The USDA recommends adults aim for up to 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits every day, but most of us aren’t eating even half that amount. To increase intake, experts recommend we not only seek out the freshest produce, but also stock our freezers and pantries with frozen, canned and dried options. “We find that consumers who purchase all forms of fruits and vegetables are the ones more likely to be eating higher amounts of these healthful foods overall,” says Elizabeth Pivonka, PhD, RD, President and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation.
As it turns out, minimally processed forms of produce (like those that have been canned, frozen, or dried) are at least as healthful as fresh, and often more so.
The Pluses of Processing. Fresh produce isn’t always the most nutritious choice. The majority of fresh produce is picked early, so it never reaches its full nutrition potential, and travels days before it gets to supermarket shelves. Some nutrient levels go down over time. Fruits and vegetables that are to be canned or fro-zen are allowed to fully ripen on the plant, and they’re packed within hours of harvest, so their peak flavor and nutritional value are preserved. Additionally, since they’re not exposed to the air, canned and frozen produce don’t lose many nutrients.
Tips for Produce Picks
For the highest nutrient content and the lowest environmental impact:
All forms count. Choosing a combination of fresh, frozen, canned, and dried produce will help you meet your goal for nutrient-rich fruits and vegetable servings.
Only buy fresh produce in season. Choose frozen or canned out of season.
Buy local when possible. Due to the consumption of fossil fuels, pay attention to how far your produce has travelled.
Drain (and rinse) canned fruits and vegetables to reduce sodium and sugar content.
Look for BPA-free cans if you are concerned about this chemical.
Be aware of added sugars in dried fruits.
Watch out for sauces that add salt and fat to frozen vegetables.
While heat used in processing can decrease levels of some nutrients, heat actually increases the availability of others. “Water soluble nutrients are harmed the most by heat,” says Pivonka, “but those same nutrients would be lost in home cooking. Heat actually helps other nutrients, like those that are fat soluble, by making them more accessible for the body to absorb.” For example, research shows that the heat of the canning process increases availability of eye-protecting lutein from corn. And heat doesn’t destroy fiber or minerals, so fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruits and vegetables contain similar amounts of these important components.
From an environmental standpoint, frozen or canned produce can be lower-impact choices, particularly when the produce you want is out of season or not grown in your part of the country. They also cut down on waste, as these forms are less likely to go bad and be thrown away.
Mitigating Minuses. According to the Produce for Better Health Foundation, most people rate recipes prepared with canned and/or frozen ingredients as comparable to those prepared with cooked fresh ingredients. So taste and nutrient levels are comparable, but what about preservatives and additives in processed foods? Sodium and sugar are the biggest culprits in canned fruits and vegetables, but they’re found mostly in the liquid portion. “Draining and rinsing removes almost half of the sodium,” says Pivonka. “Likewise, if you want to decrease your added sugar intake, simply drain off the syrup or juices.” All together, canned, frozen, and dried fruits contribute less than 2 percent of the added sugar in most American’s diets, and processed veggies are responsible for less than 1 percent of the sodium. Just beware of frozen vegetables with fat- or sodium-laden sauces.
Another often-cited concern is bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical typically used in can liners. Even though the FDA says BPA is safe in materials that make contact with food, many manufacturers have already discontinued use of BPA in their cans in response to consumer concerns.
The Bottom Line. “Rather than trying to find the most perfect fruit or vegetable, it’s more important that people eat what they like and what fits best into their lifestyle,” says Pivonka. Buying a combination of fresh, canned, frozen, and dried maximizes nutrition, minimizes waste, and assures that there are always a variety of fruits and vegetables available. “Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables of any form,” says Pivonka. “They’re all good for you!” So when it comes to fruits and vegetables, consider all forms, and include a colorful variety.
—Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN