Nutrients in fruits and vegetables start to break down after harvest. This loss of nutrients can be minimized by proper storage and cooking. Frozen, canned, dried, and 100% juice products are processed just after harvesting to "lock in" the freshness of just-picked produce. Fresh fruits and vegetables are picked, packed, and distributed to stores very quickly so consumers get the freshest items available. After purchase, proper storage and handling of fruits and vegetables will help retain nutrients.
Storing fruits and veggies in the refrigerator will prolong their shelf life and slow down the spoilage process. It is best not to wash fruits or veggies until you are ready to eat them to reduce spoilage and mold growth.
Some produce tastes best stored at room temperature, including melons, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and winter squashes. Store them in a clean, dry, well-ventilated place, away from direct sunlight. Leaving produce on the counter in a plastic bag may slow ripening and increase off-odors and decay.
Produce refrigerated in perforated plastic bags, such as the bags in which baby carrots and pre-cut greens are packaged, help maintain moisture yet provide air flow. If you do not have access to commercial, perforated bags, use a sharp object to make several small holes in a food-grade plastic bag.
Some produce can be ripened on the counter and then stored in the refrigerator. Examples include peaches, pears and plums.
Store fruits in a separate crisper drawer from vegetables. Fruits give off ethylene gas which can shorten the storage life of vegetables. Some vegetables give off odors that can be absorbed by fruits.
The three natural destroyers of vitamins in fruits and veggies are heat, light, and oxygen. Here are some tips for retaining more of the nutrients.
* Limit storage time. Fresh is best when it comes to taste and nutrition.
* Cook minimally. Steam vegetables briefly until just crisp-tender. For example, the asparagus which is just now in season should retain it's bright green color. Water-soluble nutrients are destroyed with longer cooking time. If veggies are cooked in water, those nutrients will leach into the cooking liquid, so try to use the cooking liquids in soups and stews.
* Always cover the pot to hold in steam and heat. This also will help to reduce cooking time.
* Avoid slicing veggies too far in advance. When produce is sliced, the cut surfaces are exposed to heat, light, and oxygen -- the nutrient destroyers. Better to wait to slice foods until ready to cook and eat.
* Leave vegetables in big pieces for cooking.
For food safety, always wash your hands before working with produce. And wash produce thoroughly under clean, running water. That includes even fruits and vegetables where the peel will not be eaten, such as melons. Passing the knife through an unwashed rind could transfer surface bacteria into the edible part of the fruit.
All of these tips will help retain the maximum amount of nutrients in fruits and vegetables. The most important factor, however, is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables each day -- cooked and raw.
Editor's Note: Ann Ludlum is a K-State Research and Extension family and consumer sciences and 4-H extension agent assigned to Bourbon County. She may be reached at (620) 223-3720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.