Spring-summer vegetables to enjoy
Eating 'in season' doesn't only mean getting the freshest goodness out of foods, given it hasn't had to travel for miles or stay stored for days. It also means you vary your diet from season to season, experiencing a big range of flavours and benefitting from all the different nutrients within each food.
We're often told to eat a rainbow on the plate - that's because some of the most colourful fruits and vegetables contain valuable phytonutrients - compounds specifically found in plant-based foods, hailed for their antioxidant prowess and potential health benefits. They're responsible for the bright colours in fruit and veggies - think red tomatoes, green capsicums and purple berries - but even off-white foods like garlic and onions are a great source of phytonutrients.
When you hear terms like carotenoids or lycopene, phenolic compounds or flavonoids, allium sulphur compounds and saponins, they're all phytonutrients.
Of course fruit and vegetables also supply a range of vitamins and minerals - different to phytonutrients in that they're essential to the normal functioning of our bodies.
Some vitamins have antioxidant properties, but all of them have their own specialty functions to carry out, often playing a support role for other nutrients too. Take vitamin C, for example - it helps maintain healthy teeth, gums, joints and bones. But it also enhances the absorption of iron, and helps folate in the body work better.
Maximise nutritional value by eating local and fresh
Kiwis don't eat enough vegetables to protect their health. We all need at least three servings of vegetables a day, and at least two servings of fruit.
Whether we get them fresh, frozen or canned, it's all a benefit. But eating seasonally and locally is a great way to get maximum nutritional mileage from each serve.
For starters, veggies from the local farmer's market, or straight from your garden, are typically picked only when ready for eating and all the nutrients have reached full potency. What's more, the more local the produce, the less time it has spent in storage and transit.
Eating seasonally and locally helps offset any loss of nutrients from the farm to the plate, and means every bite of that deliciously juicy produce packs a greater punch.
What's in season?
Of course, with all the imported produce on shelves, it's hard to tell what is in season any more. To help you, here are five vegetables to indulge in, soon to be in more plentiful supply.
Courgettes are a good source of Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from free radical damage, and also supports immune function, teeth and bones.
Courgettes are a source of folate, good for growth and the formation of red blood cells; and a source of niacin (vitamin B3) for brain function and healthy skin.
They're also one of the highest potassium-containing vegetables - the mineral supporting the nervous system and muscles.
They're low in calories (made up of largely of water) and contain dietary fibre to aid digestion and help keep you regular.
From September to December asparagus is hot, and then the locally-grown stuff is in short supply. It contains a range of phytonutrients from the phenolic and carotenoid groups, currently being studied for their role in reducing the risk of serious disease.
Asparagus is a source of vitamin K, which helps with clotting of blood and forming healthy bones; it's a source of riboflavin to support skin and mucous membranes; and a source of vitamin C.
It's one of the highest vegetable sources of folate and contains potassium.
They're in season from November till February.
Peas contain dietary fibre, and are a good source of vitamin C and folate.
They're also a good source of riboflavin; and vitamin B6 for red blood cell formation and brain and immune function.
They're also a source of B-complex vitamins - niacin and thiamin - both important for brain function and releasing energy from food.
They're one of the best vegetable sources of protein, and contain a suite of phytonutrients including carotenoids and phenolic compounds.
They're also super low in fat and despite their semi-sweetness contain less than two per cent sugar.
Boiled, baked or pickled, beetroot is deliciously sweet. All that colour in beetroot is not just cosmetic - it contains a unique group of red pigments called betalains, which have anti-inflammatory properties and support the body's detoxification processes.
Beetroot is a good source of folate and it contains potassium.
Recent studies have linked beetroot with lower blood pressure and increased blood flow.
Okay technically a fruit, but lets face it we treat them like vegetables. And with this being the best time of year to grow tomatoes we couldn't leave them off our list.
Tomatoes contain a range of phytonutrients, including the well-known carotenoid lycopene, which is being studied for its role in reducing the risk of certain diseases.
Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C.
They're also a source of niacin (B3) and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from damage.
They have less than three per cent sugar, but find the right one and it should work its juicy magic to curb a sweet craving.
With kind input from Pip Duncan, food advisory consultant to vegetables.co.nz.