Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstones of a healthful diet. They’re rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, yet low in fat, calories (avocados being an exception) and sodium. You can fill up on four cups of fresh spinach, for only 40 calories! What’s not to like? When shopping for produce, branch out and pick fruits and vegetables you've never tried before; use our guide to select the most nutritious options.
Produce and your health
It’s logical to think that plant foods are good for us. Unlike animals, plants can’t get up and run from danger, such as insects and other pests, or the oxidizing rays of the sun. To survive in nature, plants thus evolved the ability to produce an arsenal of protective compounds called phytochemicals (phyto=plant). Researchers continue to report on how these same compounds, found in fruits and vegetables, can help protect our health as well.
Studies have linked diets rich in fruits and vegetables with reduced risk of chronic disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Eating more fruits and vegetables may also help prevent weight gain and protect against bone loss.
As a general rule, whole produce is preferable to highly processed, since processing can reduce the level and effectiveness of the compounds that make plant foods so important for good health.
Understanding fruits and vegetables
Color and variety are the key to getting a good mix of all the beneficial elements that fruits and vegetables bring to the table. Choose a rainbow of colors—the deeper the better—because color is one of the best indicators that a food is rich in phytochemicals. Each color provides its own benefits: Blue/purple fruits and vegetables (such as blueberries, purple grapes, plums, purple cabbage, eggplant, purple cauliflower) are good sources of anthocyanins. Yellow/ orange fruits and vegetables (carrots, apricots, cantaloupe, mangoes, oranges, pumpkins, sweet potatoes) provide beta carotene. Red produce (cherries, cranberries, red grapes, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, tomatoes) provides lycopene and anthocyanins. Green vegetables (leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, zucchini) provide carotenes and cancer-protective indoles.
Vegetables should look fresh, with no bruises or punctures; leafy vegetables should be free of insect damage, root vegetables not shriveled or decayed. Buy only what you need for a period of a few days to a week (fresh vegetables are perishable). When selecting fruit, give each piece a very slight squeeze (it should give a bit under pressure) and smell it (a sweet fragrance indicates ripeness). Choose smaller-sized pieces of fruit—they’re typically sweeter. If you plan on eating the fruit the same day, be sure it’s ripe and ready. If you’re buying in advance, there should still be a very mild fragrance, but no fruit except apples should be rock-hard. Some fruits, including pears, bananas and avocados, continue to sweeten and soften after picking if left at room temperature.
Others will not ripen further once you bring them home—that is, what you see is what you get with cherries, citrus (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit), grapes, pomegranates, soft berries (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries) and watermelons. Don’t buy damaged fruits or vegetables even if they’re a bargain—they’ll be less nutritious (and less tasty) than fresh.
For the best flavor, buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season, when you can. To help support the local economy and preservation of farmland, check out local farmers markets.
Fresh, frozen, canned—how do they compare nutritionally? While canned foods are often thought to be less nutritious than fresh or frozen, research reveals that this is not usually the case. Aside from the higher sodium content of most canned foods, their nutrition numbers tend to be quite similar to fresh and frozen produce (all produce loses significant amounts of nutrients during storage and cooking).
While it’s true that fresh-picked produce stored for a short time under good conditions will provide the most nutrients, the availability of fresh local produce varies by region and season. The important thing is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, in whatever form you can get them. Choose fresh, when it’s available, but don’t hesitate to opt for frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. Just watch the sodium in canned vegetables and added sugar in canned fruit.
Produce: good-to-know facts
“Pre-washed” bagged salad greens certainly serve up convenience. But whether you should wash them yourself is debatable. They are processed in facilities that are presumably more sanitary than the average home kitchen, and some experts say that rewashing only increases the risk that you will introduce new contamination.
But other experts do recommend that you wash them to be safe.
It can’t hurt, they say—as long as your kitchen and hands are clean—and it may help. Since prewashed greens are expensive, you might be better off just buying unwashed greens if you plan to wash them anyway.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for produce
- Choose dark, leafy greens like spinach, chard and mustard greens—for daily eating. They’re packed with vitamins C and K, folate and fiber, along with carotenoids and other phytochemicals.
- Buy cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts) to serve at least once or twice a week. These vegetables contain phytochemicals that may, in particular, help protect against certain cancers.
- Mix it up with orange, red, blue and purple fruits and vegetables—carrots, tomatoes, pumpkin, beets, blueberries, grapes, mangoes, watermelon, citrus, yellow squash, etc.
- Think outside the color box. Usually opt for green peppers? Try yellow, red, orange or purple bell peppers. Think cauliflower is always white? Not broccoflower, which looks like cauliflower but is green like broccoli. Red may be the traditional color of tomatoes, but yellow or orange tomatoes make a nice change. Like green grapes?—try red and black grapes too.
- When choosing lettuce for salads or sandwiches, opt for darker green leaf or Romaine lettuce. They’re richer in nutrients than iceberg lettuce.
- If you want to buy local fruits and vegetables, look for signs or stickers indicating where the produce comes from. Local corn, berries, peaches, apples and the like often taste better than produce that’s been shipped long distances (and grown in ways to be able to withstand shipping). And buying local supports local farmers and the local economy.
- On occasion, consider more exotic (though often costlier) fruits, such as papayas, mangoes, dragon fruit, star fruit and lychees. These travel greater distances from their origin to your supermarket, but they make for out-of-the-ordinary treats.
- Stop at the freezer case for frozen blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries and peaches, especially when they are out of season. Frozen fruit is great for making smoothies, and it’s also a refreshing treat straight from the freezer. Look for frozen vegetables without added salt, and steer clear of those with cheese or cream sauces.
- For convenience, go canned—but check the sodium and sugar content. Choose reduced-sodium or low-sodium canned vegetables. Canned tomatoes are particularly convenient, and for cooking they’re actually superior to the fresh tomatoes available in many supermarkets. Look for canned fruit with minimal or no added sugar—for example, canned pears packed in water or juice, not heavy syrup.
- If you like applesauce and want to save on calories, look for unsweetened varieties. Single-serve packs are convenient—but be aware that they cost more per ounce than if you buy a larger jar, and their packaging is more wasteful.
- If you buy pre-cut fruit or vegetables, they should be refrigerated or immersed in ice at the store. You should refrigerate pre-cut produce at home as well.
- Be wary of frozen vegetable soufflés, like spinach or corn. They’re usually high in calories, fat and sodium, though some smaller companies make healthier ones. Check the labels.
- Choose a reduced-fat salad dressing that’s low in sodium, or pick up some olive oil and good vinegar to top off your salad.
Published August 15, 2013