by Sarah West
It is sometimes the case that our intuitive nature knows—long before solid proof arrives—when a good thing is, indeed, good. So it goes with farmers’ markets. This once quiet, now prolific movement (started for reasons that range from the political, to the sociological, to individual and community health, to economics) wouldn’t have caught on if the food wasn’t good. Ideology rarely trumps flavor.
Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, guided by the collective unconscious of the ancestors who ate before us, but it’s my belief farmers’ markets have been so wildly successful because they offer something no other sector of the food supply chain has accomplished: regular access to ultra-fresh foods. In doing so, markets have bolstered local economies, created community, preserved farmland, provided a platform for education. Yet, without incomparably good food, these ritual gatherings would not hold the magnetic attraction that draws us to them each week.
We have known this from the beginning. The first time you went to a farmers’ market and took home a bundle of glowing vegetables, you knew you’d be back. Fresh food, especially vegetables and fruits, speaks to us. We taste its authenticity first, then come to feel it in the deep compulsion of wanting what is best for us.
Though I have learned (shopping at markets and growing some of my own food) to value fresh vegetables as highly as any other currency through which I barter for survival, until recently, I thought of this preference as personal: a matter of taste, a symbol of privilege, perhaps. I could sense fresh meant better—more nutritious, even—but my hunch felt unquantifiable.
Lucky for us, there are sturdier feet to stand on than hunches. I recently got my hands on a copy of Jo Robinson’s newest book, Eating on the Wild Side. This meticulously researched work draws on hundreds of studies from various disciplines, summarizing how (to the best of our current knowledge) we can get the most nutritional benefit from common fruits and vegetables. Robinson’s wise tactic is not to insinuate that we incorporate a host of difficult to access (or unappealing to eat) super-foods, but to unlock the health potential of those we already cook with.
As I read through this book, it became clear that many vegetables touted for their nutritional prowess lose much of their potency mere days after being harvested. To get broccoli’s maximum nutritional benefits, it must be eaten within 2-3 days of harvest. In ten days of optimal storage conditions (mimicking best-case scenarios of commercial harvest and transport), one study found that broccoli lost 50-80% of its super-food powers.
Turns out, most leafy vegetables and shoots are significantly better for you when eaten as soon after harvest as possible. The harvested parts of these plants continue respiring (a plant’s version of processing energy) after harvesting, using up the phytonutrients that would have otherwise been replenished if they were still connected to the whole plant. As vegetables sit in transit and on display, their constant respiring also increases their bitter flavors. Fresh vegetables not only contain impeccable nutrients, they are more palatable to those who are sensitive to strong flavors (and tend to avoid eating the leafy green end of the vegetable spectrum).
While the industrial food chain continues to perform miracles of efficiency and abundance, it does so at the cost of nutritional potency. What we’ve known all this time as eaters of farmers’ market food is that freshness makes the difference. It makes our healthy vegetables healthier and trains our taste buds to know the distinction between good enough and better. Jo Robinson has gathered into one easy read a plethora of reasons why this is so, for those eager to know more.