One question that I am asked regularly is ‘Are frozen and canned fruits and vegetables as nutritious as fresh foods?’ I recommend opting for fresh produce whenever possible, however, if fresh variations are unavailable, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables can be a great alternative. Contrary to popular belief, canned and frozen variations can be just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts when the fresh version is not readily available. But there are a few key guidelines to keep in mind when shopping for canned and frozen fruits and vegetables.
For both canned and frozen foods, it is important to focus on the identity of the food. Is it a pure food without any additives or are there mystery ingredients riddled throughout it? Look at the ingredients list. If it takes more than a couple of seconds to read, it is probably too processed. Ideally, if you are buying canned beans, for example, you want the ingredients to be as close to just beans as possible. The few ingredients that are included in it should be easily pronounced – you do not want to buy food with lots of tongue twister ingredients in it because long names are an indicator of unnecessary additives and preservatives.
When buying canned foods, pay attention to any juice included in it. For canned fruit, look for statements on the labels such as “packaged in its own juices” because a fruit’s natural juice typically contains less sugar than any syrups that are added during processing. You should also look for label descriptions such as “unsweetened” and “no added sugar” for indications that you are purchasing the healthiest canned fruit possible.
You should also be cognizant of the sodium levels in your canned vegetables. Opt for labels that include statements like “no salt added” or “reduced sodium” because many canned foods are loaded with salt. If you cannot find a canned version with no or low salt, then rinsing the vegetables in water can help to reduce the amount of salt.
Another point to be mindful of is whether cans contain bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an industrial chemical that is used to make resins and plastics. It can have negative health implications, so it is ideal to get canned foods that have “BPA-free” labels. Another great option is opting for dried bulk legumes whenever possible.
Most evidence suggests that freezing vegetables and fruits typically preserves the nutrient quality and that fresh and frozen produce boasts similar health benefits. In some cases, frozen vegetables are actually slightly higher in nutrients than the fresh variation. When studies do identify a decrease in nutrients from fresh to frozen produce, it is typically minimal.
When shopping for frozen foods, avoid those that contain sauces and other forms of added fat and sugar. I always recommend seasoning veggies with spices and herbs at home to limit unnecessary additives and other unhealthy ingredients – especially since at-home seasoning typically tastes better, too. And, believe it or not, some frozen fruits contain added sweetness, so make sure you are only buying plain fruit.
In sum, single-ingredient canned and frozen fruits and veggies are great alternatives when fresh produce is not available or if you are looking for a more affordable option. Avoid products with added ingredients and choose variations with no BPA. Check out my book Eat to Beat Disease for more information on the health benefits of fresh, frozen, and canned foods.