How Far Has Your Food Traveled?
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
You may think that you are a socially and environmentally responsible person. You sort all your recyclables, turn off the water when you brush your teeth, and buy shampoo in eco-friendly packages. Now, you are about to sit down to a well-earned fresh fruit salad of papayas, strawberries, and grapes. But the papayas are from Mexico, the strawberries are from Ecuador, and the grapes are from Chile. Is it okay that your food has traveled a greater distance than you have on any given day? And how has this travel impacted food quality?
From Field to Table
Food eaten in the United States travels about 1,500 miles from the farm to the dinner table. This is an economic and environmental concern. Fuel and local agricultural resources could run out in the future.
One step you can take is to get a year-round guide to local fresh food from your state's Department of Agriculture. But in much of the winter and early spring, the only local fresh options in northern states are apples, pears, root vegetables, cabbages, onions, and squashes. If you want other types of fresh produce, you can or freeze it when it is in season. To do this, you will need canning and freezing equipment and an in-depth knowledge of food safety and storage.
There is another way. The canned and frozen produce section of your market can help save the earth and boost your nutrition. Frozen fruit and vegetables are shipped from the fields and orchards in which they are grown to a nearby processor. After they have been frozen or canned, they are preserved until a large bulk shipment can be made. This can't happen with fresh produce, which must get delivered quickly, travel a long way, and get shipped in smaller amounts.
Fresh produce is shipped quickly so it doesn't spoil, but that may not always be possible. The longer fruits and vegetables travel, the more nutrients are oxidized into the air. The time from field to your fruit or salad bowl is about 10 to 14 days. Produce that is frozen or canned sits only a couple of hours before its freshness and nutrients are locked in by freezing or canning.
There are also big differences when it comes to nutrient content. Frozen green beans keep more of their vitamin C. Green beans that sit on a truck, wait to be bought at the market, and then go in your fridge do not keep as much of this vitamin.
Frozen berries and canned pumpkin also keep their color even though they may be months old. This is because food processors often choose the brightest colored foods right from the field. It is not only more pleasing, but also contain the most nutrients.
The nutritional value of some foods also gets better with canning. Lycopene is an antioxidant in tomatoes that is enhanced with canning. It is better absorbed by the body from canned products like tomato paste, sauce, and diced tomatoes.
One of the drawbacks to using frozen or canned vegetables is that extra sodium and fat can sneak in. People who are watching their salt intake should look for low-sodium canned vegetables. Most vegetable-sauce combinations are high in fat, but you can make your own low-fat sauces with honey, vinegars, herbs and spices, or low-fat cheeses. Most frozen vegetables are packaged on the spot, so you should check the label to be sure.
The Bottom Line
Summer is a great time to go to local farmers' markets for fresh produce. And in the winter, you can treat yourself to a sliced papaya. Just think about canned, frozen, or locally grown items. You can save natural resources and improve your health and nutrition.
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
United States Department of Agriculture
Food, fuel, and freeways. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture website. Available at:
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Accessed November 5, 2021.
Frozen food facts. Frozen Food Foundation website. Available at: https://frozenadvantage.org/frozen-food-facts. Accessed November 5, 2021.
How far do your fruit and vegetables travel? Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture website. Available at: https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/leopold_pubspapers/6. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Lycopene-rich tomatoes linked to lower stroke risk. Harvard Health Publications website. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/lycopene-rich-tomatoes-linked-to-lower-stroke-risk-201210105400. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Sodium in your diet: using the nutrition facts label to reduce your sodium intake. US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Last reviewed November 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 11/5/2021
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