When you think of healthy eating what does your mind visualize? If you’re like most people it is a pile of fresh fruits and vegetables in glorious variety! And, wow does this ever make for a gorgeous picture. Who doesn’t feel inspired to eat well after imagining that? Most likely your mind moves on to imagining beautiful salads along with a few lightly steamed sides with lush sauces. These kinds of dishes are very popular on cookings shows and that makes sense. TV is a visual medium and these dishes look so good you just want to jump thru the screen and grab them :-). So these technicolor dishes made from bold, fresh vegetables and fruits tend to make up the lions share of recipes we see both on tv and in print.
Sounds pleasant enough, right? Could there be any harm from this?
Imagine this …
An average joe watching a tv cooking show and thinking, “Man, I’ve gotta do something about my diet.” Then he goes to the store and heads straight for what section? The produce section of course! So he loads up on asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, carrots, melons, tangerines and those cute little miniature onions. Feeling adventurous he moves on to grab a few unfamiliar things like kohlrabi, bok-choy and italian cauliflower. All organic since the plan is to get healthy, and hey produce is cheap right? What else to get that’s healthy, our average joe thinks. Hmmm, chicken breast and pasta or rice? Pick some of that up. Then head to the checkout and receive the shock of a lifetime. Your food budget is blown my friend, and you only have enough calories in your cart to keep you going a few days not the 2 weeks you’ll need to make it to your next payday. So our imaginary friend goes home with his produce, makes a couple of meals with it that don’t turn out to be very filling or satisfying. Much of the produce goes bad cause he didn’t feel like making it since the last meal just left him hungry for something else. After that he tells everyone that eating healthy just costs too damn much! If he ate that way every day his food bill would quadruple! And he’d be hungry all the time too on this high produce diet. And so sadly, he gives up on buying healthy food and goes back to his old processed food ways.
This sad tale plays out all too often I think. Everyone and I do mean everyone has gotten the message that a processed food diet is killing them. Lots of folks have tried to do something about it too, but I think the overwhelming message to eat tons of produce is stopping their efforts to change dead in their tracks. And this message is wrong, dead wrong. Veggies and fruits are a part of a healthy diet. They are not the be-all-and-end-all of a healthy diet. Produce should not cost you a hefty part of your food budget and volume-wise they should not be the biggest part of what you eat.
So what part does produce play in a healthy diet then?
Fruits and Veggies Add Flavor and Variety to your Meals
There is really nothing like the tangy zip of a fresh orange, or the mellow rich flavor of a just perfectly ripe avocado. Fruits and vegetables are the little something extra that enliven your meals, giving them new flavors and textures. In a way you could think of them as being like spices :-). And as Sally Fallon Morrell has said on many occasions, “Vegetables are a great vehicle for serving butter.” ;-).
Contrary to popular opinion fruits and vegetables are not particularly nutrient dense. For instance, Vitamin A can only be found in animal foods. In produce you’ll only find vitamin A’s precursors and not the vitamin itself. In fact all the fat-soluble vitamins are found most readily in animal products. Grains, raw milk and meats are the best sources of B vitamins. And liver has a surprisingly large amount of vitamin C comparable to many vegetable and fruit sources, even citrus. If your goal is to eat a nutrient dense diet too many veggies will actually impede your progress by displacing more nutrient dense food, with the exception of fermented produce. Fermented produce can be very nutrient dense.
Do fruits and veggies have to be fresh to be good?
What about frozen or canned? Many people must travel far to buy vegetables and so need them in a form that will keep for a little while. Freezing I find affects the flavor of many vegetables but by no means all. Generally though frozen veggies have a similar nutrient profile to most grocery store fresh produce. This is because of the long travel and storage times much fresh produce that goes thru the grocery store distribution chains must endure. At the largest chains it’s often easier to find variety in the frozen food section. I found this to be true of the produce at Walmart. If you can find local produce it will mostly likely be more nutrient dense than frozen or grocery store produce.
Commercially canned food is pretty low on the nutrient scale. The high temperatures used in canneries is pretty damaging to both flavor and nutrients. And the BPA issue is ever present with cans. I recommend avoiding them as much as you are able to.
Fermented Fruits and Vegetables are Rich in Flavor and Nutrients
By far the most nutritious way to eat fruits and vegetables is in fermented form. The fermentation process greatly increases the nutrients available in foods and make them more easily digested. And the flavors achieved are remarkable! Many think they don’t like fermented foods but for the most part people haven’t had any fresh, unpasteurized fermented food ever. If they had real sauerkraut or relish I think they could be swayed.
For fermenting you’ll want to find the freshest most chemical-free produce you can get.
Does it Have to Be Organic?
Ideally you will want to buy chemical-free produce, yes. Is that necessarily organic? No. There are a number of problems with organic labeling at this point, not the least of which is the difficulty small producers have in gaining the right to use the label. If you go to a farmers market for instance, you are likely to find few sellers whose items are marked ‘organic’ but many who do not use any commercial pesticides or fertilizers.
Now, if you are buying at a large grocer that organic label is probably all you will have to base decisions on. My feeling is that it just doesn’t tell us enough at this point. This produce comes from all around the world where organic standards may not be what you think they are. A lot of it comes from China which aside from the nutrient loss while traveling you also need to consider the serious problems with food quality control they have in China. Rarely is there a sign to inform you of the source of the produce. Sometimes the food may have a sticker with it’s origin stated. If you want clean organic food you are much better served by buying it locally.
“Small amounts of zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and sweet corn may be GM.”
If you are concerned buy organic for these. Personally, I only buy sweet corn from someone I know, or organic at this point.
Should High Quality Produce be the Topmost Priority in my Food Budget?
In a nutshell, no. Good quality fats and oils should be your number one priority. Next high quality meat, fish and dairy. Next comes produce. Keep these tips in mind while buying produce and you’ll have all the benefits of great flavor and rich nutrient dense ferments without breaking the bank.
Getting the Best Vegetables and Fruits for your Budget
- Excellent ($$) – Fresh produce bought directly from the grower. This grower used organic methods to enrich the soil and defend the plants from insects and disease. Used very quickly, either eaten or fermented.
- Very Good ($$) – Fresh produce bought directly from the grower. This grower used organic methods to enrich the soil and defend the plants from insects and disease. Stored with care for a time.
- Good ($$) – Fresh produce bought directly from the grower. This grower occasionally uses conventional methods to enrich the soil and defend the plants from insects and disease.
- Good ($$$) – Fresh or frozen organic produce bought from a grocer with a reputation for verifying their providers methods or a trustworthy brand.
- Okay ($$$) – Organic fresh or frozen produce bought from a large grocer or unknown brand.
- Okay ($$) – Conventional fresh or frozen produce bought from a large grocer.
- Avoid ($) – Canned produce both organic and conventional.