Food & Garden: Farmers markets, home gardening keys to best nutrition and healthy lifestyle

By Randy Peele, Contributing Columnist and owner of Seneca-based New Earth Organic Nursery:

With the grand opening of the 2015 season at Travelers Rest Farmers Market scheduled for Saturday, May 2, from 9 a.m. until noon, it’s time for all of us to recognize the health and economic values of buying our food from locally-grown, sustainable farmers or growing it ourselves.

Since it’s quite difficult for most of us to grow everything we want to eat, there is this special place called a farmers market where we can meet and get to know the local folks who have chosen to utilize their sustainable talents to grow nutritious food products, not only to nourish their own families, but to share with the rest of us as well.

Some of us are veteran home gardeners, and we know exactly what we are looking to find when shopping for food, but many others are non-gardeners or aspiring gardeners, who are just learning how to recognize what’s healthy and what’s not in the marketplace. That’s why today we are hoping to provide some special advice that will help all of us get the most nutritional value as we spend our food dollars.

And since tomatoes are almost always on grocery shopping lists, our nutritional shopping guide starts there.

After more than 2,000 years of breeding uniform shape and color into our favorite tomato varieties, researchers finally realized in 2012 that the incorporated mutant gene to accomplish this had also significantly reduced the fruit’s content of lycopene, making them less nutritious overall. Moreover, our chance selection in the 1500s of a taste-driven, pleasingly “sweet” blood-line out of eight possibilities severely limited our ability to selectively breed nutritious lycopene into any of our current day tomato seeds.

Today, certain tomato breeders are attempting to correct these mistakes, as they go back to original Peruvian breed lines to select for flavor and nutrition rather than commercialized convenience traits. The first of these 21st Century tomato variety makeovers should soon be available soon to home gardeners everywhere.

Also, did you know that broccoli has such a high post-harvest respiration rate that unless you chill and keep it cool immediately after harvest, then prepare and eat it during the next 72 hours, you lose much of its nutritional value? Do you “rest” your chopped, minced, sliced or mashed garlic for just 10 minutes in order to allow the creation of its “allicin” cancer-fighting enzyme or do you cook or microwave the garlic straightaway and lose this wondrous natural medicinal property?

These and many, many more informative nutritional gardening and cooking facts can be found amongst the pages of “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link To Optimum Health,” by Jo Robinson, a scientific research writer from Vashon Island, Washington. In addition to her documented nutritional facts about the majority of our vegetable and fruit crops, Robinson cites the best methods for preparation, eating, preserving and storing them, and even offers numerous tasty, self-tested recipes that are brimming with nature’s own “phytonutrients” or “bionutrients.”

“Once you’ve brought your fruits and vegetables home from the market or harvested them form your garden, their nutritional value is in your hands,” Robinson challenges us in the introduction. “Depending on how you store, prepare, and cook them, you can either destroy their beneficial bionutrients or retain or even enhance them,” she notes. “This, too, is a relatively new discovery. Until this century, little was known about the health benefits of phytonutrients or how to preserve them during storage and cooking. In the past two decades, food researchers have discovered hundreds of new ways to retain the bionutrients in our fresh produce and make them bioavailable. It doesn’t matter how many nutrients are in a fruit or vegetable if we can’t absorb them.”

Robinson continues to relate her surprising discoveries, noting, “Some of the findings to come out of the high-tech food labs are so different from conventional wisdom that you might feel as though you were tumbling down a rabbit hole. Most berries, for example, increase their antioxidant activity when you cook them. Believe it, or not, canned blueberries have more phytonutrients than fresh ones—provided you consume the canning liquid. Simmering a tomato sauce for hours—the traditional Italian method—does more than blend its flavors; it can triple its lycopene content. Cooking carrots whole and then slicing or dicing them after they’ve been cooked makes them taste sweeter and increases their ability to fight cancer.”

Robinson says, “Our understanding of how to store fruits and vegetables is undergoing a sea change as well. Watermelons become more nutritious if you leave them out on the counter for several days before you eat them. Potatoes can be stored for weeks or even months without losing any of their nutritional value, but broccoli begins to lose its cancer-fighting compounds within 24 hours of harvest. In order to get all the vegetable’s much-touted benefits, you have to grow it yourself or purchase it directly from a farmer and then eat it as soon as possible.

“Many foods do not lend themselves to centralized production and long distance shipping, and broccoli is one of them,” she adds. “When we stopped eating locally-grown produce and abandoned our home gardens, we lost at least half the protective properties of out fruits and vegetables, as well as much of their flavor.”

A long-time organic gardener, Robinson also urges all of us to grow their own fruits and vegetables organically, if we wish to get nature’s maximum nutritional and medicinal properties, provided to us free for the eating, if we follow simple guidelines. She spent more than nine years researching all the published and peer-reviewed scientific papers and data available, then processed and digested it all in order to write this very special gardening and eating guide that we heartily recommend as must reading for everyone, gardeners or not.

For those of us who are home gardeners, we are blessed even more, in that Robinson’s research extends beyond nutritional facts and recipes, and she concludes each chapter with a list of the varieties of each crop that are best for us to grow to insure better health. For non-gardeners, she provides shopping tips and recommended varieties to look for at their local farmers’ market.

On the Web: Travelers Rest Farmers Market

Related items