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Diet & Nutrition

Fruits and Vegetables: Fresh vs. Frozen and Canned

By Sondra Forsyth

Plenty of people assume that fresh produce is healthier than the frozen and canned versions, but that’s not always the case. Flash-frozen fruits and vegetables are actually better for you than most fresh produce. The same goes for many canned vegetables if the salt content is low, and for many canned fruits if no sugary syrups are added. (Tip: Rinse canned vegetables to lower the salt content, and buy canned fruits packed in their own juice.)

Why Frozen and Canned Products Are Healthy

Fruits and vegetables that end up in your supermarket were almost always picked before they were ripe, so they never reached their full nutrient potential. Adding to the problem, the antioxidant content gradually diminishes when the produce is shipped and while it sits in a store waiting for you to buy it. Unless you grow your own veggies and fruits or you frequent farmer’s markets and stop at roadside farm stands, you’re better off buying produce that was flash-frozen or canned at peak nutrition. That means the produce needs to be frozen or canned right after being harvested, before its nutrients begin to degrade. A 2007 study at the University of California, Davis found that the loss of nutrients in fresh products during storage may be even more significant than most people realize and that exclusive recommendations of fresh produce ignored the nutrient benefits of canned and frozen foods.

In 2006, the American Dietetic Association, since renamed the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, came out with a statement in favor of canned fruits and vegetables as good substitutes for fresh produce. It noted that canned produce might sometimes be healthier because it’s picked and canned at peak freshness. Heating during canning does destroy some vitamins, but most of the nutrients remain. The statement went on to say that—as a result of the canning process—canned tomatoes, corn, and carrots provide higher levels of some antioxidants than their fresh counterparts.

An Interesting Aside

The commercial frozen food industry was invented in the 1920s by Clarence Birdseye (his real name!), who got the idea while on fur-trapping expeditions to Labrador some years previously. He observed that the local native people froze food to preserve it, and thus an industry was born. By 1998, the FDA confirmed that frozen produce offers the same essential nutrients that fresh-picked produce does.

Nutritional Value of Fresh Produce Varies Depending on the Season

In Mediterranean countries, people generally eat only local produce during the time of year each fruit or vegetable is available. In the United States, however, shoppers take it for granted that produce will be brought in all year round from far-flung areas of the country or indeed the world. Because of this practice, we have an abundance of choices every day of the year but few of us realize that the bulk of what’s available is not really “fresh” anymore. Nutrients including thiamine and vitamins A and C are often destroyed by the time we buy the produce. Some veggies and fruits do continue to ripen after they are picked, but they never reach full nutrient value if they weren’t ripe when they were harvested.

I’m not suggesting that you should only buy locally grown produce. After all, the lemons in the produce section of your supermarket weren’t grown in your state unless you live in one of a few states. And of course, you can’t buy canned or frozen lemons. Even so, when it comes to many fruits and vegetables, you may be better off heading for the freezer section of the supermarket as well as the aisles containing canned foods during seasons when your home state isn’t producing much variety.

Home Freezing and Canning

Of course, you could can and freeze your own fruits and vegetables, but those are time-consuming projects. Also, amateurs are not always successful when it comes to preserving food safely. If you learned the art of canning at your mother’s or grandmother’s knee, go for it. Otherwise, you’re probably better off leaving the canning and freezing to the pros.

Getting the Most Out of Frozen and Canned Foods

Here’s a guide to getting the maximum nutritional benefit from flash-frozen and canned foods:

*Stay away from vegetables smothered in high-calorie sauces.

*Read labels to find products with low amounts of sodium and sugar.

*Look for the USDA “U.S. Fancy” shield instead of the lower grades “U.S. No. 1” and “U.S. No. 2.”

*Avoid dented or bulging cans, which can mean the 
contents are contaminated.

*Make sure your freezer is always set to 0°F 
(-18°C).

*Canned vegetables and fruits—which by definition have been cooked—can be more nutritious than raw fresh vegetables. Heat releases nutrients and makes them easier to absorb. Just be sure not to overheat vegetables or fruit after you open the cans. Warm the contents but don’t boil them.

Frozen Foods to Avoid

Keep in mind that when you head to the frozen food aisle in search of fruits and veggies, you may be tempted by the nearby displays of frozen foods that are not healthy. Promise yourself you’ll walk right past the packaged frozen dinners, even the ones labeled “light” or “healthy,” because they contain all kinds of preservatives and probably a lot of sodium and sugar as well. Of course it goes without saying that you won’t even go near the sugar-laden frozen desserts. Right? Right!

Here’s to good eating all year long thanks to canned and frozen produce!

Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of ThirdAge.com. Her most recent book is “Candida Cleanse: The 21-Day Diet to Beat Yeast and Feel Your Best.”. This article is an excerpt adapted from the book.