How to boost the health benefits of fruits and vegetables

Ian Landau

Summer’s bounty of fruits and vegetables does more than tempt your taste buds; it can have a powerful impact on your health. When you have more choices, there’s a greater chance that you’ll eat more produce, and that’s likely to lead to a lower risk of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, most cancers, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

To maximize the health benefits, make these four easy changes to the way you shop for, prep, and store your fruits and vegetables.

Be organic savvy

When you buy organic, you reduce your exposure to pesticides and support a way of farming that’s good for the planet. A new analysis by Consumer Re­ports’ scientists has good news for people who find that organic produce is unavailable or too expensive. It identified 23 conventional fruits and vegetables considered low risk for pesticide residue.

Many summer favorites (blueberries, cherries, raspberries, and watermelon, for instance) are on the list. But you might want to consider organic for nectarines, peaches, and peppers (sweet or hot) because they have a high or very high pesticide risk.

See our special report on pesticides in produce and use our interactive tool to help you make smart choices in the produce aisle. And learn about the cost of organic food (it's not always pricier).

Know when to cook it

“Vitamins and minerals are lost when some foods are heated,” says Maxine Siegel, R.D., Consumer Reports’ food-testing manager. “But for some fruits and vegetables, cooking makes the nutrients more available, so your body absorbs them better.”

Cooking asparagus, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, and peppers boosts levels of several antioxidants. And research has found that your body can extract more cancer-fighting lycopene from tomatoes if they’re cooked.

Make them last

Americans throw out almost 100 pounds of produce per person each year, on average, which isn’t good for the wallet. There are several ways to prevent produce from shriveling up and rotting before you can eat it.

Temperature and humidity are two key factors. Asparagus, broccoli, carrots, celery, grapes, lettuce, and spinach should be stored under cold, moist conditions. Put them in plastic bags that have holes, then in your refrigerator’s crisper. Stored that way, broccoli and spinach can last up to two weeks, lettuce up to three weeks, and carrots up to five months. Also, keep fruits and veggies separate. Many fruits, including apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, peaches, and plums, produce ethylene gas as they ripen, which can make other produce spoil faster­.

Buy local, wisely

When food shopping, two-thirds of Americans check to see whether what they’re buying is locally produced, according to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. That’s a good thing. “Fruits and vegetables are often the most attractive and health-promoting when harvested at the peak of maturity,” says Diane M. Barrett, Ph.D., a specialist in the department of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis.

Because it doesn’t have to travel as far to reach your table, local produce can be picked when it’s ready. But “local” isn’t a regulated term; each market can have its own definition. Nor does it automatically mean that an item is certified organic. Organic produce should be labeled as such, and ask the seller how it defines local.

—Ian Landau

How to eat enough fruits and veggies

Most Americans don’t eat enough produce. Maybe that’s because the “eat five to nine servings a day” advice seems daunting. But one serving is a half-cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup of raw vegetables, or 1 cup or one piece of fruit. For people over 50, that’s 4½ cups of produce per day for men and 3½ cups for women.

To get enough:

• Grill fruit, which concentrates its sweetness. Try nectarines, peaches, pineapple, or plums with a little yogurt or ice cream.
• When making a salad, think “entrée” and prepare several servings. And go beyond lettuce and tomatoes.
• Add veggies to chili, omelets, pasta dishes, and soups.
• Don’t forget chickpeas, lentils, and other kinds of beans, which count as vegetable servings.

This article also appears in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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