by Dr Rupy Aujla31 Mar 2023
Seasonal eating refers to purchasing and eating food around the time that it is naturally harvested. But there is more to it – eating seasonally often coincides with eating locally but it does not always mean the same thing. Something is always in season somewhere, leading to two types of seasonality:
Out-of-season foods require climate modification or extensive storage processes, including:
Veg Power, a non-profit nationwide alliance, commissioned a survey of 2,000 people in 2021 to investigate how aware UK consumers are about vegetable seasonality.
They found that we tend to think we know what’s in season
48% of people surveyed think they do, rising to 64% in the over-55
…but we actually don’t
When asked to attribute a season to 6 vegetables including courgettes, tomatoes and broccoli, the 2,000 panellists scored only a little higher than guesswork at 16.4%.
There is a genuine interest in learning more
75% of people believe it should be easier to identify which vegetables are in season when shopping with 80% calling for supermarkets to do more to promote seasonal vegetables.
With seasonality comes repetition following a yearly pattern. We find comfort and familiarity in associating certain foods, flavours and smells with a season or time of the year – like odours of orange, clove and cinnamon with the Christmas season and berries with summertime.
Eating seasonal and local produce ensures that you get fruits and vegetables at the peak of their ripeness and freshness, bursting with taste and aroma. Think juicy summer berries, crisp fall apples, and sweet winter root vegetables. Out-of-season fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets are designed to look fresh and delicious but they have often been stored for months or transported from far away, impacting the quality and flavour of the food.
You cannot sell a blemished apple in the supermarket, but you can sell a tasteless one provided it is shiny, smooth, even, uniform and bright._ Elspeth Huxley
Foods in season are often cheaper because they are in abundance and don’t need to be stored for long. But it depends on what you buy. Check out our budget meal plan for some shopping tips.
The fresher the better: Nutrients and bioactive compounds are at their peak just after harvest and start to decrease during storage and transportation. Studies by the University of California show that vitamin C degrades rapidly after harvest, and this degradation continues during storage. Vitamin C losses in vegetables stored at 4°C for 7 days ranged from 15% for green peas to 77% for green beans. Another study found that the phytochemical and mineral content in leafy greens was significantly reduced after transport and storage. (Managa et al. 2018)
Eating diversity: Developing our understanding and appreciation for seasonal and local foods inspires us to explore flavours and add diversity to what we eat. It encourages us to try different foods rather than sticking to 3 or 4 fruits and veggies all year round. With every season comes a new batch of plants to create meals with. And it doesn’t have to be new shiny recipes – you can cook your favourite meals with seasonal vegetables and fruits that have similar textures or flavour profiles. A high variety of plants means we get a wide range of nutrients and bioactive compounds to support body function.
More fruits & veg first: Eating more fruits & veg consistently is the priority from a health perspective. The nutritional losses are minimal in terms of health when compared with the alternative of not eating them at all.
By opting for fruits and vegetables in season, you’ll naturally gravitate towards locally sourced options. Money spent on local food contributes to the local economy, supporting local farmers, creating jobs and preserving farmland. One way to support local farmers is through farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). These options allow us to buy fresh produce directly from local farmers, cutting out the middleman and ensuring that the money goes directly to the producer.
Flavour: The flavours and texture of foods are at their peaks when foods are in season. The flavour may also change throughout the months – UK carrots are available all year, but carrots from July to September are full of flavour and perfectly eaten raw, while spring carrots are less flavourful and are best cooked and seasoned. Similarly, cabbage can be bitter in the spring but becomes tender and sweet in June, making it the perfect time to introduce it to children. (VegPower)
Anticipation & Mindfulness: As you wait for your favourite seasonal foods to come into season, such as strawberries in the summer or pumpkins in the fall, the anticipation and appreciation for food can add a sense of fun and excitement to your meals. Learning about how food is grown also helps us slow down and savour the experiences of cooking and eating.
Creativity: Seasonal produce can inspire new recipe ideas and culinary adventures. Trying out dishes with seasonal ingredients can be a fun and creative way to experiment with different flavours and cooking techniques. You might even discover a new favourite.
Seasonal or local does not always mean better for the environment. There is enormous complexity involved in understanding the sustainability of food networks.
Overall: Local and seasonal fruits and vegetables may have lower environmental impacts – they are grown outdoors during their natural season and consumed in the same country or region. Their production requires less energy for artificial heating or lighting, for refrigeration and storage.
