How to choose the most nutrient-packed foods at the farmers market

bunches of carrots
CC BY 2.0 swong95765

Not all vegetables are created equal! Some are more nutritious than others, so it helps to know what to buy.

Farmers markets at this time of year are overflowing with choices. It makes shopping quite exciting. Will dinner be a few heads of peaches-and-cream corn? Or a colourful pepper-and-eggplant sauté with aromatic fresh basil? How about roasted new potatoes and carrots with a fresh tomato-feta salad? It’s a fun exercise in winnowing the abundance to a manageable level.

Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, wrote an article for Bon Appétit magazine in August 2013 called “Shop the Crop.” In it she explains how not all produce is created equal. By knowing which vegetables to buy at the farmers market, you can greatly increase your nutrient intake, specifically cancer-fighting lycopene. The following vegetables will give you the biggest nutritional bang for your buck.


Don’t throw away the leafy tops! They’re actually more nutritious than the roots (aka the beets). The darker red a beet is, the more cancer-fighting compounds called ‘betalains’ it has. Roast in the oven, grill in a foil package, or boil and add to salads. Sauté or roast the greens; eat as you would Swiss chard or kale. The cooked greens are delicious tossed with pasta, roasted beets, olive oil, and lots of Parmesan.


The smaller and darker a tomato is, the more lycopene it contains. Look for grape and cherry tomatoes, which, ounce for ounce, can have 18 times more lycopene than a larger beefsteak tomato.


Try to avoid peeling, since much of the nutrition comes from the outer layers. Look for full-sized carrots with fresh-looking tops still attached. Robinson writes: “Unlike most produce, [carrots are] healthier when cooked. So go beyond crudités: you’ll absorb three times more beta-carotene.” Summer carrots are delicious tossed with olive oil and salt and roasted until caramelized.


Bing cherries are the healthiest because they contain anti-inflammatory ‘anthocyanins.’ The fresher the cherries, the brighter green and flexible their stems will be.


The novelty may have worn off, but kale is still as nutritious as ever. “One serving of the ultra-healthy brassica has more calcium than six ounces of milk and more fiber than three slices of whole wheat bread,” Robinson says. Sauté with garlic, hot pepper flakes, and a dash of soy sauce, or eat raw in salad if it’s particularly tender and fresh. Kale contains more vitamin C, antioxidants, and phytonutrients when eaten raw.


It sounds counter-intuitive, but the whiter a peach’s flesh, the more antioxidants it contains. Serve sliced peaches for a sweet summer dessert, with a yummy dollop of whipped cream, or toss with yogurt and granola for a light breakfast.


Red, purple, and brown heads are the most nutritious because they’re richest in anthocyanins. Robinson also points out that a loose arrangement of leaves is preferable to a tight head: “Direct sunlight prompts leaves to produce a botanical sunscreen, which in turn boosts their nutrient content.” Opt for bitter radicchio and peppery arugula for an extra nutrient boost.


Watermelon is packed with lycopene, as indicated by its pink-red flesh. You can buy pre-packaged halves in the store, which allows you to find the deepest, darkest red, but that can lead to unnecessary plastic packaging. You should learn how to detect the ripeness of a watermelon; read Derek’s post on that subject.

Tags: Farmers Markets | Food Miles | Fruits & Vegetables | Local Food | Shopping

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