Fresh is best, obviously. As soon as produce is harvested, science continues its course. Despite being detached from the plant, fruits and vegetables remain alive. Think of vegetables as organs of the plant. Without oxygen, human organs are not viable for transplant, which means, organs continue to respire even after removal. Produce continues to breathe post-harvest; oxygen is consumed and water, carbon dioxide and energy are released. This process keeps the cells and organisms alive. I know, science was boring when studied in grade school, but knowing your vegetables are living and breathing can help preserve their life a little longer. Your knowledge is a life ring!
Every fruit and vegetable has a shelf life. This is the period of time produce will last from harvest to consumption. Because the process of picking, packaging, shipping, and selling can take up to a few days (especially in Canada when over half of our produce is imported from elsewhere), the quality of produce deteriorates with every passing day. This is why produce is put through more anti-aging processes than Dolly Parton. There are anti-browning agents, edible coatings, calcium treatments, gamma radiation, high pressure technology, and/or pulsed electric fields. Are the processors trying to preserve produce or create a leafy version of Frankenstein?
With everything that happens to your produce before you bite into it, you can see why many favour gardening during the summer months as an alternative. It is a little break from the worry of the unknown. But who can really blame the process when it is only done to preserve the life of produce? But is it preserving the taste and nutrition? The answer is quite simple, actually. The longer produce is alive from garden to table, the less nutritious and tasteful. Here is why:
Respiration is a basic reaction to plants both in the field and off. Plants take in oxygen which breaks down carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and water. These chemicals are released as energy in the form of heat and also, are used to make glucose. Fresh produce cannot replace water and carbohydrates and because respiration uses stored sugars, the process will stop when these are exhausted. The longer produce has to breathe, the less likely it is to retain nutrients.
Transpiration is the passage of water through plants. When produce is harvested, it is cut off from the essential water supply, but water vapour continues to pass through the pores. This happens when the internal water pressure is greater than that of the external atmosphere. Because leaves have a numerous amount of pores, leafy vegetables such as spinach have a higher water loss rate. The goal is to keep water loss as low as possible by maintaining optimum humidity.
Most fruits and vegetables are composed of 70-90% of water, but once they are separated from the plant and their supply of nutrients, the product undergoes higher rates of respiration which results in greater water loss and nutrient degradation. This is why time is detrimental to the quality of produce. Cannot emphasize it more; the longer the time, the worse the produce.
Here is a quick breakdown of mass production and conventional methods and how time is not working in favour of them. Fruits and vegetables transported in the southern hemisphere to serve the northern hemisphere during the spring and winter months spend an average of 5 days (air freight) and several weeks (ship) before reaching a distributor. Then, the produce sits for an average of 1-3 days in the retail store before being purchased. For most produce, this means that what you are consuming is at least a week old and has lost an ample amount of nutrients from travel time. Though the produce is stored in optimal conditions (hopefully), respiration and transpiration have still been occurring.
This is why growing your own garden or supporting local growers is a great way to maintain the quality of produce without delayed time of purchase. If you choose to buy fresh and support local, then you should know, the preservative treatments have been skipped and it is up to you, as a consumer, to extend the life of your produce as much as possible. This can be done by modifying temperature and humidity; giving your produce the palliative homecare it deserves.
There are great tips to be found online when it comes to storage and produce. It is helpful to know which produce can remain in the pantry, which produce requires the refrigerator and what high maintenance veggies absolutely need the humidity drawer for survival. Here are a few examples:
Keep un-peeled in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Cut off the tops and soak in cold water occasionally to prevent from going limp. If stored this way, carrots should last from 4-5 weeks.
Store whole bunches in a sealed plastic bag in the vegetable drawer. Broccoli has a short shelf life of 7-14 days.
It is best to store unwashed green beans in a sealed plastic bag or airtight container in the vegetable drawer. Use them up quickly because green beans have a shelf life of 5-7 days.
Store unwashed whole bunches in refrigerator drawer. Kale lasts between 1 and 2 weeks.
Needs to be kept as dry as possible. Keep in an airtight container or sealed bag in the refrigerator drawer. Do not wash until use. Eat quickly because spinach only lasts 3-5 days.
Should be kept in a cool dark place, ideally a cellar or basement where they can last for several months.
Store onions at room temperature in a dry place with plenty of air circulation. Mesh bags are perfect to use and can help your onions last up to a month.
Remove tops and keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Do not wash until use. Beets can last up to 2 weeks.
Herbs (Dill & Cilantro)
Cut off the base of the stem and store in a mason jar (or glass cup) with an inch of water at the bottom. Cover with a lid or saran wrap and leave in the refrigerator. This should help for their shelf life of 2-3 weeks.
Arrange lengthwise in a single layer on a slightly damp paper towel. Roll up and place in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Chives only last 1 week.
Place the bunch in a mason jar of an inch of water and store at room temperature. Basil should be good for about 2 weeks.
Stay tuned for a follow up post about the responsibility of the Producers!