But it’s not so simple: Farming systems are multifunctional and complex, and cannot be reduced to a series of isolated practices along the food chain. Sustainable agriculture requires a nuanced and holistic approach that considers both environmental and socio-economic factors.
Food miles and the local trap: The term “local trap” was coined to show the lack of compelling evidence that local means sustainable. It is not possible to assume that local food will have a smaller impact than global food simply because it was produced close to consumption. In fact, the impact of food transport is only about 10% of the total food cycle footprint worldwide, and this varies depending on the location. Transporting food by ship or rail is usually less impactful than by large trucks, small delivery volumes and emissions coming from the methods of production. Locality is more important for perishable foods that are often flown like raw fish, asparagus, and berries. So, food miles are not everything – a more holistic approach is important. (Barrett et al. 2022)
Here’s our take: The #1 focus is eating more fruits and vegetables overall – what’s easiest and most accessible to you. When you can, choose seasonal and local for the wide range of benefits we talked about. For foods that are not in season, imported fruits and vegetables grown in their natural season in nearby countries may be better for the environment than locally grown produce using artificial methods. Frozen or canned may also be a good alternative, as they are packaged at their peak and retain nutritional value. (Mazzeo et al. 2015. PMID: 28454976.)
🇮🇳 India: The history of India, its lack of transportation and a belief in the benefits of seasonal eating gave rise to a rich food culture with finely developed local delicacies. There is an appreciation for diversity, regionality and a belief in the benefits of seasonal foods. The food culture is shaped by climate, land, and access to natural resources – emphasising eating agricultural and natural produce in season. Seasonality and regionality are also part of wedding celebrations, funerary rites, and domestic feasts. (**[Srinivas et al. Association for Asian Studies. 2011)]
🇫🇷 France: French cuisine is known for its use of fresh, high-quality ingredients. Seasonal eating is an important aspect of the cuisine. In the spring, fresh peas, asparagus, and strawberries are used in dishes like quiche and tarte aux fraises. In the summer, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs are used in salads. In autumn, mushrooms, chestnuts, and figs are popular, and in the winter, hearty dishes like cassoulet and coq au vin are enjoyed.
🇮🇹 Italy: As one of the world’s most beloved cuisines, one secret to its dishes lies in its local and seasonal ingredients at the height of their flavour. Eating seasonally is a common practice throughout the country, even considered a way of life.
🇯🇵 Japan: Japanese cuisine or “washoku,” places a great emphasis on the seasonality of ingredients, referred to as “shun” – the best timing to enjoy fresh ingredients. It’s reflected in grocery stores showcasing seasonal vegetables and in purchasing behaviours. (Gotow et al. 2022)
Popular sayings highlight this love for seasonality:
Eating the catch (or harvest) of the year will extend your life by 75 days
Summer vegetables cool you down, while winter vegetables warm you up.
Eating seasonally comes with its own set of challenges.
Climate change is affecting the natural cycles of plants and the seasons are becoming less predictable. This, in turn, affects the availability of certain crops, making it harder to eat seasonally.
Time and availability: Adapting to the seasons requires flexibility, access and time to adjust based on what’s available locally and seek out locally-sourced produce rather than relying on supermarkets.
The best way to know what’s in season is through farmers – they only sell what they grow and harvest. Try farmer’s shops, markets and online resources. The Wicked Leek newsletter and Riverford website are great UK sources for farming news and getting to know local produce. Find your local farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture programs.
Seasonal produce is usually more abundant and cheaper than produce that’s out of season. Look for discounts and deals on seasonal fruits and vegetables at your local grocery shop or market.
Instead of starting with a recipe and then buying the ingredients, try starting with what’s available to you and creating or searching for a recipe from there. This way, you’ll be able to take advantage of what’s in season and available in your area.
Consider swapping some of your staple foods for seasonal foods once in a while. During winter, instead of berries and fresh tomatoes, try oranges and canned tomatoes. Most of us are accustomed to having a banana or an avocado every morning, but there are plenty of other flavourful seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Soft fruits and vegetables are often transported by air because they spoil quicker, which increases greenhouse gas emissions. Choose frozen options or other seasonal local plants.
Growing your own food can be a fun and rewarding experience, even if you live in a city. Start simple with herbs and lettuce and check out the many online resources available. It’s a great activity to share with those around you, and you’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labour all season long.