supermarkets, the Red Tractor label not only ensures the produce is traced back to UK growers, but each farmer must also actively carry out specific measures to reduce their environmental impacts and pesticide use.
- Keep a copy of the Eat Seasonably calendar
The Eat Seasonably campaign is UK-run and encourages consumers to discover the benefits of this traditional pattern of eating. They have designed an online seasonal produce calendar for you to download or bookmark – keeping track of what’s in season can help minimise the number of imported foods you consume and maximise nutrition. Visit eatseasonably.co.uk/what-to-eat-now/calendar
- Pick your own
There’s nothing better than getting out into nature, and sourcing your own produce by spending an afternoon picking your own fresh fruits and veg. This is the most nutritious and fresh method of gathering produce and can also save you a lot of money!
- Bulk buy and freeze
Stocking up on fresh produce at peak seasonality can also benefit your purse. During optimum growth conditions, produce is the most bountiful and therefore least expensive. Bulk-buy essentials such as broccoli and carrots and then freeze them ahead of time.
Charlotte Willis is a student researcher of nutrition and human disease. She also writes for the Vegan Society and online publications.