Ripe mangoes in summer, dandelion greens, beans and blueberries in spring and roasted chestnuts in winter. Eating what nature produces according to seasons is said to be the natural way to good health. In 2010, locally grown produce was voted the top food trend by nearly 2,000 chefs worldwide.
A research conducted in 1997 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in London indicated a marked difference in the nutritional quality of milk in winter and summer. According to the research, cows that were fed on preserved food in winter as compared to fresh food in winter yielded milk that was nutritionally different in the two seasons.
Yet another research in Japan found that spinach grown in summer had a higher vitamin content as compared to the same leafy green grown in winter. The slightest shift in weather can create a marked dissonance in nutrition, so you can imagine how this affects produce that has to be refrigerated and transported across miles.
In the UAE, where a significant percentage of the food produce is imported, the habit of seasonal eating is in a highly altered state. Having said that, the UAE is growing more and more of its own vegetables and fruit and this augurs extremely well for its people in the long run.
We look at the various reasons why eating seasonal produce makes the maximum health sense apart from the ecological benefits of a shrinking carbon footprint.
Many health and medical experts agree that seasonal eating is a good habit as nature intended certain nutrients, vitamins, minerals and enzymes to be made available to you and help you deal with the requirements of the weather. When a fruit or vegetable is plucked from the tree at its naturally ripening time, it retains not just its true flavour but also most of its nutrition.
Dubai-based nutritionist and health coach Marcella Manon says, "The nutritional cycle of nature is an annual cycle; it takes a year for all of the nutritional needs of the body to be met.
Although there are four seasons, there are three primary harvests: fall, spring, and summer. Eating with the seasons allows you to eat as nature intended, reaping the health benefits of a diet that is diverse and naturally detoxifying."
She outlines the important nutritional requirements of the human body in each season which is an evolution-driven programme that is still the mainstay of our relationship to food, largely unchanged despite the progress and urban mass migrations across the globe. The seasonal caveat on winter (a period for storage of proteins and fats), for example, is still traditionally true and remains relevant for us in the UAE as well, despite the absence of extreme winter temperatures.
"Although winter is not severe here, there is nevertheless a drastic drop in temperatures as compared to summer where we experience 45C and even 47C," says Manon. "Winter temperatures dip to 15 or below, so although the cold is not severe, the drop in temperatures still requires our bodies to adjust to the season and go through the same requirements as anywhere else on the globe where there are extreme winters."
Given nature's logic, what happens when you choose to opt for the produce that is available round the year? "Non-seasonal foods require bending of natural rules in order for them to endure the improper season, therefore, these foods are often full of pesticides, waxes, preservatives and other chemicals that are used to make them look fresher than they are," says Manon. Eating seasonal foods from local geographic areas helps prevent food intolerances, allergies, obesity, Type-2 diabetes and other chronic diseases, she adds.
Some of the obvious benefits to be derived by eating seasonal fresh foods are:
• Helping your body to return to its natural rhythm.
• Consuming fresher foods, which are more tasty and contain higher concentration of antioxidants than non-seasonal foods.
• Benefiting from rotating your foods, thereby preventing your body from developing food intolerances.
• Helping yourself reach healthy weight goals as well as enjoy high energy levels.
• Support local farmers and markets.
Do allopathic doctors support seasonal eating?
Perhaps not, says Dr Ashraf Nasim of DNA Health Corp, Founder & CEO DNA Health Corp, a centre for Integrative Medicine and Wellness, Board Certified Internal Medicine (USA), Board Certified Integrative Medicine (USA), Board Certified Nephrology & Hypertension (USA). "Allopathic doctors in general are not supportive of such concepts."
Dr Nasim, an allopath, also practises Integrative Medicine that assimilates other streams of alternative medicine in his therapies following Dr Andrew Weil, the father of Integrative Medicine. He quotes extensively from other therapies about the benefits of seasonal eating.
"From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, there are certain seasons which correlate with types of foods one should consume to maintain health and wellness. For instance, in spring, one should consume bitter flavours (for example, dandelion, rocket, watercress, chicory) to support liver detoxification and cleansing of the blood.
"In the Middle East, chicory and rocket salads are esteemed to have this healthful effect.
"From an Ayurvedic medicine perspective, it is also recommended to eat foods that are seasonal based on the individual food's characteristics (hot, cold, etc.). Foods with characteristics of heat, such as peppers or ginger, should be consumed in the winter months and cold foods, such as cucumbers and fruits, should be consumed in the summer months.
"Foods are usually harvested when they are at their peak and typically have the most flavour and nutrients, so eating seasonal food tends to be tastier, healthier and better for the environment. Also, by eating freshly harvested produce, you will be rotating your foods and, therefore, potentially preventing your body from developing intolerances to certain foods.
