The quandary is older than the Jolly Green Giant: When it comes to produce, what’s better — fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables? The answer is many-fold. If you find yourself in a pickle when it comes to knowing what’s best, here’s a handy guide to help you decide.
Frozen Fruits & Veggies
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that when it comes to nutritional value, some frozen fruits and veggies are as good as — if not better — than fresh ones.
One of the perks of frozen foods is that there’s a nutritional breakdown and list of ingredients right on the package, so it’s pretty easy to make informed choices about what you eat. Just make sure you look closely at the product for the fine print. You may be consuming hidden calories, fat, and sodium.
Of course, everyone wants the best-tasting fruits and vegetables possible, even if there is no chance of getting to the local farmer’s market or even to the grocery store.
Freezing, like canning and fresh, has its pros and cons. But freezing may be a better alternative than you’ve read or heard about because of flash-freezing — a process by which vegetables (or fruits) are pummeled with cold, circulating air and literally frozen in time. This process preserves nutrients, color, and freshness.
And before the freezing process even begins, vegetables are blanched, which actually stops enzyme actions which can cause loss of flavor, color, and texture. Many people don’t know that.
Also, one of the many myths about frozen fruits and vegetables is that they lose nutrients when they are frozen. Most vegetables are harvested and frozen right away, which means their nutritional profile is not that compromised.
The way you cook the produce, however, CAN affect its nutritional profile. Boiling, for example, will destroy more nutrients than, say, steaming your vegetables. (That goes for fresh veggies, too, mind you.) You could lose up to 75% of the nutrients by boiling. Steaming is an option, though steaming also destroys nutrients with the water needed to steam; just not as much.
Some people opt for a diet of raw vegetables, but then you’re getting into the issue of possible bacteria if the produce is not properly washed. A diet consisting of frozen AND fresh is recommended by some experts.
The process of freezing has come a long way over the decades. In the 1970s, it took days for peas, say, to be harvested, transported, washed, blanched, and frozen. Today, the entire process takes about two hours.
In a hypothetical veggie videogame “race”, with harvesting as the start point and your dining room table as the finish line, the fresh pea would actually lose. Canned would come in second, and frozen would be the clear victor. (Anyone in the gaming industry listening? Sounds like a fun game … anyone?)
The fresh pea loses the race because by the time it reaches you, it could have traveled across the globe and actually been in the supermarket for weeks — losing valuable nutrients all the while. How fresh the produce is once it’s ready for your dinner depends on what region you live in, what’s in season, how close you are to the supermarket, and other factors. (You can read all about the interesting harvest-to-table process here.)
That is not to say flash-freezing doesn’t have its downside, or is “better” than other ways of getting in your fruits and veggies. Many people think that bacteria is “frozen out of” the vegetables or fruit upon freezing. Not true. The bacteria may be there; it may just be hibernating. All in all, though, frozen fruits and vegetables can be a great choice!
|The Good||The Bad||The Ugly|
|● Saves prep time|
● Can save money
● Less waste
● Always in season
● High vitamin content
● Full of antioxidants
● Usually no added chemicals
|● Blanching process can affect nutritional value|
● Loss of water-soluble nutrients
● Formation of ice crystals can be nutritionally problematic
● B-carotene deficient
|● Missing that “just picked” taste and texture
● Freezer burn!
● Can be mushy if overcooked
● Can have hidden fat, calories, and sodium
● Can’t be used as crudités at posh parties
- Carl Paul Gottfried Linde is the unofficial father of frozen foods, which hit the industrial market in the 1800s. So, hats off to Paul for making dinner that much easier!
- Clarence Birdseye introduced the concept of flash-freezing to the world. In the 1920s, he recognized that quickly-blanched green peas were vividly green when flash-frozen. In 1930, the brand Birdseye became the first frozen food available in stores, and today, frozen peas are among the most popular of their products.
- We’re all familiar with freezer burn, but you don’t have to waste your frozen veggies just because they’re a little icy. Throw them in a pot with vegetable stock and make a soup!
- You can roast frozen broccoli in extra virgin olive oil for a surprisingly easy side dish. The secret ingredients? Sugar and lemon juice! Who knew? You can find the recipe here.
The Bottom Line:
Frozen fruits and veggies undeservedly get a bad rap.
Canned Fruit & Veggies
Canned goods have been kitchen cabinet staples in the U.S. since about 1912. We probably take the convenience of popping open a can of peaches for granted now, but the process of canning has a long history and took over a hundred years to develop.
In 1809, Frenchman and famous chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert came up with — and won a prize for — a radical innovation: food packed in champagne bottles, sealed airtight with cheese and lime (weird, but it worked!) And the canning craze officially took off.
Appert’s invention drew the attention of gastronomist Grimod de la Reynière, who believed that Appert’s canned fresh peas were “green, tender and more flavorful than those eaten at the height of the season.”
In 1858, Ezra Warner invented an early version of the can opener, which didn’t become popular until the 1860s. In 1870, the can openers we are more familiar with today — with little wheels that pierce the can and turn — were invented. Today, the U.S. leads the world in canned goods consumption.
When it comes to evaluating what’s in canned foods, a good thing to keep in mind is that usually, the fewer ingredients, the better. More ingredients can mean hidden salt and/or sugars. Look for low-sodium options and go for canned fruits and veggies that are in their own fruit or brine.
Tomatoes are one of the best options, as they contain higher levels of carotenoids than when fresh. Studies have found a link between consuming carotenoids and the reduction of degenerative diseases. They may also contain higher nutrient amounts due to decreased handling, preserving nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. For vitamin C, these losses range from 8% in canned beets to 90% in canned carrots.
