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True or False: Fresh Food Is Better Than Frozen or Canned Food

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mythbuster graphic 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.

Conclusion

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!

  • Are canned fruits and vegetables a healthy alternative to fresh produce? Johns Hopkins Med Lett. 2007;19:8

  • ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture, ChooseMyPlate.gov website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/. Updated June 14, 2011. Accessed June 21, 2011.

  • The cold shoulder: why food snobs shouldn’t snub the freezer. Slate Magazine website. Available at http://www.slate.com/id/2102884/. Published June 2004. Accessed November 10, 2008.

  • Food labeling: nutrient content claims, definition of term: healthy. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/98fr/032598c.pdf. Published March 1998. Accessed November 10, 2008.

  • Fresh versus frozen. Our Ohio website. Available at http://www.ourohio.org/misc/html%5Fmisc/feat%5Farch/2006/fe%5F01%5F19%5F06.php. Accessed August 30, 2006.

  • Is fresh better? Greenmaple Wellness Communications website. Available at: http://umanitoba.fitdv.com/new/articles/article.html?artid=8. Accessed August 30, 2006.

  • Nutritional value of frozen fruits and vegetables the same or better than raw counterparts, says FDA. American Frozen Food Institute website. Available at: http://www.healthyfood.org/sub/fdaruling.htm. Published June 2007. Accessed November 10, 2008.

  • Safe food handling. Food Safety and Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact%5FSheets/Focus%5FOn%5FFreezing/index.asp. Published October 2005. November 10, 2008.

  • A Shakespearean decision in the supermarket. Food Insight Newsletter. International Food Information Council (IFIC) website. Available at: http://ific.org/foodinsight/1999/mj/shakespearefi399.cfm. Published May/June 1999. Accessed November 10, 2008.

  • A study of canned food nutrition. Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign website. Available at: http://nutrican.fshn.uiuc.edu/. Accessed November 10, 2008.

  • Turkey: fresh, frozen, organic, free-range, wild, or conventional? Sam Cooks website. Available at: http://www.samcooks.com/flavor/turkey%20talk.htm. Accessed November 10, 2008.

  • Image Credit: Nucleus Communications, Inc.