It’s a decision moment every shopper knows. You look over the misted bins of baby lettuce, spinach, and arugula, then at the heads of romaine and iceberg trying to decide which greens will make the best salad exploding with flavor.
And how do you ultimately decide that the produce you buy will have the most delicious flavor? We can’t see flavor, so what do we lean on?
For most of us, it’s that feeling of freshness — the sense that the produce we choose comes as directly as possible from the farm and has been well cared for on its way to our tables.
Consumer research backs this up, revealing that 48 percent of all survey respondents call freshness the single most important thing they consider when choosing produce, while 78 percent described freshness as extremely important.
Interestingly, only 26 percent said buying organic was most important to them, showing that freshness has almost twice the weight in produce decision-making.
And there’s a reason that freshness is prized above all else — fresh produce simply tastes better and lasts longer giving you the flexibility to use your greens how you want, when you want.
But here’s the problem: You’ve probably noticed that it’s not always easy to find the fresh, tasty produce you crave. In fact, often it’s almost impossible.
What if you live in a hot, dry climate, or a major metropolitan region surrounded by suburbs? Or are based in the inner city where there’s a dire lack of grocery stores?
And, of course, there’s the reality of seasons — almost none of us can find vine-ripened strawberries and dry-farmed tomatoes in the dead of winter.
There’s another problem, too, and that’s understanding what freshness really means. Think about it — you hear the word all the time, but what criteria indicates freshness?
Researchers have actually asked this question, breaking down the characteristics shoppers use to determine quality. And first on the list, is appearance. We look for vibrant color, firm texture, and inspect for flaws and damage.
In other words, “We eat with our eyes,” when trying to define the “desirable levels” of color, aroma, and texture.
Our real motivation, though, is taste — by looking for freshness we’re hoping for produce that tastes better and lasts longer.
The Food Marketing Institute defines “fresh” as food that’s just picked or gathered and, is live and unprocessed. But here’s where it gets really confusing; everyone uses a different time frame to determine the “fresh” shelf life of produce.
Grocers consider produce “fresh” if it’s delivered to them eight to twelve days after it’s picked. That means your lettuce might be at least a week old before it even makes it to grocery store.
Restaurants and food services are slightly more rigorous, calling produce fresh if it’s been harvested within five to seven days from the farm.
Canning plants are the pickiest, requiring the fruits and vegetables to be picked within two to five days of the farm to be considered fresh.
Other terms we toss around to describe produce are even less meaningful — “seasonal” sounds like it means fruits and vegetables in season near you, but it might just as easily be used to describe grapes that are in season thousands of miles away.
“Local” should be clearer, but there are stores that use it very loosely to cover wide regions or transport times.
And in case you’re wondering, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t have formal definitions for fresh, seasonal, or local.
There are many ways that the quality of fresh produce can deteriorate. And all of them start the moment the produce is picked.
As James Gorny, executive director of the Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at the University of California at Davis, puts it: “Most fruits are never going to be any better than the first day you pick them. There is nothing we can do to enhance quality — it’s all about preventing decay.” And unfortunately, the list of factors contributing to decay is very long.
Take oxidation, or the effects of air. Most fruits and vegetables are made up of 70 to 90 percent water, and the moment they are harvested, they begin to undergo higher rates of respiration — in other words, breathing. This breathing releases water vapor and uses energy, which the fruits and vegetables are forced to get by breaking down the starches, sugars and acids that give them their flavor.
Loss of nutrient value is another unfortunate problem; researchers from UC Davis measured nutrients like vitamin C and found that after a week, levels decline as much as 77 percent in some types of produce.
Most importantly, there’s loss of flavor, which can happen as a result of many of these processes. Ironically, in our modern supply chain system, fruits and vegetables suffer much of their flavor loss from being picked too early, usually in an effort to allow more time before they decay.
Did you know that typical storage time for potatoes is two to twelve months, and for carrots up to nine months? That crisp, red apple may have been stored for up to a year before you reach for it in a grocery store bin.
This is possible because of a whole host of processes and techniques known as post-harvest technologies.
According to the Institute of Food Technologists, these include dipping fruits and vegetables in hot wax to seal in moisture and storing them in rooms where the oxygen levels have been artificially lowered.
Greens might be treated with a chlorine-based compound to preserve them and prevent rot. Some produce is chilled, then “sweated” to maintain moisture levels. Some is intentionally picked early then artificially ripened with ethylene gas. Root vegetables might be treated with chemicals to inhibit sprouting.
All of these methods change the way your food tastes, and never for the better.
Let’s face it, you probably don’t want your lettuce washed with chemicals, your tomatoes artificially ripened, or your strawberries treated with fumigants.
So, what can you do?
Actually, you’ve already started, by deciding that freshness and taste matter to you. Next, you can place an emphasis on buying local and support new forms of agriculture that shrink the distance from field to table.
And that’s our promise here at Plenty. We are building farms close to where you live which will ensure you have access to the freshest, most flavorful produce always.
You and those you love deserve the best. Stop settling for bad produce and join the movement! The future of food is here and Plenty is leading the charge.