Natural Foods Merchandiser

The most useful facts you won't find on a produce label

Produce Perspectives

At the grocery store the other day, I noticed all the labels on the packaged items, and thought, boy, wouldn't it be great if items in the produce department had their own labels, spelling out nutritional benefits and helpful bits of information? What tips for summer produce would I find?

This season means salsa time, and there's no such thing as salsa without cilantro. What interesting tidbits would be on the cilantro sign? Maybe it would be to avoid bunches with larger, older leaves, because they get a strong and unpleasant flavor. And when cooking with this herb, it's best to add it at the very end, as overcooking will muddy the tastes.

Another summer favorite is basil. Growers who use companion planting techniques know that basil is as useful in the garden as it is tasty. It helps tomatoes overcome diseases and ward off pests; it also encourages their growth and improves flavor. It naturally repels flies and mosquitoes, and when rubbed on insect bites, reduces itching and swelling. Remind customers to store fresh basil wrapped in a paper towel inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator to keep the leaves dry and protect them from wilting.

As for honeydew melons, they are always difficult to choose. Go for ones that are firm and weighty, with creamy color skin and a waxy feel to the rind. At room temperature, ripe honeydew exudes a pleasant fragrance. They are very high in sugar and continue to ripen after harvest.

What interesting things are there to know about zucchini? For one, it can keep up to eight months in the freezer. Grate fresh zucchini and measure it in two-cup allot?ments. Place in zip-close bags and freeze, so you can enjoy it all winter. But there's more: Some conventional growers use traps that contain cucurbitacin juices (naturally occurring juices in squash) and carbaryl (a toxic insecticide) to control cucumber beetles, a major pest for zucchini growers. Organic growers can't use this. They use floating row covers as a barrier between insects and plants, apply a heavy mulch to deter egg-laying in the soil, and plant perimeter trap crops to attract beetles away from the zucchini. (Make mine organic, please!)

Everybody loves raspberries—but do your customers know there are 200 species of raspberries that come in red, black, purple, amber or yellow? And with new varieties and production techniques, raspberry production now occurs on every continent except Antarctica, from the Arctic Circle to the tropics.

How about fresh blueberries? They should be plump and firm, blue to very deep blue with a slight frost color on the outside skin. This frosting, known as bloom, is a sign of freshness in many varieties. Blueberries can be stored tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to a week and should only be washed when ready to eat.

What's the story behind new potatoes?

A true new potato is freshly dug, harvested before reaching maturity, and is sold from late winter through midsummer. If customers find the new potatoes growing sprouts—which is what tubers do when they want to get back into the ground—it's nothing to worry about. Just advise customers to trim them off and store the potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place.

I've always wondered about seedless grapes, which aren't completely seedless. They contain barely noticeable, undeveloped seeds called seed traces. All grapevines are produced from cuttings taken from mature vines. The variability that goes with this process means some grapevines produce fruit with seed traces that are smaller or larger than others. No one knows when the first seedless grape occurred, but we know they've grown in the Middle East for several thousand years.

Although we'll likely never read these useful pieces of information about produce on a nutritional label any time soon, you can inform your customers about these facts while they shop at your store. On cards above your produce displays or in-person from one of your employees, this is the kind of info customers are craving—and it'll likely have them coming back for more.

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. Contact him at 707.939.8355 or [email protected].

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