There's a reason why your mouth may water for sweet potatoes in October and November but barely cross your mind in July. People have been eating seasonally since the beginning of time; there was no other choice.
Today many of us have the luxury of purchasing out-of-season produce year-round at the grocery store, but there's probably still a part of you that is drawn to what's in-season. Not only will such foods be tastier, fresher, and available to buy locally straight from a farm or farmer's market, but they may contain more nutrients, too.
For instance, one study found in-season broccoli (fall) contained nearly twice as much vitamin C as out-of-season (spring) broccoli.1 Perhaps the ancient medical traditions like Ayurveda, which have long recommended seasonal eating, somehow knew that produce picked at its peak of ripeness in accordance with the laws of nature was healthiest too.
Ayurveda also suggests seasonal eating helps with digestion, because it favors easier-to-digest foods in the winter when your body is hard at work burning energy to keep you warm (and therefore theoretically has less energy to devote to digestion).
Earlier this year, in January, we featured vegetables that taste best in the winter. In June we featured six foods that taste best in the summer. Now, with fall upon us in the US, it's a perfect time to feature foods that taste best during the fall months, and October in particular. Check out the list below for starters.2
Apples are in season from August to November, but many unique varieties not made for storage come into their prime in October (and will only be available for a month or two). Try Fuji apples or Gravenstein apples for two varieties that reach their peak in October.
Compared to other commonly consumed fruits in the US, apples rank second for highest antioxidant activity. However, they ranked highest for the proportion of free phenolic compounds, which means they are not bound to other compounds in the fruit, and therefore may be more easily absorbed into your bloodstream.3
Notably, much of apples' antioxidant power is contained in the peel, where you'll find antioxidants like catechins, procyanidins, chlorogenic acid, ploridizin, and more. Eating apples has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and dementia.
It's best to eat apples in their whole form, as this will give you the synergistic blend of nutrients and fiber the way nature intended, yielding greater health benefits than apple juice.
Pears are in season from August to February, but like apples, a few varieties stand out in October: try Bartlett pears or French butter pears, if you can find them.
Pears are rich in vitamin C and copper, and are one of the highest-fiber fruits (one medium pear contains about 5.5 grams of fiber). Fiber plays an essential role in your digestive, heart, and skin health, and may improve blood sugar control, weight management, and more.
People who ate a diet high in white-fleshed fruits like pears or apples also had a 52 percent lower risk of stroke, according to an American Heart Association study,4 likely due to their fiber and phytochemical contents.
Grapes are popular during the summer, but grapes harvested during October tend to be sweeter, since the cool nighttime temperatures bring out their sugar. Grapes contain vitamin K, manganese, and beneficial antioxidants, including resveratrol, which is found in red grape skins.
Resveratrol's antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties have been well-established by science, and its benefits are thought to extend to the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease, among others.
Grapes should be consumed in moderation, however, as they're high in fructose, and excessive fructose intake is linked to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and obesity in those who eat a highly processed food diet.
It's interesting to note, however, that the consumption of whole grapes has been linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.5 It's unclear why the authors observed this benefit, but it's likely that the phytonutrients in the grapes compensate for any potential fructose toxicity.
Persimmons are fairly uncommon in the US, though they're the national fruit of Japan. These red-brown or orange fruits are rich in vitamins A and C, along with manganese, fiber, B-complex vitamins, copper, and phosphorus. They're also a good source of phytonutrients, flavonoids and antioxidants, including lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene.
Hachiya persimmons should be eaten fully ripe (you can cut it open and eat it with a spoon or slice it up in a salad). Fuyu persimmons are also in-season in October; these can be eaten hard, like an apple.
Pumpkins are most plentiful and easy to find in the US in October, mostly for decorations or carving into Jack-o-lanterns. But don't discount pumpkins' value as a food. Pumpkin is a type of winter squash that is an excellent source of carotenoids, including beta-carotene (which converts into vitamin A in your body).
Pumpkin is also rich in fiber, with three grams in a one-cup serving, and you can consume the seeds, too, for additional benefits (like immune system and prostate support).
Other notable nutrients in pumpkin include vitamin C, potassium, riboflavin, copper, and manganese, along with vitamin E, B vitamins, folate, iron, and phosphorus.