"Many foods that are imported are sprayed with pesticides to prevent them from rotting while on the farm and/or on their transportation journey to the consumer. This can have detrimental effects on your health. In addition, some fruits are picked "unripe" and then treated with chemicals to hasten their ripening. But the proof is in the nutrient and antioxidant content, which tends to be higher in locally grown seasonal foods."
Our ancestors, says Dr Nasim, ate seasonal foods because it was a natural way of life for them. "We, on the other hand, can make informed choices of opting for foods that are grown seasonally and coordinate our diets with the cycles of nature's seasons," he says.
Your guide to seasonal eating in the UAE
How evolution linked seasons and human body's food requirements
Evolutionary theme: Storing Protein and Fat
During winter and fall, with their cold and dry days, the diet calls for foods that are high in protein and fat. Your body potentially craves soups, nuts, warm grains, and protein such as meat and fish to stay warm. Blubber in Alaska, nuts in America and avocados and coconuts in Mexico are examples of how evolution and nature ordered the perfect sources of essential fatty acids for these geographic locations.
• Foods to consider: Soups, stews, nuts, heavier grains (such as rye and quinoa), meat and fish. Furthermore, cranberries and beets act as blood purifiers to balance the heavy winter meals.
Evolutionary theme: A time for cleansing
In the spring, low-fat and high chlorophyll foods support detoxification and fertilise the good bacteria in the intestinal tract, strengthening your immune system. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), spring is associated with the liver, one of the body's primary detoxifying organs. Synergistically, this is the time of the year for dandelion and other bitter greens to be consumed. These bitter greens support the liver's function and are blood purifiers.
• Foods to consider: Green vegetables, leafy greens, sprouts, berries and cherries.
Evolutionary theme: Hydration and energy
Natural high-carbohydrate foods such as fruits and vegetables constantly help to keep the body cool and hydrated. A balanced diet prevents you from overheating and drying out during the long, hot summer days. It is somewhat important to consider that a non-cooling diet within this season predisposes your system to reactive mucus production. Colds in the flu season (fall/winter) can be prevented all the way back in the summer. Moreover, apples are the ideal end of summer purgative to flush out all of your body heat before the winter season emerges.
• Foods to consider: Fresh fruits and vegetables. For instance, have apples and pomegranates to cleanse the body and strengthen the immune system before the flu season.
If you live in the UAE, you must be wondering how to benefit from this logic given the enormous variety of food from all over the world all year round. The good news is there is an increasing abundance of local fresh produce in the UAE that is making a huge impact on the community. Here are some pointers to help you opt for sensible grocery shopping in the UAE,
• Add diversity to your shopping routine: pay a weekly visit to a farmer's market in your community and enjoy buying the seasonal products on offer.
• Visit local supermarkets to enjoy the diversity of locally grown fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.
• Check out local organic supermarkets.
• While choosing seasonal foods you are perfectly safe buying fresh fruits and vegetables from places like Lebanon, India, Oman, Egypt and Iran which are close neighbours to the UAE, hence require less travel time.
Your guide to eating seasonally in the UAE:
• When the weather cools down, it is the perfect time of the year to indulge in heavier, warmer meals. Winter/fall local foods include dates, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms and all the varieties of lamb meats and goat cheeses the region has to offer. This is also the time of the year to be adventurous with nuts and seeds.
• As the weather starts to get warmer, it is time for a spring cleansing. Foods right for this season are mangoes, apricots, strawberries, oranges, leafy greens, dandelion, artichokes, asparagus and fresh herbs.
• During summer months, eat more salads with green leaves, cucumber, tomatoes and don't be afraid to toss in some seasonal fruits like apples, lychees, watermelon, plums and figs.
UAE farmers a growing tribe
The growing community of local farmers in the UAE is doing a sterling job in promoting the values of seasonal produce. The variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs being grown locally are a consumer's delight. Miriam Finnerty of Ripe Middle East, Supporting Local Farmers, says:
"We're all about supporting local farmers and providing really high-quality, local, seasonal and organic produce to our customers. There are a number of reasons why eating local produce makes good eco-sense. Firstly, you're helping to develop the local agricultural industry and by supporting local farmers, they can increase their business, develop growing plans and work to provide customers with a greater variety of produce year on year.
"Local produce also doesn't come with the air miles so, ultimately, it's fresher and packed full of more flavour, because its journey time from the field to your fridge is much shorter. And because produce doesn't travel as far, there's less impact on the environment; produce that travels to the UAE from distant countries will have used a lot of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, diesel, air miles and noise pollution, just to get those peppers on your plate. But with local produce, the impact is reduced.
"Additionally, because local produce hasn't travelled as far, it's cheaper and more affordable than its overseas counterparts. And this in turn makes it more accessible to everyone, something that Ripe takes seriously. We want to make sure the community in which we operate is not only aware of the fantastic local produce that is available, from farms right here in the UAE, but has easy access to it. This is why we continue to build strong relationships with our local farmers and educate the community about the local produce available."