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Time Your Meals to Get the Most Nutrition Out of "Living" Veggies and Fruits

Update Date: Jun 20, 2013 01:23 PM EDT

Next time you're at the supermarket picking which fruits and vegetables to buy for your next meal, think about this: they're still alive.

While they may not be able to move, a new study reveals that the fruits and vegetables lining grocery store shelves actually respond to light signals and know what time of day it is.

Researchers said the findings published in the journal Current Biology suggest that the way food is stored could have real consequences for its nutritional value and for our health.

Scientists have known that some cells in harvested plants remain active and alive after being plucked from a vine, picked from a tree or pulled from the ground.  However, they were surprised to find that fruits and vegetables at groceries stores still respond to the daily cycle light and dark.

"Vegetables and fruits, even after harvest, can respond to light signals and consequently change their biology in ways that may affect health value and insect resistance," lead researcher Janet Braam of Rice University said in journal news release. "Perhaps we should be storing our vegetables and fruits under light-dark cycles and timing when to cook and eat them to enhance their health value."

Researchers explain that crops remain alive after being harvested so they can alter levels of chemicals that protect them from being eaten by insects and other herbivores. Researchers found that some of these phytochemicals also have anti-cancer effects.

Braam and her team mad the initial discovery in cabbage.  They then found similar responses in lettuce, spinach, zucchini, sweet potatoes, carrots, and blueberries.  They found that fruits and vegetables subjected to light-dark cycles at the right times suffered significantly less insect damage.

Researchers conclude that people may gain the most benefit out of fruits and vegetables by eating them at certain times of the day. And if that's too difficult, researchers suggest another way to get the most out of your groceries.

"It may be of interest to harvest crops and freeze or otherwise preserve them at specific times of day, when nutrients and valuable phytochemicals are at their peak," said Braam.

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