The Diet Detective: Locally Grown Foods

A recent survey by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that more than two-thirds of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that local food is better for their health than food that has traveled cross-country. Eating locally grown foods has become the latest trend in our battle to eat better and live healthier lives. So what is this movement all about?

What is the concept of eating locally grown?
According to Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, "'Eating local' means different things to different people, depending on how 'local' is defined." Some define locally grown as within a 100-mile radius of where they live. But the overarching concept is that you purchase and eat foods produced close to home. "You might be able to get eggs raised just five miles down the road, but cheese from the state next to yours. Both choices take the food's geographical origins into account, and that is the decision-making tool at the heart of eating locally grown," says Barnett.

Why buy local?
"It often means getting fresher food," says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., senior scientist and policy analyst at the nonprofit Consumers Union. The main reason, according to Rangan, is that it hasn't been trucked thousands of miles so there's less time for food to spoil. "But there are even more advantages to local food production. It saves on gasoline and reduces pollution from transporting food (which can help to reduce global warming), and, in many cases, it supports smaller-scale farmers," says Rangan. Basically, eating locally grown supports the local economy--you eat fresher, less-processed foods, think about your food more, get to know your local growers and help the environment--not bad.

Is it difficult to eat locally grown foods?
"Variety and balance are two key elements of a healthy diet. Trying to eat 100 percent local is difficult, impractical and can limit or eliminate some whole nutritious foods," says Laura Pensiero, R.D., a chef and nutritionist in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Her approach: Eat local when possible.

Is it easier to buy locally grown foods in particular areas?
"Certainly it is easier to buy fresh local produce in areas of the country with long growing seasons. But even in your region's off-season, you may find an excellent variety of pasture-raised meats, or milk from family-owned dairies, or honey, or particular nuts, or seafood," says Barnett. Also, there are many crops that can be stored and or grown in the winter.

Are there studies that show that locally grown foods are more nutritious?
"Not exactly, as a study like that would be difficult to do. Absolute nutrient content has so many variables, such as soil fertility, ripening times, etc.," says Rangan. However, research does show that produce picked at its peak has the highest nutrient content. Once picked, fresh produce will gradually start to degrade.

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