For centuries, at least in regions where winters are less than temperate, preserving food was less a hobby than a survival skill. Animals for which feed would not be available were slaughtered and their flesh smoked or salted, vegetables were pickled or dried, milk was converted into cheese. If this was not done, you and your family would starve during the dark winter months.
Today, we don’t have to do this…so we do more or less the opposite. A kiwi fruit bought in England consumes just about its own weight in aviation fuel to get to the supermarket. Most of Mauritius’s milk is flown in fresh daily, while shoppers demand access to fruit and vegetables regardless of the time of year or where they come from.
Being able to eat fresh salad while it’s snowing outside or buy bananas in Oslo is certainly convenient, but it does come at an environmental cost. The main offender here is often transport.
With more than half the world’s people now living in cities, it’s a given that food has to get from A to B or simply be wasted. However, there’s a big difference between loading produce in its original state on a plane and processing it into a form that can be shipped by sea or rail. Note that the use of artificial chemical preservatives such as sodium nitrite and propyl gallate is a separate matter, not touched on in this article.
Preserved Food and Nutrition
Of course, “fresh” becomes a slippery term when advertisers get a hold of it. When is the last time your apple came with a label telling you on what date it was last attached to a tree? In fact, much of what is sold as fresh in supermarkets may have been in transit or storage for weeks if not months.
Most people believe that canning, freezing or drying foodstuffs decreases their nutritional value. This is true, but the important thing to remember is that this is a question of degree, not an absolute. In fact, frozen or canned vegetables contain very nearly the same amount of vitamins and phytonutrients as their fresh counterparts. In any case, they’re not harmful to your health, with the exception of fruit canned in excessively sugary water.
One way of thinking about this matter is to define nutritional value not in terms of nutrients per serving but instead in their dollar cost. With many households under economic strain, this often makes more sense: it may be better for them to eat more vegetables of slightly lower quality than a few pristine portions.
The Advantage of Convenience
In fact, buying fresh, pre-sliced veggies may be worse for you than using cans: as soon as the skin is broken, processes like oxidation start attacking certain nutrients. If you take a look at a website such as Can Cutters, you’ll quickly see that you can easily slice at least 50% off the time it takes to prepare a meal from scratch by using preserved food. This doesn’t even take into account how much easier buying long-life ingredients makes shopping, meaning that cooking and eating better become easier.
Sourcing Locally, Eating Seasonally
If you can buy produce at a local farm market, you’re in luck. These vendor’s goods are virtually guaranteed to actually be fresh, in season and with a minimum of carbon overhead as far as transport is concerned. If you care about the environment and like to support local businesses, buying from local producers is one of the best things you can do.