Discovering the best fresh produce at your local grocery store or market is always a win, especially when you’re looking to cook up an appetising feast when family or friends come over. But choosing the best fruit and veg can be difficult if you don’t know enough about what is fresh or in season in Mzansi.
Lindie Stroebel, General Manager for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) in southern Africa, says they usually refer to fruit and vegetables when talking about “fresh food”, although retailers typically also include items available at a butchery, dairy and even bakery. “From our perspective, food is fresh when it has not been processed or preserved. Referring to it as fresh then complies with safety standards and is presented within its shelf life.”
Food For Mzansi’s resident registered dietician and nutrition expert, Andrea du Plessis, reckons fresh food can be easily classified as freshly picked, harvested produce ready for consumption. However, she says that some plant foods, like olives, need to be processed to be suitable for consumption, because it cannot be eaten in its raw, fresh form.
Labelling food as fresh depends on the product and the process it went through during harvesting, storage and distribution.
Stroebel adds that this process is very carefully calculated to determine the respective products’ sell-by, use-by or best before dates.
Does “fresh” always mean fresh?
Du Plessis explains that some fruits are harvested once a year, like apples that grow on trees which cannot be produced hydroponically with the same ease as other “seasonal” produce, such as tomatoes that can be grown all year round. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water based, nutrient rich solution, without using soil.
“Apples that might appear as fresh to the consumer is available in supermarkets during January and February. However, it is not as fresh as one would perceive it to be, as they were harvested between March and May the previous year,” says Du Plessis.
Some apples are actually harvested before they ripen. This makes it possible for the fruit to be stored for prolonged periods of time under very strict low temperature control, during which the ripening process is halted. When the apples are later needed on the shop shelves, they can be ripened by taking them out of cold storage.
Du Plessis stresses that extended storage of fresh food negatively impacts nutritional content. This happens in two ways. Firstly, fruits harvested before they are ripe have not reached their maximum level of nutritional value. Secondly, the prolonged storage of fresh fruit and vegetables under cold temperatures is associated with a decrease in certain antioxidants and vitamins. This happens because the biological degradation of these nutrients can proceed even under the chilled conditions.
So, it’s ok to freeze fresh fruit and veg, right?
Definitely. Du Plessis emphasises that freezing fresh produce has been proven to have a negligible effect on nutritional content. “Frozen vegetables, that are not perceived as fresh, may therefore sometimes have higher vitamin and antioxidant values, compared to so-called fresh produce that have been kept under cold storage for extended periods of time.”
Organic food: hype or hope?
In the meantime, organic food seems to be part of the latest health craze in South Africa, but what does it actually mean and what should consumers be aware of? Stroebel defines organic food as produce that guarantees that it has no chemical residues or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in it. “GMOs cannot be considered organic. No GMO seeds can be used, or GMO product fed to organic animals. Interestingly, some GMOs are safer than others and can maintain freshness much longer.”
Difference between organic and conventional produce?
Stroebel points out that conventional produce must comply to maximum residue level, and other regulations securing its safety. Maximum residue levels refers to the maximum amount of pesticide residue that is expected to remain on food products when a pesticide is used.
All of this is determined by local or international standard bodies. Organic produce carries the guarantee that it has no chemical residues, or GMOs. Stroebel adds that organic produce tends to have a shorter shelf life, and, just like conventional produce, can decay and even become unsafe to eat.
What regulations are in place to ensure that it’s organic?
You have to comply with strict regulations to obtain organic certification. According to Stroebel it is quite complicated, costly and difficult to obtain this certification. The safest bet would be the big retailers, because they will not take the chance of selling produce that is organic, if it is not. There are also accreditation bodies that require audits for produce to be certified as organic.
Why is organic food so expensive, though?
Conventional produce can be fertilised to increase yield, or sprayed to reduce pests and other decay. This increases both the production and yield, which is required to reduce prices. For organic produce the price is generally higher because it is very difficult to produce with lower yields, more waste, lower supplies and higher cost of production, both in applying more expensive practices to secure good yields, as well as the cost of the accreditation processes.