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Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals. But the nutrient content of your produce can vary depending on how fresh it is and how you store and prepare it.
The health benefits of fruits and vegetables are uncontestable: Lower risks for heart disease, diabetes, kidney stones, some cancers and other serious conditions.
In their natural state, these jewels of nature are also virtually fat-free, cholesterol-free, and low in sodium and calories.
But produce doesn’t always arrive on your table with its nutritious qualities intact, according to Sari Greaves, RD, a former spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrients can be lost as produce moves from farm to market, from market to kitchen and even during preparation.
And those are good reasons to choose produce wisely, store it properly and prepare it in ways that preserve nutrients.
- Shopping tips
“The closer you get to nature, the more nutrients you’ll get from your fruits and vegetables,” Greaves says.
Even if you can’t drive into the country to pick your own produce, you may find a market where local produce is sold. Local produce is less susceptible to transport fatigue—think wilted lettuce and overripe melons—and the possibility of contamination during shipping.
Whether you buy local or imported produce, knowing what to look for can help you choose items that are fresh and packed with nutrients. Produce should look good—with no bruises or cuts, Greaves says. Bruised or wilted produce suggests that the product is past its peak, and some nutrients may be lost as a result.
When in doubt about produce quality and readiness to be eaten, talk to the store’s produce manager. For more on choosing produce, visit this health tool.
If you’re not satisfied with available fresh produce, buy frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. They’re just as nutritious as fresh, Greaves says. Be aware, however, that frozen products can deteriorate nutritionally if stored for too long. For long-term storage, keep your freezer at 0 degrees or colder, Greaves says.
- Storage and preparation strategies
Even when properly stored, fresh produce is perishable. However, there are ways to avoid losing nutrients during storage and preparation, Greaves says. For example:
- What you buy first, use first. The freshest produce contains the most nutrients.
- With a few exceptions (such as bananas), store produce in the refrigerator. The temperature should be 40 degrees or below.
- Do wash produce in plain water just before you plan to eat or cook it. Do not soak produce or wash it with detergent or soap.
- Use a soft brush and water on produce with edible skins. Rinse fragile produce, such as grapes and berries, under gently flowing water. Rinse leafy vegetables, such as spinach, in a container and lay them out on a towel to dry.
- Cut vegetables that need to be cooked longer into large pieces. Fewer exposed surfaces will help retain vitamins during cooking.
- Slice produce as close to serving time as possible. Nutrients can also be lost when surfaces are exposed to air.
- If produce has an edible skin, serve it with the skin on. Many nutrients are found in and just below the skin.
- Cooking with nutrients in mind
Some produce is actually better for you when it’s cooked, Greaves says. For example, heat-processed tomatoes, such as canned salsa and spaghetti sauce, are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that may help prevent some cancers.
Vitamin A in red, yellow, orange and many dark green, leafy vegetables is also absorbed better by your body when produce is cooked.
Greaves offers these nutrient-preserving tips for cooking fresh produce:
- Keep cooking times short to help retain B and C vitamins that are easily destroyed by heat.
- Use your microwave. It cooks fast, so heat-sensitive nutrients aren’t subjected to heat for long. A steam-ready bag is handy for microwaving frozen vegetables.
- Cook with steam, or use just enough water to keep your stove-top pan from scorching and nutrients from being leached away into the liquid.
- Try stir-frying for another quick-cooking option. Cook in a very small amount of oil over high heat, stirring as you cook, Greaves recommends. Use oils high in unsaturated fats, such as olive, canola or peanut.
- Add lemon juice or vinegar to red cabbage or beets to maintain color without losing nutrients. Avoid using baking soda—it helps maintain color but destroys some vitamins.
- Don’t remove edible skins on vegetables and fruits such as potatoes, carrots and apples. Many vitamins and minerals are in and just below the skin.
- Don’t boil commercially canned vegetables. Just heat them gently.
- Save the liquid used to cook veggies, and put it in soups, stews and sauces. Tip: Freezing cooking liquid for later use is fine.
With all that fruits and vegetables have going for them nutritionwise, you can happily make them a centerpiece of many meals, Greaves says.