JUNE is Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month!

It’s no surprise that Summer ushers in the celebration of fresh fruit and vegetables – around the US, and in our own backyard gardens, fruits and veggies are straining towards the sun and starting to deliver a bounty of flavor, color, and nutrition. 

Growing up, my mother’s motto was “practice what you preach.”  As a pediatrician, I wanted to make sure I followed the Hippocratic, not the hypocritical, oath, when it came to advising patients about healthy lifestyles, so I had to clean up my own act and start eating healthier.  What happened? I found that my whole family followed suit, and soon it was apparent that my son ate like a champion, without fuss.  Instinctually, that made sense to me – what you are offered to eat, you eat.  What isn’t in the refrigerator is not in your stomach, at least at home.

And a study in the journal, Preventive Medicine, tested this theory on a large scale. 1300 parents were divided into two equal groups – half were visited at home by researchers and given extensive education about nutrition, and methods to help their children eat more fruits and vegetables. The other group of parents received no intervention.

The results showed that the parent group that received the interventional visits improved their own eating habits, and their children followed suit.  When parents ate more fruits and veggies, their kids did too.  The only exception were obese children who were reluctant to eat produce, and preferred high fat snacks and sodas – clearly learned and ingrained behaviors.

The lesson here, from this study, and also from common sense, is to clean up your act when it comes to food if you want and expect your child(ren) to eat well too.  Is it ever too late? I don’t think so.  But building a greater fruit and vegetable vocabulary EARLY in your child’s life will improve their food expectations and lessen their intake of processed foods and empty calories.  Children cope like their parents, and they will eat (and exercise) like them too.  And the benefits extend to every family member!  Remember, you are what you eat!

But who knew that the same produce that fills our bodies with antioxidants, fiber and vitamins also protects us from absorbing lead!  Research has shown that individuals who eat processed foods and a poor quality diet absorb lead easier than those who eat a higher quality diet.  Three nutrients, in particular, are instrumental in preventing lead from getting absorbed in the gut:

Calcium serves a sentry-like function in the gut, keeping lead out and letting nutrients in.  We’ve seen this borne out in studies of pregnant women with elevated lead levels – administering oral calcium to them daily halved their lead levels. We’re all familiar with its role in building and strengthening bones and teeth, but it also is vital in blood clotting and muscle contraction. Milk and dairy products are rich sources of calcium, but your garden can provide a bumper crop of this vital nutrient too.  Green leafy vegetables like bok choy, spinach and kale, along with mustard and collard greens get high marks, as well as oranges and beans.  Don’t forget garden spinoffs like soy milk, tofu, fortified orange juice and cereals for additional sources.

Iron acts similarly to calcium, blocking lead from being absorbed.  Dried fruits, like raisins, apricots and prunes, beans and lentils are good sources of plant-based iron. If spinach or broccoli are growing in your backyard crops, you’ve got double sources of calcium and iron in each! Don’t forget lean red meats, the dark meat from poultry, and even pumpkin seeds as added sources of iron.

Vitamin C helps iron to absorb more efficiently.  Although Vitamin C doesn’t directly affect lead absorption, it is a powerful antioxidant – and because lead places a stress on the body’s cells, Vitamin C can help reduce that stress and potential damage.  Vitamin C is ubiquitous in fruits and vegetables – it’s not only a huge component of all citrus and tropical fruits, but also rich in berries, kiwi, melon, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers.

The urban garden movement is in full swing this time of year.  In cities all over the US, any patch of soil is a potential spot for creating a produce oasis – a place to garden, visit, marvel at nature’s power, and of course, to eat!  But many of those patches of urban soil may be contaminated with lead – after all, they’ve been exposed to gas, fumes, paint, lead dust from construction and exhaust.  Lead in the soil can leach into the very heart of plants, leading to potential health problems for those who consume, or even work intimately with that soil.

So what can an urban gardener do to ensure a safe, delicious and nutritious experience?

Have the soil tested for lead.  Your local health department may already have mapped out areas in your city that are at risk for lead accumulation.  Additionally, your health department should be able to do the testing or recommend an appropriate contractor to perform the analysis. 

Because lead is naturally occurring, the background lead levels found in surface agricultural soil average 10ppm – with the accepted range spanning 7-20 ppm.  Anything above that is considered contaminated.  If the dirt in your yard is 100ppm or above, it’s best to cover that soil with mulch or sod.  First, you’ll prevent that contaminated soil from becoming airborne and spreading in the environment.  More importantly any children playing in that soil run the risk of lead poisoning – eating/ingesting just 1-2 tsp of contaminated soil/week can cause lead toxicity in little ones.  So you'll be doing them a favor, for sure!

When planting, do the following to reduce risk of lead exposure:

o   Maintain soil pH above 6.5 – the higher the pH, the less likely lead can get into your plants.  Adding lime (a base) to your soil can help you with the pH.  In addition, when soil phosphorus levels are higher, lead is less available to plants.

o   Add organic amendments to your soil – if 1/3 of your soil is organically enriched, lead is less available to your plants – use composted leaves, non-acid peat or well-rotted manure.  Avoid leaves collected in city streets or near highways – they may have higher lead levels.

o   Try not to plant near building foundations or close to busy streets – lead levels are highest in these areas due to old paint exposure and auto exhaust.

o   If soil lead levels are 100ppm or over, AND you have small children, avoid planting in these areas due to the risk of contaminated soil being eaten off of produce picked from the vine, or little hands and mouths making contact with the soil.  If no small children are around, it’s fine to plant with levels up to 300ppm.

When eating your garden’s bounty, take the following into consideration:

o   External lead is really the concern on your plants, so avoid eating unwashed produce.

o   Lead doesn’t readily accumulated in the fruiting parts of a vegetable or fruit (like beans, corn, tomatoes, apples, strawberries or squash), but higher concentrations may be found in leafy vegetables and root crops.

So it’s important to remove the outer leaves of leafy greens, peel all root crops (carrots, onions, turnips, etc.).

o   Thoroughly wash all produce in the sink, and add either 1% white vinegar or ½% mild soap to the water

I don't know about you, but I'm headed out to my garden to pick some salsa ingredients! What about you?