Fruits and vegetables, like any other food, taste best when they are fresh off the farm. However, what you find at most American chain groceries stores is not fresh. "But it looks so colorful and shiny!" Well, a lot of that, believe it or not, is dye and wax. Ewww. Many people mistakenly think what they are tasting is the produce, not the chemicals and dyes sprayed on them So let's wind back the clock a bit. Because we have gotten used to a lifestyle where we can get what we want, when we want it, we have lost touch with how awesome truly fresh fruits and vegetables can taste.
Fifty years ago, stores only stocked seasonally appropriate produce. There is a reason we think of strawberry shortcake and watermelon at our Summer picnics, and pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce in Autumn. Back then, there were no strawberries or watermelon to be had in December, no pumpkins or cranberries in May.
Because of globalization, we are now able to ship food from all around the world, where it is the right time of year. We get bananas, coffee, papayas, kiwis, and countless more exotics thanks to globalization. However, there is a several trade offs: Flavor, Chemicals, and Cost.
Let's start with flavor. Why are fruits that are grown in season elsewhere and trucked in not as flavorful? They are seasonally appropriate, right? Wrong. In the depths of winter, shivering your tookis off, jonesing for a pineapple, you aren't getting the benefit of nature's bounty if you get one at the store. Why is that? The truth is that many, many vegetables that are trucked in are not picked at the peak of ripeness. Vegetables that have to make long trips in trucks across the country/world have to be picked waaaaaay before they are ripe. Why? Well, if farmers picked vegetables at peak ripeness, they would have to be sold within a day or two or else there would be mass spoilage. The vegetables and fruits are forced to ripen off the plant, which means they are not getting the sunlight and nutrients required to get to that pinnacle of tastiness.
Chemicals. Blasted chemicals. Chemicals are another reason conventional produce tastes like waxy cardboard. As I stated earlier, farmers have to do a lot for our fruit and veg to still be pretty when it arrives for us. Many people don't understand that farmers have lots of strict planting deadlines, and nature doesn't always cooperate. For instance, in Jon's hometown, almost every farmer we know has lost all their corn and maize crops this year because of drought. Farmers are desperately trying to keep plants alive by artificially pumping in water and fertilizers so they can at least pull some crop in. But what about in perfect years? You still aren't off the hook. Again, crops have to be picked early, and industry has found many ways to chemically preserve in order to "enhance" the look of produce by helping the plant retain moisture, while preventing mold and bruising.
Cost. Everything has a cost. Fertilizing, pesticides, trucking, shipping, gasoline, preservatives...they all cost a lot. These prices, of course, are passed on to you the consumer. Now that pineapple that would have cost you $1/lb in summer, is going to cost you $3/lb in winter. Plus, it won't taste anywhere near as good as that cheap, summer pineapple. Think about it.
There are several guides around the Internet that will give you tips about what plants are in season at what time. This one is pretty comprehensive.
Let me talk a brief spell about organics. They can be just as expensive, but for other reasons. Most organic farms are small, subject to local property costs, and don't have the same mass production equipment as factory farms. As such, they have to charge more to cover their expenses. Business 101.
Despite the higher costs, you can still give your family organics if you buy them when they are in peak season and produced locally. You will seriously taste the brightness of a chemical free plant. There is no other way to describe it. If you're trying to decide which plants to buy conventional (chemically-fertilized) or organic, the general rule of thumb is buy organic on thin-skinned fruits and veggies, while buying conventional with produce with thicker skins.
Berries (strawberries, blueberries, dew berries)
The items I have listed in the organics section tend to be the most heavy fertilized in recent documentation. Of course, there are variations based on your location, and this is not meant to be all inclusive. Go where your stomach, heart, and pocket book allow. Remember, grocery stores only stock what people are buying. If you want more organics or more local produce in your store, talk to the manager. Don't believe me? Thanks to a concerted efforts by families across the USA, Wal-mart, Chipotle, Safeway, Starbucks and various other national chains have pulled milk and milk-products from cows injected with the artificiall growth hormone recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). In the past 5 years, the number of farmer's markets have more than doubled in the Houston area because people kept asking for it from the city.
What it all boils down to is that feeding our families is costing more every day. People are holding on to every penny they've got. Retailers know if that if they don't have what people want, the consumer will go elsewhere, taking their money with them. If you want to get the most flavor for your buck, buy local, in season fruits and vegetables. Then pocket the difference. Your meals will be more satisfying, you'll have more change in your pocket, and you'll keep a local farmer off the unemployment roll.
Are you making any changes you that you have read about? What did you do and how much did you save, and what did you learn? Tell me about it in the comments or Follow Me for my next installment in the Food Budget Series.