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How fresh is your produce really?

 

All the dietary guidelines tell us that we are supposed to eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. So, every week when shoppers head to the store they jump right into the produce section and select groceries from the wide array of choices available at every supermarket in the country.  The US is blessed to have an abundance of these markets. Have you ever stopped to think about the massive undertaking it is to get all that produce to all those stores around the whole country, let alone the world? It’s really nothing short of a logistics miracle.  However, the food quality does suffer a bit in the process.


If you grow a garden, or attend a local farmer’s market, then you already know that not all produce is available all the time.  Everything has a season. To make all these fruits and vegetables available year-round means that food must move around the country and the world with amazing regularity. Since we all know that it takes days, sometimes weeks to ship an item from A to B, the question arises, how do they do that with perishable goods?


How food moves


Having worked for a while in logistics, I can definitely appreciate the number of things that have to go correctly for this feat to manifest in successful deliveries.  But let’s take a quick look at that process. Let’s use the tomato as an example.  Farmer Joe grows a whole field of tomatoes for commercial sale to the food supply chain. He probably has a contract with a food distribution company who comes to get those tomatoes as soon as they are harvested, within 36 hours usually. 





The fruits are then hauled to a facility that stores them in an incredible, environmentally controlled room where the humidity and temperature are closely monitored to make sure those tomatoes age as little as possible.  Likely, they are also treated with a hot water dip to remove bacteria and bugs and sprayed with an ethylene inhibitor chemical. Under these conditions, tomatoes can be stored from 1-6 weeks – yes, weeks.




When a supermarket then puts in a purchase order, the fruits are warmed slightly or sprayed again with another agent; this time to wake them up so they can ripen more on their final journey to the market shelf.  When the tomatoes get to the store, they are generally still under ripe, but that makes them last long enough to make it from the box in storage to the shelf, and then your home, where it proceeds to ripen and decay at a more normal pace, lasting maybe 5-7 days.


It is not unreasonable to say that most tomatoes you bring home as “fresh” from the store are actually several weeks old.  Now, that by itself is not so bad. We all know that these store-bought tomatoes do not taste as good, and we accept that it was picked too early (decreasing its flavor … and nutrients) to get it to the checkout at the store. People really want sliced tomato on sandwiches in January, so they are willing to sacrifice that to get what they want.


So, where’s the problem? Let’s look a little closer


There are the obvious precautions about the chemicals and degraded soils used to grow the tomato in the first place, and like it or not, the fruit and the plant have taken up those chemicals and will pass them on to you; even in micro doses, that is definitely less than desirable. We all know that these fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides are not good for us or the environment over the long term.


Ripeness matters, and not just for flavor. When a vegetable or fruit is grown in healthy soil, then its nutritional value is at its peak at the same time as the flavor is the best. When these items are picked early so they can be transported, the flavor and the nutrient profile suffer. If there is also degraded soil at the site, then the tomatoes are lacking nutrients even before they leave the field, so compound that with early harvest, and you get the mostly flavorless grocery store tomato most people have resigned themselves to buying.


What about the treatments used during storage? 


The main storage techniques rely on very tight environmental controls (precise cold, humidity, and oxygen levels). In addition, and depending on the item, there are a variety of chemicals that can be used to inhibit ripening, and to keep fungi from growing or keep insects away, or even to enhance the appearance of the food ( (Cannon n.d.). Some of these chemicals appear to be fairly innocuous, like gibberellins, which are a carbon based plant hormone that inhibits growth, and most are created through fermentation of fungus (Gibberellin 2017). While others have potentially higher risks to human health, like sulfuryl fluoride used as an insect fumigant but leaves residues on foods when used in storage situations (Cannon n.d.). It has been associated with risk because it puts too much fluoride in our daily intake, which appears to be toxic (International Society for Fluoride Research 2005). Bottom line is that there is no way to know what treatments were used during storage and transportation. 


What about organic produce, you might ask. The good news is that the treatments here seem to rely on cold storage and low oxygen levels. Naturally sourced, vaporized acetic acid and carbon dioxide are acceptable fumigants for pathogens. Acetic acid is the by-product of fermentation and is what gives vinegar its characteristic zing ( (“Organic Farming Practices: Postharvest Handling”, n.d.). These methods are not relied upon across the board because there is still a higher loss in storing organic produce. The handling also requires that organic produce be kept separate from conventional items. Consequently, organic produce must move more quickly through the system and has a short shelf-life. These factors contribute to the higher costs of organic produce. 


Organic items are often allowed to ripen a little more before heading off the farm, but they are still picked early when dealing with the commercial scale of organic produce, or they would not be able to reach a store shelf before decaying.  This accounts for the improved flavor profile of organic produce - though be wary of anything that is labeled organic that comes from outside the country of origin because regulations around the globe vary widely.


Local is the solution


The best option to make sure you are getting the best, chemical free fruits and vegetables is to buy local from a farm that is organic or pesticide/chemical free. If there is no middle-man to store them, then you can rest assured they have been handled without storage fumigants (naturally derived or not). Most importantly, these foods do not have to travel, and so they are picked at the peak of flavor and nutrition.


Eating local also teaches us how to eat seasonally, and while there is still a lot of research to be done in this area, that may have some profound, positive health benefits. Rotating through foods as they are available could be beneficial as we mimic the cycles of nature and procure our nutrients through varying foods. Research about the connection between soil health and human health is a growing body of work. This research has suggested that locality can actually help our immune systems because we are consuming local things that will help us fight off local bugs. 




When you choose local foods, you know you are getting food that is actually fresh. When you choose local, organic or chemical free food, that is your very best option for clean, healthy eating. If we make this the basis of our eating habits, with only the occasional foray to the supermarket for avocados or other imports, then we will be doing ourselves and the environment a great service as well as supporting neighbor farmers and food crafters.



References

“Gibberellin.” n.d. Science Direct. Accessed May 7, 2024. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/gibberellin.

“How old is the 'fresh' produce we eat?” 2022. Naked Food Magazine. https://nakedfoodmagazine.com/how-old-is-the-fresh-produce-we-eat/.

International Society for Fluoride Research. 2005. “RESIDUAL FLUORIDE IN FOOD FUMIGATED WITH SULFURYL FLUORIDE.” Fluorideresearch.org. https://www.fluorideresearch.org/383/files/383175-177.pdf.

“Organic Farming Practices: Postharvest Handling.” n.d. UC Vegetable Research & Information Center. Accessed May 7, 2024. https://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/postharvest_organic_handling.pdf.

“What you need to know about chemicals sprayed on produce after harvest.” 2014. EthicalFoods.com. https://ethicalfoods.com/sprayed-produce-harvest/.


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Sean Stanton
Sean Stanton
7 days ago

Great article! The importance of local food is immense! You guys are doing amazing work to help us producers spread the message and we couldn’t thank you enough! 🙏

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