Zero waste kitchen: Never buy imported fruits and vegetables - seasonal is better! [Nifty seasonal chart]
Growing up, I remember waiting anxiously for the summer to arrive, because as the weather got warmer, so did the fruit offering increase. The hot months were the months that you could buy peaches and grapes and watermelon and berries. During the cold months, in winter, all my least-favourite fruit was available – oranges, naartjies, all the citrus fruit. The only fruits that you could get year-round were apples and bananas (although some months dirt cheap and others not so much). The rest were seasonally available. No imported fruit, or greenhouses that grew the fruit year round, and definitely no cold rooms to keep fruit fresh for the next offseason. You ate what could be grown and harvested in that season.
Today it is a different story. Walk into almost any major retailer and you will be astounded by the variety on offer. Some fruits are imported, with the retailer proudly displaying from which country they have brought the produce in. No apology for the food miles they have raked up. That “imported” sticker is also their way of explaining why you are paying four times more than what you would if the produce was seasonal, locally, grown. And four times is a conservative estimate. If you do buckle under the temptation and buy the fruit you will most likely be disappointed. Fruit that is eaten out of season is usually not as flavourful or even has the same texture as fruit eaten in-season.
Same goes for vegetables. Ever wondered why cauliflower is so expensive in summer? Or why avocados are always ripe and ready to eat in Oct? Because that is when they were meant to be eaten.
Eating whatever is in-season won’t only taste better, but it has other benefits as well:
1. Nutritionally superior
Because seasonal fruit and vegetables are theoretically harvested when they are at their peak, and sold shortly afterwards, the plant will have had more sun exposure and thus have higher levels of anti-oxidants. When these fruits and vegetables are stored, there is a reduction in their phytonutrient content, leading to a decrease in the nutritional value. Because the produce is fresher, the colour will be better, more vibrant, making it more appealing to eat. There is also less of a chance that the fruit or vegetable has been gassed (to increase the rate of ripening or to stop the ripening process), irradiated or coated in wax in order to stretch the shelf-life.
Fruits and vegetables that are in season are usually cheaper. Economies of scale come in to play here – the farmer has an abundance of stock ready to be harvested, which is done at the same time, everything is shipped to the market at the same time, and because there is high supply the demand will be less leading to a lower price for the consumer. When we buy produce that is not seasonal, the chance of it being imported is very high, or it was stored – all costs that are passed on to the consumer.
3. Taste better
Produce that was left to ripen naturally, in their own time, will be sweeter and juicier. When fruit or vegetables have to be harvested for later use, the producers harvest the crops before they ripen to ensure the fruit or vegetable doesn’t spoil during the transportation or storage process. These fruits and vegetables are then stored in oxygen- and temperature-controlled warehouses. When the suppliers are then ready to sell the produce, the fruit or vegetable must be “heated” in order to artificially ripen, losing flavour and nutrition. Cooling produce also forces the naturally occurring sugars to change to starch, making the produce taste less sweet, and changing the texture of the fruit or vegetable. Think floury apples, grainy watermelon, tasteless tomatoes or fibrous pineapples. This forced process can even lead to produce that is rotten on the inside.
4. You are supporting the local economy
Buying seasonal means buying local, and thus supporting the local farmers and producers. Money spent on local seasonal produce is money that goes back to the local community.
5. Avoid overseas contaminates
Buying local and seasonal means buying from producers who (theoretically) complies with the rules and regulations that you know. Buying imported produce means standing the chance of consuming fruit or vegetables that have been exposed to all kinds of chemicals and processes that might not be as well regulated in the country of origin as you would like it to be. This is especially a problem if you try to consume as much organic produce as possible. Some countries have very relaxed rules when it comes to pesticides and the like, plus the produce might have undergone treatments in order to withstand long periods of travel and time spent in quarantine.
6. Supports your body’s nutritional needs, naturally
The fruit and vegetables that are naturally available are exactly what your body needs during that particular season. In winter, when colds and flu are rife, there is an abundance of citrus high in Vit C. In summer, when it is hot, fruits like watermelon and peaches keep us hydrated and energised. Summer fruit is also high in carotenoids such as beta-carotene which our bodies need in order to protect us from the sun. Winter vegetables are perfect for stews and soups, while summer vegetables are great in salads. Eating seasonally can help support natural healing and wellness.
7. Seasonal produce is more environmentally friendly
The distance that the produce much travel from producer to consumer is much less when crossing a town, province, or even within a country when you compare the same fruit or vegetable has to come from another country or continent. Fruits and vegetables that are planted, grown and harvested in their natural cycle also require less human intervention and natural resources such as water to grow and produce. Transportation, storage costs, preservation costs, etc. are also removed. Eating seasonally and local means a decrease in energy costs, food miles, soil and water contamination from pesticides, and less chance of consuming GMOs.
From the list above you can see that eating seasonal produce’s benefits are more far-reaching than simply “tasting better”. As South Africans we have been blessed with a country that produces some of the world’s best fruits and vegetables, so why must we settle for tasteless Spanish grapes in the winter when we can merely wait a few weeks and have juicy South African grapes instead, at a fraction of the price! Small changes like these can have a major impact on your health, wallet, and community.
So how do you determine if the cauliflower that you want to buy is in or out of season? If you are not that clued-up about what is seasonal during which time of the year, and you don’t have access to our simple-to-use guide, simply use the prices, appearance and volume of produce available to guide you. Those shelves and shelves full of berries and peaches that are on sale in Dec? In-season. Oranges looking a bit sad in Feb? Because they are past their season. Watermelon unaffordable in Aug? You guessed it! And if you buy it, it will be watery and tasteless. But buy it in Dec or Jan and it will be great! If that is too nilly-willy for you, use our handy seasonal chart.