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Color does matter — if you’re a vegetable

Stacy Kennedy

Have you ever noticed that farm-fresh tomatoes are a more vibrant red than the ones in the supermarket? The same goes for fresh lettuce, which is brighter green and much more flavorful than those bagged salads. That freshness we can see, smell and taste signals not only a more delicious salad, but a considerably more nutritious one.  

The flavors, colors and nutrients of fruits and vegetables begin to decline the moment they are harvested. That’s why eating locally is so valuable to our nutrition and overall health. Estimates show that in the U.S., produce found at a grocery store, even if it was grown domestically, has traveled an average of 1,500-1,800 miles.  

Many of the health-promoting properties of produce are concentrated in their pigment or pungency. For example, the compound that makes a blueberry blue is anthocyanin, a potent antioxidant. The sulfurs that contribute to broccoli’s unique flavor have been shown to help decrease oxidative stress on cells, promote detoxification processes in the liver, and, according to preliminary research, may inhibit cancer cell growth.  

The reasons for considering local sources for your food extend far beyond nutritional value. Buying local food is a way of actively supporting your community. Many family farms are struggling to stay afloat, and they are an important part of maintaining a secure source of healthy, highly nutritious foods for us and generations to come.  

With the arrival of winter, it’s time to appreciate the abundance of vegetables (and some fruits) that are in season and take note of their nutritional value. They include apples, basil, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cranberries, cabbage, grapes, fennel, kale, lettuce, parsley, turnip, winter squash and pumpkin.

Pumpkin is much more than a carvable Halloween decoration. Roasted pumpkin seeds are delicious and one of only a few plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are essential for cognitive development in children and preservation of brain power in adults. They help promote healthy hair, skin and nails, and they act as a potent anti-inflammatory nutrient. The flesh of pumpkin is an excellent source of carotenoids like beta carotene and alpha carotene, both of which contribute to the pumpkin’s orange hue. A 2011 study found that eating more of this nutrient from foods like pumpkin may be related to a lower risk of death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Try pumpkin pureed into soup, roasted alone or with other fall vegetables, baked into whole grain breads and muffins, mashed with potato for a healthy spin on the traditional side, mixed into tomato sauce or baked and pureed into a smoothie (add vanilla almond milk and cinnamon for a delicious fall drink).  

As we move into winter, fresh produce is less abundant, but cold-storage options are still easy to find. They include winter squash, apples, pumpkins, potatoes, parsnips, turnips and beets.

A beet’s rich color, whether golden or red, is a good source of phytonutrients. Beets contain potent antioxidants and nitrate compounds that may help improve cardiovascular endurance and blood pressure. Try roasting them and adding them to wraps or salads. Roasted beet salad with arugula and goat cheese is a great flavor combination. If you have a juicer, try them mixed with carrot and apple for a sweet, healthy treat. Or eat them as a simple side dish roasted with olive oil and garlic.

Accessing local foods is easier at farms and farmers’ markets during the summer and early fall, but some markets run into November, and many grocery stores now have signs indicating local offerings. Even in the dead of winter, you can find root vegetables, fish, poultry and eggs from New England farms.

And fall is the perfect time to sign up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) program for next summer. These have become hugely popular and fill up quickly in the spring. Some CSAs offer delivery; others require you to pick up your share at a farmers’ market or store. The fun of discovering what’s in your weekly box is a great way to get kids involved and learning about eating seasonally.

Winter is the perfect time to plan a small home garden, even if it’s just an herb box on your deck or windowsill — browsing through seed catalogs in the perfect antidote to the winter blues. You might also look into nearby community gardens or urban farming initiatives to join.

While you wait impatiently for local produce to become available in the spring, note the approximate dates for pick-your-own opportunities in your area. Kids love picking berries off the vine and seeing pumpkins growing in the field. Spring is also a good time to take note of ways to preserve the summer’s abundance, which can be canned, dehydrated or frozen for consumption next fall and winter.

Stacy Kennedy is a senior clinical nutritionist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies in Boston. She writes for online health and nutrition sites and works in private practice. Kennedy is also a certified personal trainer and fitness instructor through the American College of Sports Medicine, was featured in the award-winning documentary film “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” and works as the nutritionist for Reboot Your Life, a socially conscious health and wellness company affiliated with the film.