Wimbledon starts today. Apart from amazing tennis, I always associate this time of year with the start of summer (that box can be checked!) and the beginning of the British strawberry season, as what can be more British than grass-court tennis matched with strawberries and cream?
Growing up, strawberries were my favourite fruit. I was so excited when they finally appeared in the shops and I could tuck in to bowl upon bowl of this yummy red fruit. The taste was sublime – sweet and sharp at the same time with the most delightful aroma. Out of season, I would always choose anything strawberry-flavoured – and I’m not alone as strawberry is the most popular flavouring in products.
Not only do they taste amazing, but strawberries are also really good for the body. Packed full of health-nurturing nutrients like vitamin C, potassium and magnesium, these beautiful red fruits also contain a whole range of magical phytonutrients and anti-oxidants as well as their sugar bound up in gut-loving fibre. Scientists have found benefits all around the body and they can help reduce inflammation, heart disease and cancer to name a few plus support skin and brain health. Pretty impressive for a small berry!
There is a problem though – and it’s a biggy. Strawberries just aren’t what they used to be! We love strawberries so much, there’s a demand all year round. And where there’s demand, there will be a supply. But to meet these demands outside of a plant’s natural season, there are compromises. And with strawberries, there are big ones.
The first is flavour. Strawberry growers have concentrated on cross-breeding to get uniformity of shape and colour as well as extended growing season. Many of the aromatic genes have been lost in this process – check out this interesting article here to find out more.
Strawberries can be tricky to grow – they need the right combination of water and sun, both of which are unpredictable, particularly in the UK! So most strawberries are grown in poly-tunnels with controlled temperatures. This has an affect on how the berry ripens which also affects the flavour, but it can also create problems with pests and disease. So fungicides and other chemicals are used to protect the crop.
In fact, so many chemical combinations are used in the strawberry growing process that they are number one on the ERG (Environmental Working Group) ‘Dirty Dozen’ list, and have been for a number of years now. In tested samples, they found an average of 7.8 different pesticide residues on the fruit (2.2 is the average for other produce). The EWG is based in the US, and whilst the EU is better for use of the chemicals, a recent report still found problems with pesticide residue on strawberries, with the UK faring worse than the rest of the EU. And don’t forget, these chemicals have a devastating effect on local ecology and insects, including bees, the very insects we need to pollinate many of the foods we eat.
You may wonder why this matters – surely these chemicals have been deemed as safe? Tests are done, but rarely in combination with others. They also don’t take into account how levels can accumulate in the body and their long-term effect. I talk about this more in my book Eat Well Live Well with The Sensitive Foodie.
The increase in food allergies and intolerances – always of interest to The Sensitive Foodie! – has been connected to a rise in the use of pesticides in food and drinking water. People with the highest concentration in their urine had increased allergies and intolerances (see here for more info).
These pesticide and herbicide concoctions have been long associated with increased cancer rates, something that has been denied by the big agro-chemical companies for a long time despite increasing research to prove otherwise. However, a recent court case in California ruled in favour of a man who claimed Monsanto were responsible for his non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system. It will be interesting to see what happens next…..
So what to do if you are a strawberry lover, or want to get their amazing nutrients for your health, without risking different health issues? Here are my suggestions.
- Educate yourself. Find out more about the chemicals used in food so you can make informed choices. EWG and PAN UK are two good places to start.
- Eat organic strawberries. They may be slightly more expensive, and harder to find, but they will undoubtedly be better for you.
- Grow your own. Even if you only have a small garden or balcony, strawberries grow well in pots and containers. You may find your crop is variable but with a little TLC you can spread out the season. You will have the satisfaction of knowing exactly where your strawberries have been, no food miles and they will taste the best!