Eating right, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight are the primary objectives of a devoted health conscious community. But making healthy food choices is not always easy. Advances in food technology have dramatically changed the way we eat. Frozen or canned foods, for example, are now less expensive and more readily available than fresh foods in most places. But is this such a bad thing? Is fresh always better?
Evidence for the Health Claim
The general impression is that fresh food—produce, in particular—is better for you than frozen food because fresh food (provided it has not been overly steamed or overly boiled) arrives at your table with its appearance largely unchanged, and its nutrients—including fiber content—intact. Additionally, canned foods are notorious for being higher in added salt and sugar, and frozen meals are known for the additives they often require (such as emulsifiers and binders found in frozen desserts). It also may seem illogical to think that food processed a year or more before it is consumed could actually still be nutritious.
Evidence Against the Health Claim
While it is generally accepted that fresh fruits and vegetables contain the most nutrients, it is important to remember that fresh produce is often transported over long distances and then left to sit on store shelves. The time lapse between picking and purchase can cause fresh fruits and vegetables to lose some of their nutritional value as they are exposed to light and air. Their taste and texture are also diminished.
Frozen or canned produce, on the other hand, is generally packaged immediately after harvesting, when nutrient levels are at their highest. Statements issued by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) report that nutrients in fruits and vegetables are generally not lost during canning or freezing, and that fresh, frozen, or canned versions of the same food have relatively equivalent nutrient profiles.
The nutrients in produce remain largely intact regardless of how they are processed. The lycopene in tomatoes, for example, can be found in fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, and frozen pizza sauce. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety & Inspection Service has also stated that there is little change in nutrient value during freezer storage of meat and poultry products.
Some studies have found that frozen or canned foods hold their own when it comes to nutrient levels. For example, a comparative analysis of canned, fresh, and frozen fruits and vegetables, conducted by the University of Illinois Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, confirmed encouraging findings about canned foods, in particular:
- Fiber content is as high in canned products as in their fresh counterparts.
- Folate (an essential B Vitamin), vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, thiamin, and carotenoids all hold up well during canning. In some cases (pumpkins, for example), vitamin A levels are actually higher in the canned versus fresh product. Some analyses also show that the nutrient value of lycopene is increased when consumed after it is heated or canned.
- The nutrient value of meats and other proteins are also unaltered by the canning process.
- The canning process may actually increase calcium levels in fish as compared to its freshly cooked variety.
Most nutritionists and dieticians would agree that fresh fruits and vegetables are nutritionally ideal. But they would also always add that it is better to eat frozen or canned produce than no produce at all. The convenience of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables may encourage people to consume more of these foods and potentially snack less on junk food. When preparing a meal, aim to make half your plate vegetables and fruits. To find out the exact amount of fruits and veggies you should eat based on your age and gender, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov.
Another benefit of frozen and canned foods is that they are often less expensive than their fresh counterparts; and as a final bonus, freezing and canning allow out-of-season produce to be available throughout the year to the delight of consumers everywhere!