Is Canned and Frozen Produce as Healthy as Fresh?
The answer will surprise you!
-Vicki Santillano, DivineCaroline.com
Given the plethora of produce that’s readily available at supermarkets and farmers’ markets around the country, it’s surprising that so few of us get the recommended five servings a day. What’s even harder to believe is that the reason many people give for this deficiency is that it’s too hard or too expensive to eat that many fruits and vegetables. The problem is that people automatically assume a produce-rich diet means filling their grocery cart with nothing but fresh ingredients—and if you’re new to this whole fruits-and-veggies thing and unsure of what to do with them, chances are they’ll go bad and have to be thrown out anyway, which is a waste of food and money. But canned and frozen produce is cheaper and potentially offers even more nutritional benefits than its fresh counterparts. It’s just gotten a bad reputation—quite unfairly, as studies have shown.
When Eating Fresh Isn’t That Great
If we all lived on farms and could simply walk outside and hand-pick our fruits and vegetables, there wouldn’t be a problem. For the most part, produce that’s been picked at its peak ripeness and eaten within a few days after purchase offers the most nutrients. But the majority of us get our food from supermarkets, where it’s spent weeks traveling in a truck or on a plane, only to sit on shelves for even longer. Store-bound fruits and veggies are pulled from harvest before they’re ripe to ensure that they survive the long journey and aren’t bruised or rotten upon arrival. Unfortunately, this means that they don’t live up to their nutritional potential—unripe produce doesn’t have as many vitamins because it doesn’t have the chance to develop them completely.
Another issue is that the fruits and vegetables grocery stores sell are a mix of seasonal and off-season items; the latter category is especially prevalent in the winter. As Americans, we’ve grown accustomed to eating blueberries or leafy greens any time we want because they’re always available, but that’s because such things are flown in from other parts of the world or were stored in cold warehouses for months after their natural harvest. Either way, this means that a lot of nutrients were lost in the process.
The Alternatives Pack a Nutritional Punch
Fresh produce that’s in season is optimal, but unless you buy directly from farmers in your area (i.e., farmers’ markets), that’s not an option for everyone. Plus, fresh produce is sometimes harder to obtain and more expensive, especially when it’s been imported. Enter canning and flash-freezing, two processes that make eating healthfully more affordable and convenient yet are often thought of as poor alternatives to fresh. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Produce treated thusly is at its peak in terms of ripeness and nutritional benefits.
Though the heat involved in canning and flash-freezing does result in some vitamin loss, the amount is small in contrast with all the vitamins that are preserved, especially when compared to fresh produce’s natural loss. For example, a 1997 study conducted by the University of Illinois Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition found that beneficial ingredients like fiber and vitamins are retained mostly during canning. A review from UC Davis published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture in 2007 pointed out that fresh vegetables like green beans and spinach can leach up to 75 percent of their vitamin C content after seven days of being pulled from harvest, even if they’re put in a refrigerator. The review concluded that after factoring in the time between picking the produce and eating it, frozen and canned foods have similar nutrition profiles. More recently, a 2009 study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University analyzing thirty-seven types of produce showed that there are no significant nutritional differences between frozen and fresh.
Beyond nutritional content, consuming imported fresh fruits and vegetables might also mean ingesting more pesticides. Not only did a 2003 survey by the Austrian Consumers Association find that the vitamin content is higher in frozen vegetables than in fresh, but it also discovered that the fresh variety contained more pesticides and lead.