THURSDAY, June 20 (HealthDay News) -- Fruits and vegetables in grocery stores are still alive and know what time of day it is, researchers report.

The findings suggest that the way produce is stored and eaten could have an impact on its nutritional value and health benefits, according to the study, which was published June 20 in the journal Current Biology.

"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," study author Janet Braam, of Rice University, said in a 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."

By remaining alive after being harvested, vegetables and fruits can alter levels of chemicals that protect them from being eaten by insects and other creatures, the researchers found. Some of these chemicals also have anti-cancer effects.

Braam and her colleagues made the initial discovery in cabbage and then found similar responses in lettuce, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, zucchini and blueberries.

By eating vegetables and fruits at certain times of day, you may gain the most benefit from them. But that may prove challenging, so the researchers suggested another approach to get the most out of your produce.

"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," Braam said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about fruits and vegetables.