Do Vegetables and Fruits Have to Be Fresh to Get the Nutritional Benefit?


We always hear that one of the best ways to take care of our health is to eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. But what if you can’t always purchase fresh food—whether due to cost, taste preferences, spoilage risk, or any other of several possible reasons to choose frozen or canned over fresh? You can stop worrying about it.


Fresh

Most evidence suggests that frozen fruits and vegetables are just as good for you (if not better in some cases) than fresh food. Unless you’re choosing fresh produce from a farmers’ market or your own backyard, chances are good that your produce was picked at least several days ago—likely not at its peak ripeness (otherwise, it would spoil too quickly en route to the store) and with loss of some of its nutritional value after picking and during transport. Once fresh fruits and vegetables are harvested, they undergo higher rates of respiration— a physiologic process in which plant starches and sugars are converted into carbon dioxide, water, and other by-products—leading to moisture loss, reduced quality, and susceptibility to microorganism spoilage. Refrigeration during transport helps to slow the deterioration, but still, by the time you eat a fresh vegetable that traveled across a continent to reach your dinner table, a substantial amount of its nutritional value may be lost.


You can help maximize nutritional value of your fresh produce by choosing locally grown produce, refrigerating the fruits and veggies to help slow down nutrient losses, and steaming rather than boiling to minimize loss of water-soluble vitamins.


Frozen

Produce destined for freezing is picked at its maximal ripeness, quickly frozen to a temperature that maximally retains its nutritional value and flavor, and kept frozen until it gets to the freezer in your local store. While some initial nutrient loss occurs with the first steps in the freezing process—washing, peeling, and heat-based blanching (done for vegetables but usually not fruits)—the low temperature of freezing keeps the produce good for up to a year on average. Once you thaw and eat frozen food, you get the majority of the food’s original nutritional value. Be assured, if you love blueberries and all their health benefits, for example, the frozen version is just as good as the fresh. And depending on how you cook or prepare the food, it may taste quite similar to its fresh counterpart.


Canned

The process is somewhat different for canned produce, and in some cases, nutritional value may suffer. Similar to the freezing process, in the canning process, the produce is picked at its maximal ripeness, blanched (this time for longer duration and with somewhat increased nutrient loss for heat-sensitive compounds compared with frozen), and then canned. Oftentimes, sugary syrup or juice is added to canned fruit. Salt is added to many vegetables to help retain flavor and avoid spoilage. These additions can take a very healthy fruit or vegetable and make it much less desirable than its fresh or frozen counterpart. But without these additions, the nutritional value of canned fruits and vegetables is generally similar to fresh and frozen. For fruits, look for canned fruit “in its own juice.” For vegetables, check the sodium content on the nutritional label and aim for vegetables with “no added salt” and without added butter or cream sauces. Because the canned produce is maintained in an oxygen-free environment, canned foods can last for years (but be weary of dented or bulging cans).


Bottom Line

By the time they’re consumed, most fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables seem to be nutritionally similar. Each has the same fat, carbohydrate, and protein content as the preharvest fruit. While variable loss in water- and fat-soluble vitamins can occur depending on the postharvest processing method, for the most part, you can feel confident that frozen and canned (without additives) fruits and vegetables are just as good for you and your family as fresh food.


Ultimately, you might find that choosing a mix of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables will help you and your family to more easily, inexpensively, and creatively enjoy the nine or more servings per day of fruits and vegetables recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans without sacrificing nutritional value.


Learn more at http://www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov

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