Is It Healthier To Eat Seasonally?

·3-min read
Photo credit: Westend61 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Westend61 - Getty Images

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Jessamy from Worthing asks:

‘I keep reading about seasonal eating. Is this something I should be doing?’

Expert: Laura Tilt, registered dietitian and founder of tiltnutrition.co.uk

Seasonal eating: it’s on the lips of foodies everywhere, as well as every farm shop chalkboard. But are there any health benefits?

For starters, Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) defines food as seasonal if it’s been grown or produced outdoors during its natural growing period. But local seasonal produce refers to food eaten in the same climate zone – not shipped elsewhere for sale.

Fans claim the main benefit is taste – a freshly picked asparagus spear will always trump an older one that’s been imported out-of-season. And if they taste good, arguably, you’ll eat more of them. Good news for your five-a-day goals, then.

Eating with the seasons is more budget-friendly, too. According to the government-backed campaign Eat Seasonably, a basket of fruit and veg bought in season can be up to a third cheaper than a basket bought out of season.

As for the sustainability case, growing food in season requires less input from artificial light and heat. In fact, the energy used to grow food out of season can result in more greenhouse gas emissions than growing the same food abroad in season and importing it to the UK.

That said, the impact is smaller than you might think. When a Swiss study compared the environmental impact of buying seasonally, reducing food waste, following a vegetarian diet and giving up on luxury items, buying seasonally had the least impact.

Arguably you can do more good by eating less red meat and ditching car journeys to the supermarket – more than half of food miles in the UK come from consumers driving to and from food shops.

Taste and environmental aspects aside, is seasonal eating any healthier? While nutrient levels in fruit and veg drop in storage and transport, making local seasonal food the better option, relying on produce grown in the UK during the cold months would effectively mean adopting a fruit-free diet, with limited vegetable intake.

In one study by the World Wildlife Fund looking at the nutritional impact of eating only produce available in Britain in December, researchers found that while it was possible to meet nutritional requirements, it would add up to a pretty bland diet.

To make it vaguely palatable, fruit imported from aboard or stored here in the UK (pears, for instance, keep for up to three months in the right conditions) would be needed, along with a few tinned products. But life wouldn’t give you lemons. Or figs.

The best approach is to make the most of what’s in season (taking into account your bank balance and taste buds), topping up with imported produce in the winter to make sure you’re still getting a varied diet. As to what’s at its seasonal best right now?

  • Blackberries: High in antioxidants, they're delicious in a salad paired with feta

  • Watercress: Stacked with glucosinolates – compounds that boast anti-cancer properties - add it to a pesto with pine nuts, lemon zest, olive oil, garlic and Parmesan

  • Butternut squash: Use instead of chicken in a Thai green curry for a dose of lutein -a pigment that protects eye health.

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