How to Snatch the Best Produce

Do you have bad luck buying produce? Here are some secret strategies for picking the best-tasting and most nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Study “Fresh” Produce with a Skeptic’s Eye

Unless the produce you’re buying in your supermarket was locally grown, it has probably spent at least a week and possibly as much as 10 days being picked, trucked, packed, hauled, transferred, unpacked, displayed, arranged, misted, and rearranged. Furthermore, some fruits and vegetables are picked before they are really ripe so they won’t spoil during the time lag. Some produce has been treated with gases, washed, cut, and bagged. Even then, it may sit in your refrigerator for a day or more before you use it. All the while, the produce is losing taste and nutritional value, which are affected by light, heat, and oxygen. If produce had to be labeled with its country of origin, that would offer a clue as to how long the produce had been on the road. But the food industry has resisted any such requirement for years. Some stores voluntarily say where their produce comes from so customers can draw their own conclusions about just how fresh it might be. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

Let Common Sense Be Your Guide

If you live in Toronto and your supermarket has strawberries in February, you can be pretty sure they’ve come a long way. Also, go by looks. If the lettuce is limp, it’s been around too long. But paradoxically, fruits and veggies that are too shiny and waxy also may be stale. The spit and polish may be cloaking flaccid cukes or peppers. Stores do often label produce as “local,” when they have it, because for many customers something locally raised is a real treat. Early in the season the locally grown may be a little more expensive, but as the season goes on, it gets cheaper.

For Freshness, Buy Frozen

If you have any doubts about the freshness of the produce in your supermarket, here’s an insider’s tip: Sometimes the frozen fruits and vegetables are fresher than what you’ll find in the “fresh” produce section. How could that be? Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked when they’re fully ripe, and they’re frozen on the same day. Freezing does change the texture somewhat, but very little nutritional value is lost in the processing. The vitamin content may be somewhat reduced, but the protein, fat, minerals, fiber, and calories are the same.

However, that only goes for the single-item packages of fruit and vegetables, which don’t take up most of the real estate in the frozen-food aisles of your supermarket. Most of the space is given over to highly processed, prepared dishes or meals, which are more profitable for the food companies.

Pick Your Own Fruits and Veggies

If you can’t grow your own produce, then do the next best thing: Pick your own. PYO farms are one alternative to agribusiness food. Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, and pumpkins all lend themselves to the PYO treatment, and you get to trade your labor for part of the price of the produce. You’ll get the freshest food possible, for less money than you’d have to pay in the grocery store, and you and the family will get some good exercise to boot. Some places also provide entertainment such as hayrides and petting zoos. You won’t read about them in glossy magazine ads, but you might find out about one from a small ad in your local newspaper, a poster nailed to a telephone pole, or a roadside sign. Many do their best advertising by word of mouth.

Subscribe to a Farm

Here’s another non-agribusiness option: community-supported agriculture, or CSA. You get good, fresh food, and you also contribute to the survival of a small farm—the kind that big farms are always driving out. In a CSA, subscribers pay a farmer (usually at least partly up front) for a certain amount of food every week for the season. You get whatever’s available, and the farmer gets cash to help keep the farm going.

Your bag or box of food may be cheaper than what you’d pay for the same items at the grocery store, but that isn’t always the case and isn’t the only reason, or even the main reason, to try this arrangement. There’s no requirement that CSAs be organic, but many are. One of the hardest parts is finding one, because they don’t usually have marketing budgets. You won’t find a flyer in your mailbox advertising the weekly specials. Ask at your local health food store for suggestions or contact a local or regional organic farming organization.

Ripen Fruit in a Paper Bag

Unless you’re buying locally grown fruit, you rarely get it fully ripe from the supermarket. If it was picked at its peak, it would spoil during the time it takes to move the fruit from the grower to you. You may have heard that putting fruit in a paper bag concentrates the ethylene gas and speeds ripening. To make it ripen even faster, put some fully ripe fruit into the bag with it. The ripe fruit is giving off more ethylene, which the unripe fruit can use. Don’t use plastic bags; the fruit will just spoil.

The paper bag trick only works with fruits that will continue to ripen after they’ve been picked. Among them are apples, avocados, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, kiwis, mangoes, peaches, pears, plums, and tomatoes. It pays to know which fruits don’t ripen after picking, so you can avoid buying unripe ones in the first place. They include citrus fruits, pineapples, cherries, grapes, raspberries, strawberries, and honeydew melons.

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