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Freighted Food: 3 Tips if You're Gonna Eat Imported Produce


As eco-foodies, many of you probably devotedly frequent your local farmers market. Forget seasonal affective disorder during the dead of winter; you come down with farmer’s market withdrawal disorder. You love your fresh, local fruits and veggies and try to buy what’s in season. But just as it’s difficult to eat all organic all the time, it’s difficult to not let imported produce sneak into your diet.

Nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables eaten domestically, and 10 to 15 percent of all food consumed by U.S. households is imported from abroad. These numbers just continue to grow. Every year over the last seven years, food imports have grown by an average of 10 percent, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

So, why should you bypass imported produce? It’s not that you shouldn’t eat fruits and vegetables from abroad. The nutritional benefits of a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks from pesticides and prove far more valuable health-wise than indulging in high fat or sugary snacks. But from a green (and community) standpoint, local is better.

Keep these three tips in mind when it comes to eating imported fruits and vegetables.

1. Eat Tropical Less Often

Although summer eating dictates indulging in a few tropical treats, tropical fruits including bananas, coconuts, guava and mangos, are often grown thousands of miles away—quite the carbon footprint to reach your tummy. That said, successfully determining a fruit or vegetable’s carbon footprint gets pretty darn tricky. It's not as easy as simply counting the number of miles traveled, although that's certainly a factor. Some tropically-grown foods could actually boast a low carbon footprint because less intensive agricultural methods are used to grow them than some conventional domestic produce. Still, it's farther than your local farm.

From the Organic Authority Files

So, let's just grow it here, right? No. Growing tropical foods domestically isn’t a feasible option. It would require more energy and emit more fossil fuels to grow tropical produce in the U.S. than to have it shipped in. And while tropical produce often gets freighted by air (another eco-factor to consider), transportation actually only accounts for a small percentage of the energy used to get a food to your mouth.

Whew. So what does all of that mean? When it comes to tropical produce, start to think of those fruits and vegetables as treats instead of everyday staples and you'll be well on your way to greener eating. You don't have to cut bananas out of your life, just try the next two tips before choosing tropical fruits and veggies.

2. If It’s in Season, Buy Local

If those apples or blueberries you’re craving are in season, your best bet is to buy local. Freshly picked fruits and vegetables pack maximum nutrition, so get to eatin’ those local goodies. Not all areas of the U.S. have this luxury, but if you can take advantage of your local options, do.

Out-of-season fruits and vegetables are often imported from countries with less-stringent regulations for pesticide use and food handling. In fact, imported foods are three times more likely to be contaminated with pathogens than domestic produce. And the FDA only inspects a small portion of produce that makes its way to kitchens. In 2010, the FDA only inspected about 2.06 percent of all food-related imports—and that number is expected to drop to 1.59 this year as imports increase and the FDA’s manpower remains the same.

3. Go Organic

You’ve heard it before, but once more won’t hurt. Eating organic produce limits your exposure to dangerous pesticides and chemicals. Different pesticides have been linked to brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone disruption and skin, eye and lung irritation. Not stuff you want lurking on your fruits and veggies. Plus, produce imported from abroad tends to contain higher levels of pesticide residues. The moral of the story? If it’s imported, definitely choose organic.

image: Courtney_80

Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson

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