When it comes to nutrition, it seems there are many differing opinions on what constitutes a “healthy” diet. However, most specialists can agree that the more nutrients a food has, the more it will benefit your health. Each food has a unique combination of different key vitamins and minerals – all of which play an essential role in allowing your body to operate. This is why it is crucial to choose a variety of foods with a high nutrient density to support your health.
Superfoods are an unofficial group of foods (mostly fruits and vegetables) with higher than normal quantities of critical nutrients; however, people often associate these superfoods with exotic locations. We tend to forget about the superfoods that grow in our surrounding areas, or “local superfoods.” Understanding how local superfoods impact our health and our planet may allow us to make better decisions as individuals and in our food systems to create a healthier and more sustainable world.
You’ve most likely hear the phrase “you are what you eat.” Well, when we eat food, we extract tiny vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc. from it to be used directly in our bodies. Some foods have little functional use to us, which many people call “empty calories.” However, other foods are full of essential vitamins, minerals, and other components that allow our bodies to function healthily. Some foods contain so many of these nutrients that they have been granted the unofficial term “superfood.”
Throughout the 21st century, these superfoods have gained immense popularity, especially those that originate in exotic locations. Beginning with the infamous acai berry, it seems the more exotic the food the more healing and beneficial to our health we began to assume it was. The problem with this is that we have begun to forget about all of the incredible local superfoods we can access instead. Most of the fruits and vegetables you can find in the produce section of your favorite grocery store are actually “super,” because they contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals. Especially when you compare them to the highly processed and unhealthy foods that make up the Standard American Diet (SAD). This is why you can consider just about any one of your favorite fruits or vegetables to be a “superfood!”
There is no question that we face a climate-related crisis that threatens our very existence on this earth. Finding ways to be more sustainable is key to ensuring our planet’s health for years to come. Opting for local superfoods is far more sustainable than the exotic alternatives. First, when you purchase locally grown produce, it reduces the total carbon emissions used when transporting the food from the farm to your table. This is because the transportation of produce around the world by plane, truck, car, etc. requires the use of non-renewable fossil fuels (1).
When burned, these fossil fuels emit CO2 into the atmosphere, which only worsens global warming. Transportation of produce also requires a fair amount of energy, with transportation alone accounting for 14% of the energy used in our global food systems (2). Opting for local superfoods, therefore, helps to protect the planet by lowering the carbon footprint and energy use by our food systems as a whole.
Purchasing your produce from local suppliers is also better for your health. One of the biggest reasons is because locally grown produce is much fresher. Fruits and vegetables begin to lose their nutrients after only 24 hours of being picked (3). It takes many of the fruits and vegetables grown around the US a lot of time spent in transportation before getting to our plates. This means that when we do purchase them, they have lost many of the essential vitamins and minerals that we need to maintain our health. It takes even longer for exotic superfoods to reach our grocery stores because they take even longer to be transported. Local farmers also tend to only to sell produce that is in season, which is also better for your health! When a particular fruit or veggie is in season, it offers much higher yields of nutrients compared to any other time of the year (4). Although it may be convenient to have access to your favorite produce year-round at the grocery stores, eating them out of season is most likely be less beneficial to your health compared to eating the produce that is.
Another reason that local produce is better for your health comes down how the farmers grow the actual food. Small, local farms tend to use organic growing methods. This means that they do not use large amounts of pesticides and herbicides that large-scale farmers do to keep their crops alive. These chemicals can cause a wide range of health issues when consumed.
It also means that the farmers will grow a variety of fruits and vegetables in their soil each year. Monocropping, a farming practice where a farmer only grow one kind of fruit or vegetable in their fields, is incredibly detrimental to the soil’s health (5). When the soil is forced to grow the same fruit or vegetable again and again, it depletes the ground of its nutrients. This means that the food they are producing is lower in vitamins and minerals before it even gets to be harvested. Meaning you don’t get as many health benefits from eating these foods compared to small, locally grown produce!
If you are still wondering what some of these “local superfoods” are, here are a few native to North America. This list is by no means all-inclusive. A great way to learn more about what foods are locally grown and in-season is to purchase your produce at a farmers market near you. That will ensure that you get the freshest and most climate impactful food on your plate!
These tend to be in season from September through October. They are a great source of Vitamin A, beta carotene, and even some omega 3 fatty acids! They are one of the key ingredients found in our candy, FAVES!
These are enjoyed many year-round, but they are the most nutrient-dense when they are harvested in the summer between June and September. Tomatoes are chock-full of Vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K, and folate.
These tart little berries are a well-known superfood. They contain very high amounts of antioxidants that prevent cellular damage in the body. They are also high in potassium and vitamin C. They are in season for a longer time ranging from April through September!
Another key ingredient in our FAVES, the sweet potato, is a nutrient-rich veggie that is native to North America. They are in season in the colder months, from September through December. These potatoes have tons of vitamin A, beta carotene, and fiber (great for gut health!)
Another superfood that has grown in popularity over the years is spinach. This dark leafy green is full of folate, vitamin K, and Vitamin B12. It is best to enjoy in the spring. However, this robust veggie maintains high nutrients density year round!