Canning in the Time of COVID-19:
These days, canned goods are more popular and more convenient than ever. Supermarkets simply cannot keep enough stock on the shelves because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Canned goods, quite simply, win the race when it comes to long-term storage and affordability, which is on many people’s minds during the crisis. Quite interestingly, this huge, and sudden, surge in canned goods production means that the actual metal containers are even in short supply. Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the demand. Meanwhile, fresh fruit and vegetables have been decreasing in production and popularity.
Like frozen fruits and veggies, canned items also get a bad rap. As with anything, there are upsides… and downsides:
|The Good||The Bad||The Ugly|
● Already cooked and recipe-ready; can be opened and served immediately
● Neater, easier storage
● Often cheaper than fresh or frozen
● Long shelf life
● Harvested and canned at peak freshness
● Saves time
● Can be used as tin can telephones, or 'lover's phones', when empty
|● May be canned in syrup or contain added sugar|
● Higher sodium content
● Water-soluble vitamins like C and B may be significantly reduced by processing
● May contain preservatives
● Lack of variety
|● Cans liners can contain the industrial chemical BPA, though today, about 90% of cans in stores do not
● Cans contain dangerous bacteria if not processed properly
● Aluminium cans can leak
● Canned fruits and veggies are frowned upon by hoity-toity friends and neighbours who only eat organic produce
- A 2012 survey revealed that 90% of Americans depend on canned fruits and vegetables for part of their produce intake.
- Despite his contributions to the world of commercial canning, champagne bottler Nicolas Appert was incredibly poor when he died on June 3, 1841.
- Pull tabs break, which is when your can opener is an essential life item. What some people don’t know is that every opener comes equipped with a bottle opener, which you can also use for stubborn jar lids by hooking the bottle opener under the jar lid and lifting slightly until you release the vacuum-tight seal.
- Organizing cans in the cabinet can be a messy scene. Did you know you can create a cardboard can dispenser with an everyday box? Find out how here. Cool, right?
The Bottom Line:
A good can isn’t hard to find.
Fresh Fruits & Veggies
Fresh produce is better for you, right? Not necessarily. During the time it takes to transport the harvested produce to you, the fruits and veggies are losing valuable nutrients.
Fruits and veggies are seasonal, meaning you can’t always find fresh, juicy strawberries in December. In general, asparagus, corn, and lettuce are in season in the summer; tomatoes, eggplant, pumpkin, and beans are in season in autumn; carrots, spinach, and potatoes are winter fruits and veggies; and artichokes, cabbage, and peas are among the fruits and veggies that thrive in spring.
If you want to find the best of the best, support your local farmers who will be able to offer you a tasty alternative.
Here are the ups and downs of buying fresh produce:
|The Good||The Bad||The Ugly|
|● Eating fresh fruit and veggies (in season) tastes better|
● When locally grown and fresh-picked, are as nutrient-dense as can be
● Consuming fresh fruits and veggies provides emotional as well as physical benefits
● Can help protect you from high blood pressure and certain diseases, like cancer
● High in fiber
● Make for a better still life painting than frozen or canned. (Just ask late 19th century painter Paul Cézanne)
|● Significant nutrient loss begins after about 48 hours|
● Fresh fruits and veggies are often picked before they are ripe, so they’re not as nutritious
● Imported and out-of-season fruits and vegetables can be unreliable
● Vitamin C levels decline immediately after harvesting
● Usually more expensive
● More waste due to spoilage
● More clean-up after cooking
|● There’s always a contamination risk. Always wash produce thoroughly (and your hands, duh)
● Possible pesticide residue
● The U.S. Centers for Disease Control CDC estimates that germs on fresh produce cause a large percentage of U.S. foodborne illnesses
● Raw fruits and veggies can contain Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria
- An apple a day may, in theory, keep the doctor away. But the truth about apples is that their seeds contain amygdalin, a substance that releases cyanide into the bloodstream when chewed and digested. Worry not — in small amounts, the seeds won’t do harm. (You’d have to eat about 200 of them before you’ll run into an issue.)
- The word “lettuce” comes from the Latin word for milk, “lac”.
- Hate shucking corn? You’re not alone. Though you’ve probably got bigger fish to fry these days, here’s an easy way to do it: Cut off the bottom end of the corn then throw it in the microwave for 2-4 minutes. Hold the top of the husk and give it a shake. The cob will fall right out!
- Keep bananas fresher for longer by wrapping the stems in tin foil. Genius.
The Bottom Line:
Fresh doesn’t always mean best. When combined with frozen and canned, you can maximize your intake and take in the recommended servings of fruits and veggies per day. In short, whatever’s most convenient for you is what you should stick to.
Here’s a summary table putting all this information together. Note that this is a general guide and will of course vary between different food products!
|Long Shelf Life||X|
|Always "In Season"||X||X|
So Is It Fresh, Canned or Frozen?
There are pros and cons of all methods of getting in your daily intake of fruits and vegetables.
What many experts recommend is a balanced diet consisting of each type — frozen, canned, and fresh — depending on your budget, your schedule, and your nutritional needs.
Sure, we could all visit the farmer’s market and cook fresh, healthy meals every day if it weren’t for budget and time constraints.
But everyone’s different. One person may be able to afford fresh fruits and veggies but may not have the time to cook them — so frozen may be a better option. Another person may have the time but not the budget, so they may also opt for frozen, canned, or a combination of all three.
At the end of the day, what’s most important is getting your daily recommended intake — which is about five to nine or even ten servings a day (depending on where you live in the world) — by whatever (safe) means necessary. Bon Appétit!