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The benefits of eating seasonal fruit and vegetables

( 22 November 2019 )

There's a time and a place for all things, so find out how eating seasonal foods can boost your health

Woman with seasonal harvest produce in a basket
Eating seasonal produce can have great health benefits

A casual stroll through a supermarket aisle on a winter's day yields strawberries and kumquats gleaming among the earthy tones of winter root vegetables.

Being able to eat what we want when we want has become so much part of our lives that it's hard to imagine a time when you couldn't buy raspberries in January or Brussels sprouts in July.

But with the growth of supermarkets and an ever-widening smorgasbord of imported food, the link between what we eat and when it grows locally has almost disappeared.

So while food now routinely on offer in our shops is impressively exotic, nutritionists and environmentalists are increasingly concerned that what we gain in choice and convenience we lose in health benefits, leading to a call for a movement back towards seasonal eating.

Food that's in season not only tastes better, but may contain ingredients that suit the body's needs for that time of year, such as summer fruits with their high fluid content.

Whatever the reason, there's something about seasonal eating that seems natural and instinctive - most people would agree, for example, that comforting stews with root vegetables go better with winter than strawberries and ice cream.

It's a view shared by the ultimate back-to-nature cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who writes in The River Cottage Year: "… those who shop and cook in harmony with the seasons will get immeasurably more pleasure and satisfaction from their food than those who don't."

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Getting your goodness

Eating in tune with the seasons isn't just a matter of sensuous asparagus suppers in June and preferring parsnips with your Christmas meal, there's also some evidence to suggest that your body gets more out of certain fruits and vegetables at certain times of the year.

Logically, the nearer your food has been grown to the place you live, then the less time it has spent on a boat, plane or lorry, and the more nutrients and vitamins it is likely to have retained since being picked. This is especially true in the case of vitamin C, which is notoriously unstable.

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What the eggheads say

Researchers from the Austrian Consumers Association confirm that vegetables picked and frozen when in season are actually higher in nutrients than those flown in out of season from abroad.

So the vitamin content of frozen peas, beans, sweetcorn, carrots and cauliflower was significantly higher than fresh vegetables imported from Italy, Turkey, Spain and Israel.

The British Nutrition Federation reinforces the message: "We recommend that people eat fruit and vegetables in season," says their spokeswoman Sarah Stanner. "Fresh fruit and vegetables have higher vitamin C content, and they are also cheaper and more available.

"Vitamins degrade over time and with storage, so the fresher the better. Also, if things have been in transit for a long time, vitamin C levels go down. And the longer the shelf life of produce, the more preservatives you have got to add to it."

Pre-packed salads have also come in for criticism in the wake of research that found that the modified-atmosphere packaging (Map) that increases the shelf life of the leaves and enables us to enjoy a year-round variety of salads might also destroy many of their vital nutrients.

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Variety is the spice of life

Bored to bits with broccoli on your plate every night of the year? Think you'll scream if you find another raspberry under the ice cream? Sticking to nature's bounty, rather than the supermarket's, will ensure more variety and the chance to get nutrients tailor-made for the time of year.

"If you eat with the seasons rather than eating the same 15 things all year round, the variety will mean you end up with a greater range of nutrients in the body," argues Maria Griffiths, spokesperson for the Institute for Optimum Nutrition. "You get a completely changeable diet that is so much more beneficial than sticking to the same things again and again.

"Food allergies and intolerances are also less likely because you are not eating the same thing day after day."

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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.