Taken together, pumpkin provides a powerful blend of nutrients that work together to synergistically benefit your health. As reported in Nutrition Research Reviews:6
"Pumpkin is one of the well-known edible plants and has substantial medicinal properties due to the presence of unique natural edible substances. It contains several phyto-constituents belonging to the categories of alkaloids, flavonoids, and palmitic, oleic, and linoleic acids.
Various important medicinal properties including anti-diabetic, antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and others have been well documented."
When using fresh pumpkin in your cooking, simply wash the pumpkin's exterior, scoop out the seeds and pulp, and roast it, whole, in a 350-degree F oven for one to two hours, until tender.
You can also cut it in half and place it, cut side down, on a baking sheet in a 350-degree F oven for one to two hours. Then, simply scrape out the tender flesh and discard the rind.7 Pumpkin is in season from October to February.
The five foods above reach their peak of flavor in October, but they're not the only fruits and vegetables that are in-season during the fall. You'll find nine others in the list that follows, each of which is incredibly good for you… and tasty too.
1. Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts contain sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, which your body uses to make isothiocyanates. These activate cancer-fighting enzyme systems in your body. Brussels sprouts have been linked to the prevention of a number of cancers, including colon cancer,8 ovarian cancer,9 and others.
One study even found that compounds in Brussels sprouts may trigger pre-cancerous cells to commit suicide, which suggests adding more of this superfood to your diet could be a powerful anti-cancer strategy.10
Brussels sprouts also have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, useful for fighting both chronic oxidative stress and inflammation.
They help to support your body's natural detoxification system and are an excellent source of vitamins K and C, and good source of fiber, manganese, potassium, choline, and B vitamins. Brussels sprouts are in season from September to March.
Cauliflower contains sulforaphane, a sulfur compound that has also been shown to kill cancer stem cells, thereby slowing tumor growth. Some researchers believe eliminating cancer stem cells may be key to controlling cancer. For instance, research has shown that combining cauliflower with curcumin (the active compound in the spice turmeric) may help prevent and treat prostate cancer.11
Cauliflower is also anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich, and may boost both your heart and brain health. Eating cauliflower will provide your body with impressive amounts of vitamin C, vitamin k, beta-carotene, and much more while supporting healthy digestion and detoxification. Cauliflower is in season from September to June.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Orange-colored sweet potatoes owe their appearance to the carotenoid beta-carotene. As an antioxidant, beta-carotene can help ward off free radicals that damage cells through oxidation, which can speed up aging and make you vulnerable against chronic diseases. This antioxidant can help support your immune system, as well as lower your risk of heart disease and cancer. Research shows that sweet potatoes can help regulate blood sugar because of their ability to raise blood levels of adiponectin, a protein hormone created by your fat cells, to help regulate how your body metabolizes insulin.
Sweet potato extract is said to help reduce inflammation in brain and nerve tissue throughout your body. The phytonutrients within sweet potatoes also influence fibrinogen, an important glycoprotein required for blood clotting. Together with thrombin and fibrin, balanced amounts of fibrinogen are important for wound healing and blood loss prevention. Sweet potatoes are in season from September to December.
The primary source of pomegranate's benefits come from its antioxidant content, particularly ellagitannin compounds like punicalagins and punicalins, which account for about half of the pomegranate's antioxidant ability. It's also an excellent source of the antioxidant vitamin C, with one pomegranate providing about 40 percent of the daily requirement for this vitamin.12 In fact, according to a 2008 study, which compared the potency of 10 different polyphenol-rich beverages, pomegranate juice scored top billing as the healthiest of them all.13
Pomegranates contain three types of antioxidant polyphenols, including tannins, anthocyanins, and ellagic acid, in significant amounts. Pomegranate's antioxidant activity is known to inhibit cell proliferation and invasion, and promote apoptosis (cell death) in various cancer cells.14 The antioxidants in pomegranates may also help to reduce inflammation that contributes to the destruction of cartilage in your joints, a key reason for the pain and stiffness felt by many osteoarthritis sufferers.
