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How to buy the freshest supermarket food

Daniel Couglin / 08 August 2016

That innocent-looking apple or bag of peas may not be as fresh as you think. Discover the top tips and tricks you can use to get the freshest food.

Supermarket salad
Seasonal foods are more affordable than out-of-season produce.

Unless you're in the know, you won't be aware that the crisp imported Golden Delicious you enjoy are likely to have been stored in a warehouse for months, or that frozen peas are often more nutrient-packed than 'fresh'.

Confused? We don't blame you. Working out what's fresh or not when you're doing your weekly supermarket shop can be a challenge.

To help you figure it all out, we reveal the top tips and tricks you can use to get your hands on the freshest, most wholesome food.

Homegrown British superfoods

Buy local when you can

Imported supermarket fruit and veg tend to be less nutritious than produce grown closer to home – long-distance travel does produce absolutely no favours. According to the British Dietetic Association, the nutrient content is depleted in transit by exposure to light, fluctuating temperatures and the length of time involved, sometimes by up to 50%, or even more.

For instance, 76% of the apples we eat in the UK are imported, and many are likely to have been hanging around in cold storage for months, losing vitamins and antioxidants all the while.

British apples in season (late August to November) that are earmarked for the domestic market have a much shorter transit time from orchard to supermarket, and are bound to contain more nutrients than imported varieties.

Understanding antioxidants

Shop the seasons

Local produce is seasonal – you can't buy fresh English strawberries in January or Scottish blackcurrants in March. If you suss out the seasons and aim to source most of your produce locally, the nutrient density of your diet should increase, as should your general health and wellbeing, not to mention your bank balance – seasonal foods are always more affordable than out-of-season produce.

You can find out exactly what's in season by checking BBC Good Food's Seasonality Table. And don't forget to look out for the Red Tractor logo with the Union Jack on labelling. All products featuring these symbols can be traced back to UK farms.

Feel the produce. You want firm fruit and veg – softness is a sign of over-ripeness or spoiling – and use your nose: if it smells funny, forget it.

Why seasonal foods are better for your body

Opt for green-topped veg

Green-topped veg look more rustic and 'natural' than prepared produce, and are far more likely to be fresher, too. The leaves on carrot, radish and turnip tops, and the vines on posh tomatoes are delicate and have a short shelf life. Needless to say, supermarkets don't waste any time getting them from the field to the produce section.

By way of example, regular supermarket carrots have a storage life of nine months, whereas the green-topped varieties can only hang around in warehouse fridges for a week max, so they're pretty much always guaranteed to have been harvested more recently. And nine times out of 10, you'll taste the difference.

How to save money by eating green

Rummage at the back of the fridge or shelf

Supermarkets cunningly rotate stock, moving products with an earlier sell-by date to the front of the fridge or shelf, while placing the freshest products at the back. If you haven't already cottoned on to this common supermarket practice, now is the time to get wise.

You don't have to root around at the back of the fridges or shelves for all the items on your shopping list. After all, if everyone chose only the freshest products, supermarket waste levels would no doubt surge. But it's worth doing for the most perishable produce, fish and meats, or if you live far from the supermarket and your food shopping is at risk of spoiling slightly on the way home.

Hit the deli counter

Partial to a nice slice of breaded ham or chorizo? Though they're never the healthiest of foods, if you're fond of cold meats, skip the fridges and make a beeline for the deli counter. Pre-packaged meats tend to contain more preservatives such as nitrates, benzoates and salt than fresh cold cuts.

Fresh cold cuts also tend to be juicier – they are more likely to retain moisture than pre-sliced package meats, unless these are vacuum-packed. The only drawback is the freshly sliced deli meats tend to have a shorter shelf life once you get them home and in your fridge, but they should still taste fresher than packaged cold cuts.

Is it time to say goodbye to processed meat?

Master the fish counter

The same goes for fish and seafood. If freshness is your number one priority, skip the pre-packaged fish and seafood, and shop the fish counter.

Ideally, look for fish caught in British coastal waters and stick to the seasons – the old adage that you should only eat seafood when there is an 'r' in the month still rings true to an extent, but if you're after a more comprehensive guide to what's in or out and you'd like to source your fish sustainably, take a peek at the Seasonality Table from the Marine Conservation Society.

When selecting fish, look for shiny, intact scales, deep red gills, and clear, bright eyes – cloudy, sunken peepers are a sign of spoiling. Fillets should be firm to the touch, and shellfish should be undamaged and unopened.

Above all, use your nose. Fresh fish and seafood should smell like the sea – a strong fishy or sour smell means the catch on the counter is going bad.

10 healthy reasons to eat more fish

Head to the freezer cabinet

For many varieties of fruit and veg, freezing directly after harvesting preserves freshness as the sub-zero temperatures inhibit enzymes and bacteria that spoil the food.

Frozen peas are a good example – they are frequently more nutrient-dense than the 'fresh' supermarket peas you sometimes find in the produce section. Cook straight from frozen rather than defrosting to retain the most nutrients.

Be that as it may, there are some fruits and veggies that don't take too well to freezing. Defrosted strawberries and tomatoes for instance are often mushy and unpleasant, losing texture as a result of the freezing process.

It's also worth bearing in mind that some fruits and brassica veg like broccoli, cabbage and kale are richer in beneficial vitamins and antioxidants when fresh.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.