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Eco-Nutrition: Myths and Realities On Eating Local

This article is part of a new series on Eco-Nutrition: integrating nutrition choices with ecological sustainability. For the introduction on the series read “Eco-Nutrition on Earth Day”.

Our eco-nutrition global question: “How to combine good nutrition and protection of our precious environment?”

This is eating local at its best

But what you may not know about eating local could surprise you

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know there could be any negatives with buying and eating locally grown foods.

Eco-Nutrition is a new concept that is growing in awareness. On a personal level, I try to make the best nutrition choices for good health, for myself and my family. Thinking of the environment while choosing, buying and eating foods.

I really thought that there were only positive nutritional and environmental benefits from eating locally. I was wrong.

It comes down to supply and demand economics, agriculture production and carbon footprint statistics. It turns out that all local foods are not created equal and sometimes eating 100% locally is not always the best ecological choice. Here are the facts and my ideas on the myths and realities of eating local. Take a look.

Myths and Realities on Eating Local

The general feeling is that we should try to eat local because it means food travels less to the plate, less carbon footprint, thus better for the environment. Someone who advocates eating locally, a locavore promotes the philosophy of only eating foods produced within a close (often 100 miles/160 kilometers) radius of their home. While the facts lean towards the good environmental benefits of eating foods produced close to home, the reality is that eating local it is not always the best choice. However, for nutrition, taste and health the locavore wins hands down.

Best nutritional reasons to eat local

  • Vitamins and minerals present in local fruits and vegetables are higher than in foods that have traveled longer distances. Local food is picked when it is ready and is at its nutritional peak.
  • Direct contact with food producer, allowing consumer and farmer to interact. By being inquisitive consumer, we can ask how the food was produced and what type of pesticide control the farmer uses.
  • Phytochemicals are higher in local foods due to sunlight releasing more nutrients in produce. Fruits and vegetables that travel far are picked before ready and go through the transportation process to grocery without any sunlight.

Best health reasons to eat local

  • Taste: Have you ever bit into a just-picked fruit or vegetable (how about a tomato from New Jersey, my home state!)? Compare that taste to a longer traveled fruit or vegetable. There is no comparison.
  • Educated consumer: more personal contact with the farmer to discuss how the food was produced and the type of insect control used.
  • A sense of community: visiting a farmers market in town and interacting with neighbors brings more sense of community compared to pushing a cart around a supermarket or buying groceries online.
  • Discovery:  tasting new varieties of fruits and vegetables that you cannot find in the grocery store. The new varieties, grown locally, are good for our dietary balance because of the addition of these different vitamins and minerals we get from local food.
  • Educating our children: if you are a parent, eating local helps your children understand where our food comes from and how it is produced. The importance of this food education is underestimated in children.
  • Cooking fresh food: buying local often means buying fresh and ready to cook. A key incentive to get out the pans and cook!
  • And my personal subjective health reasons: to enjoy back to basics, to old-fashioned eating, to living as before in a simpler life, more natural. This may not have direct implications on our health, but doesn’t it make you feel better to eat ‘real’ local foods?

Best environmental reasons to eat local

  • Eat in season: To eat in season means to eat foods when they want to grow in the ideal situation for the environment
  • Food travels less to go from farm to plate; average statistic is that food travels 1,500 miles to get to our plate
  • Less demand on foods that are at risk for extinction or destruction of fragile forests.
  • Local food has less packaging, less plastics, less paper, less waste.

Are all local foods created equal? The debate on the environmental benefits of eating local

In terms of the environmental impact of eating local, it is a mistake to just look at how far food travels from production source to our plate. This is just one part of the story. Here is the other part:

  • How did the food get to your plate? By train, boat or truck? The form of travel from agricultural production to plate is an important indicator of environmental impact.
  • How was the food grown? In a greenhouse or on open land? As an example, take someone living in Sweden. A Swede eating a tomato that has been grown on sunny open land in Spain is more environmental friendly than eating a Swedish tomato grown in a greenhouse.
  • What you eat has impact when eating with the environment in mind: eating meat and dairy requires more greenhouse emissions. A plant diet is more environmentally friendly.

Here are more details as quoted from worldwatch.org:

But a broader, more comprehensive picture of all the tradeoffs in the food system requires tracking greenhouse gas emissions through all phases of a food’s production, transport, and consumption. And life-cycle analysis (LCA), a research method that provides precisely this “cradle-to-grave” perspective, reveals that food miles represent a relatively small slice of the greenhouse-gas pie.

In a recent life-cycle analysis of the U.K. food system, by Tara Garnett, transport accounted for about a tenth of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions, and agricultural production accounted for half. Garnett says the same general patterns likely also hold for Europe as a whole. (source worldwatch.org)

And food safety, Isn’t eating local safer for the food supply and thus better for our health?

Aren’t all local food safer to eat?  Not always. Both big and small agricultural farms have strict health and food safety guidelines to follow. This doesn’t mean that the smaller farms are safer, just because they are smaller. A good article on this subject can be read here “Lessons of the Listeria Outbreak.” Food safety issues can happen locally or globally.  A good reason to have contact with local farms is that you can visit the farms and see first hand what you are buying and see how the farm operates.

Maybe we need to be less demanding on what we expect to eat year round?  We are used to buying foods year round, available when we want, sometimes coming from very far.  By choosing to eat locally with in season fruits and vegetables, eating less dairy and meat we can each do our own part to decrease the carbon footprint. By selecting recipes to cook with foods that are in season we are also making good choices for our health and environment. Here in France we are lucky to have a wide array of local foods available. France is an agricultural country with an abundance of local markets and produce at our fingertips.

Is it a struggle for you to eat locally where you live? Would love to hear how you address eating locally in your town.

If you enjoyed this article in the series on eco-nutrition, why not subscribe to our newsletter? You can join BrightonYourHealth here and receive your free E-report on “Good Health Tips”

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Thanks for your support!

Mary

For further reading on how to eat local and the environmental debate of choosing local foods, check out these blogs and articles:

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  1. EastLondonFoodAccess - September 18, 2012

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  2. Eco-Nutrition: Good Nutrition Choices with Ecological Sustainability | BrightonYourHealth - June 17, 2012

    […] Buying Local and Thinking Global  The why and how (just published!) […]

  3. Healthy Information - May 17, 2012

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