It seems as if everyone is talking about eating food grown locally these days. The number of farmers markets in the U.S. increased 54 percent between 2008 and 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The National Restaurant Association says that menus featuring locally produced fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, and wine are among the hottest trends this year. And sections just for local food are sprouting up in big-box stores and supermarkets. The growing movement has even inspired a new word: "locavore," meaning someone who prefers food that hasn't moved a long distance to market. But does eating this way automatically mean that you're eating healthier? Here's a quick look at this trend.
Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of produce has been linked to numerous health benefits, so it makes sense that buying food from nearby farms is a healthy move. A review of 16 studies in the March 2010 Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that farmers markets have the potential to increase access to produce and lead to more healthful eating, especially in certain communities. But the authors said that more well-designed studies are needed to establish a definitive connection.
One thing that's clear is that fresh food tends to have more nutrients than food that was picked days or weeks ago, says Michael Pollan, author of "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" (Penguin, 2009).
Surveys conducted at farmers markets have found that people tend to shop there because they think the food is of higher quality and tastes better. For example, a recent survey conducted at a farmers market in Brownsville, Texas, found that more than 80 percent of shoppers said the produce was better than what they found at other places they shopped. More than half said they ate more fruit and vegetables as a result of shopping at the market.
No. But some vendors might have organic certification and others might follow organic practices, such as minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and raising animals humanely and without antibiotics and growth hormones, says Brad Masi, an instructor in environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. The gold standard is to buy both local and organic.
Bottom line. While the jury is still out on the specific health benefits of eating locally produced food, there's no question that choosing a bounty of fresh, unprocessed food is better for you than, say, grabbing a prepared meal high in sodium and fat from the freezer aisle of a supermarket. And everyone can benefit from eating more fruit and vegetables, the cornerstone of most farmers markets. If you don't have one nearby or a local food section at your grocery store, consider joining a community supported agriculture program, or CSA.
This article first appeared in the newsletter Consumer Reports on Health.