In a perfect world, you’d get your fill of fruits and vegetables by leaning out of your kitchen window, opening your mouth, and letting the fresh grapes from your magical, self-growing, organic garden fall into your mouth. Most people, however, must make do with weekly grocery trips, occasionally supplemented by labor-intensive home gardens. This brings up the question of where to buy your fruits and vegetables. Fresh is the most expensive, and has the best chance of going bad before it makes it onto your dinner table, but both canned and frozen vegetables have a reputation for losing a significant chunk of the nutrients that you want from vegetables, and some people don’t like the change in texture that comes with the canning and freezing processes. So, which is the right way to go?
Fresh vegetables have the least loss of nutrients of any storing method, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a loss of nutrients. As soon as a fruit or vegetable is picked, it starts to lose some of its nutrients, and the farther it has to travel, and the longer it stays out on the shelf at the store, the greater the loss. This means that the farther your produce has to travel until it gets to your local grocery store, the less of a difference there is between the nutritional content of fresh versus frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. One of the biggest differences, though, lies in where that nutrient loss takes place.
As water-soluble vitamins, vitamins B and C are generally the first to go in the freezing and canning process. This means that, whenever possible, getting the fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamins B and C, like peppers, broccoli, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit fresh instead of canned or frozen will give you more vitamin bang-for-your-dinner-buck.
The biggest concern with frozen vegetables is that the blanching process where hot water is used to kill bacteria before vegetables are frozen damages water-soluble nutrients like vitamins B and C. Other than that, freezing is generally a good way to preserve nutrients, texture, and flavor in fruits and vegetables. One thing to keep in mind when buying vegetables is to keep an eye on the ingredients list, since added ingredients like salt or sugar can make hidden changes to an otherwise healthy diet. Some vegetables that don’t tend to freeze well are cabbage, celery, cucumbers, lettuce, and radishes.
Canned vegetables are sensitive to an even greater loss of water-soluble vitamins than frozen vegetables, since they’re both cooked and stored in liquid. But once they are canned, they’re relatively stable, because within the can, they aren’t exposed to oxygen. Some vegetables that can particularly well in terms of preserving nutrients are corn and carrots.
However, some studies show that canned vegetables may expose both mother and baby to higher-than-desired levels of BPA. Although more research is needed, as there are differing opinions on whether to caution pregnant women against consuming too many canned foods, it may be beneficial to moderate the amount of canned vegetables you eat.
The other concern with canned vegetables and fruits is that they’re often canned in salted water or sugar syrup to help with preservation, which adds sodium and sugar you may not have been planning on. Choosing low-sodium canned vegetables, and fruits that are canned in water or in their own juices is a good way to avoid the added salt and sugar, as is draining and rinsing fruits and vegetables before eating.
No matter what path your vegetables take to make it into your kitchen, the quest to keep as many nutrients in them as possible doesn’t stop there. The way you prepare your vegetables can have almost as much of an impact on which nutrients are still in them when they make it onto your plate as the way they’re stored. Raw vegetables have the least loss of nutrients, for obvious reasons, but they can also be harder to digest. Some vitamins tend to be lost in water, while others are lost in oil, which is why cooking with as little of both as possible can boost the vitamin content of your food (minerals tend not to be sensitive to cooking). This is why steaming your vegetables over a small amount of boiling water is considered a healthier alternative to boiling them, and roasting or broiling vegetables brushed with oil is considered to be healthier than pan-frying or deep frying them.
In the end, the thing that matters the most about fruits and vegetables is getting enough of them – how they’re prepared and how they’re stored are both secondary concerns. Knowing how to maximize the nutrients in them can be a great way to get the most out of every meal, though!
- “Ch. 17: Nutrition During Pregnancy.” ACOG. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Apr 2015. Web.
- “Fresh, Frozen or Canned Fruits and Vegetables: All Can Be Healthy Choices!” Heart. The American Heart Association, Jun 2015. Web.
- Rise Coach Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CWC. “Which is best: fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables?” RISE. Rise Labs, 2015. Web.