One study even found that pomegranate extract blocked the production of a cartilage-destroying enzyme.15 Many people enjoy pomegranates alone as a snack, but you can also sprinkle the arils (the juice-filled seed sacs) over salads or cooked dishes. Inside each aril is a crunchy fiber-rich seed. While some people spit them out, you can eat them whole, seed and all. Pomegranates are in season from August to December. So how do you get out the arils? The POM Council recommends this simple three-step process:16
- Cut off the crown, then cut the pomegranate into sections
- Place the section in a bowl of water, then roll out the arils with your fingers (discard everything else)
- Strain out the water, then enjoy the arils whole, seeds and all
Turnips contain a type of phytonutrient known as indoles, which may help fight cancer. One type in particular, brassinin, has been shown to kill human colon cancer cells.17 Turnips are also rich in fiber. Just 100 calories' worth of turnips can give you 25 to 40 percent of your daily fiber requirement. While turnip root is rich in nutrients and antioxidants, it is a starchy vegetable and therefore should only be eaten in moderation. The greens, on the other hand, can be eaten in generous quantities (although admittedly they are quite bitter).
Turnip greens are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and manganese, but it's their vitamin K content that really stands out. One cup of turnip greens will give you nearly 600 percent of your recommended daily value of the nutrient.
Vitamin K is a powerful regulator of your inflammatory response, and along with the anti-inflammatory plant-based omega-3s found in turnip greens (in the form of alpha linolenic acid, or ALA), make this vegetable an inflammation-fighting powerhouse. Turnips are in season from September to April.
Rutabaga, a cross between a turnip and a cabbage, are rich in fiber and vitamin C (one cup contains 53 percent of the daily recommended value). Rutabagas are also members of the cruciferous family of vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants and anti-cancer phytonutrients. Rutabagas are also an excellent source of potassium, manganese, B vitamins, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Rutabagas are also a good source of zinc, which is essential for immune support and may help protect your body from the effects of stress. As a mild-tasting root vegetable, rutabagas work well roasted or baked, and can serve as a nutrient-rich substitute for potatoes. They can also be eaten raw along with a dip, such as hummus. Rutabagas are in season from October to April.
These root vegetables resemble carrots but are whitish in color and have a sweet, nutty flavor. Parsnips are rich in nutrients like fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamin C. Eating foods rich in potassium are important because this nutrient helps offset the hypertensive effects of sodium. An imbalance in your sodium-potassium ratio can lead to high blood pressure and may also contribute to a number of other diseases, including heart disease and stroke. Parsnips are in season from October to April.
Rich in phytonutrients that appear to protect human DNA from free-radical damage, kiwi is also an excellent source of antioxidant vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene. Kiwi is also a good source of fiber, potassium, magnesium, copper, and phosphorus. One cup of kiwi contains 273 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, which is five times that of an orange. Kiwi is in season from September to March.
Grapefruits are an excellent source of vitamin C and also contain pantothenic acid, copper, vitamin A, fiber, potassium, biotin, and vitamin B1. Grapefruit is also a good source of the dietary fiber pectin and the carotenoid phytonutrient lycopene. Lycopene's antioxidant activity has long been suggested to be more powerful than other carotenoids such as beta-carotene, and research has even revealed it may significantly reduce your stroke risk (while other antioxidants did not). Lycopene has also been shown to have potential anti-cancer activity, likely due to its antioxidant properties.
Studies have shown that people with a diet high in lycopene have a lower risk of certain cancers, particularly prostate cancer. Grapefruit is in season from September to April.
Depending on where you live, even in the northernmost areas of the US, a wide variety of vegetables can be grown during the winter, especially with the assistance of a few simple temperature-shielding strategies, such as cold frames, cloches, and row covers. For your winter garden, your most important date to know is your "first frost" date.
You'll want to plant your seeds early enough that the plants will be established before getting subjected to a light freeze. So your first step is to check your hardiness zone to see when your first frost is expected.
Most winter veggies are planted in mid to late summer so they are strong and ready for when the temperatures drop, and then ripe for harvest in winter or early spring. Timing this depends on how long each plant takes to reach maturity. Some vegetables actually develop a better flavor after a frost, so you'll need to plan accordingly. You can find more information on winter gardening here, however it's one of the best ways to have fresh, inexpensive access to in-season veggies during the fall and winter months. Finally, the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh seasonal foods in your local area, raised in a humane, sustainable manner.