Ask the Expert: Fresh, Frozen or Canned Produce?

You want to know: Fresh fruits and veggies are vibrant, delicious and plentiful in the summer, but time and budget constraints may have us reaching for convenient frozen bags and inexpensive cans. When it comes to produce, which of these preparations is most fruitful for our health?

The Dietitian Says: Additives such as sodium and sugar are the most notable distinguishing factor between fresh and packaged produce. Since canned and frozen foods are intended to last longer, these options may also pack preservatives.

Fresh: Produce is at its peak when sourced locally and in season—no label needed! Fresh fruits and vegetables begin losing nutritional value as soon as they’re harvested, so the less distance your produce has to travel to the kitchen, the better. Fresh foods do spoil more quickly, however, which can add to food waste for some households.

Frozen: Blanching and freezing helps to preserve most of a plant’s nutrients and quality over time, though the process may break down certain water-soluble vitamins. Frozen produce can start to lose its nutrient composition and quality after a year, so should be used within that time frame. Frozen produce packages with sauces are likely to contain extra fat, sugar or sodium and should be avoided.

Canned: Like freezing, canning may diminish some water-soluble vitamins in produce, but protein content, fat-soluble vitamins and carbohydrates are typically well preserved. Canning may even improve nutrient content in some foods, such as tomatoes, which contain more of the antioxidant lycopene after processing. Shelf-stable fruits and vegetables have different considerations:

• Fruits canned in water typically include artificial sweeteners, whereas those in 100 percent juice don’t require added sweetener. Seek out fruit stored in its own juice instead of syrup to limit added sugar.
• Vegetables frequently have a higher sodium content for the purpose of preservation, though low-sodium and no-salt-added choices are available. To lower the sodium content of canned vegetables, rinse them with water before eating.

The Takeaway: Fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables are ripe with taste and nutrients, but frozen and canned produce aren’t necessarily unhealthy choices. The important thing is to get plenty of fruits and vegetables into your diet using whichever means fit your lifestyle and financial ability. Be sure to read nutrition labels, and choose packages that list the fruit or vegetable as the sole ingredient.