Winter Is the Wrong Time to Overlook Fruit's Frozen Assets

(Photo Illustration By Alla Dreyvitser -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

For folks living in the mid-Atlantic region, a banana's a banana any time of year. It looks and tastes about the same -- and offers the same package of nutrients -- whether you peel it in May or December. Because we don't grow bananas in these parts, we don't have a sense of their being in season or otherwise.

But what about, say, a blueberry?

We're easily seduced by those tiny cartons of blues that promise a taste of summertime on winter's bleakest days. But so often that promise gives way to disappointment: The out-of-season berries, grown somewhere far from our home and shipped here who-knows-how-long-ago, lack local summertime berries' taste and texture.

But do they also lack in-season blueberries' vaunted nutritional value? And how do other midwinter items in the produce section stack up, nutrition-wise?

Mickey Parish, professor and chair of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland, points out that the blueberry cultivated for long-distance shipping might be less flavorful and attractive than one grown for taste alone. "When we breed new strains of fruit and vegetables so they can be shipped, we lose certain things: flavor components and some nutrients," Parish says.

David Joachim, co-author of "The Science of Good Food," adds that when produce is shipped long distances, there can be substantial loss of nutritional value. Broccoli, for instance, "can lose up to 80 percent of its Vitamin C content" between the time it's picked and the time it reaches the grocery store, he says.

That sounds substantial, indeed. But even so, Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian in New York and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, notes that while many fruits' and vegetables' nutrients start to degrade once they're plucked or picked, that degradation alone seldom renders the fruit not worth eating.

In many cases, produce's taste and nutritional value have less to do with where it's grown and whether it's shipped than with its degree of ripeness when harvested. Ripeness correlates largely with nutritional content: Nature makes fruits and vegetables look and smell their best at the moment when they have the most to offer the creatures that eat them.

Melons and citrus fruits stop ripening when they're picked; if they're harvested too early, neither their taste nor their nutritional value will be tip-top.

Root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes have to be dug up at just the right moment, when they're mature enough to have size and flavor but before they turn woody, Joachim explains in his book. As bananas ripen and change color, their taste and texture change as their starch converts to sugar.

An ear of corn or a green pea moves rapidly from ripe perfection to past its prime. Nor do berries fare well for long past their peak.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company