Eating as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible is always a good idea. But what if the foods that you want are not in season locally? You might have to buy frozen. What if you have the option to buy both? Which do you choose, fresh or frozen?
You may wonder if the nutritional content varies depending on whether the produce is fresh or frozen. Continue reading to learn more and pick up some tips for your next grocery trip.
What Should You Buy And Eat? Is Frozen Produce As Nutritious As Fresh?
Americans spend less time than ever doing meal preparation. As a result, frozen foods have become a necessary convenience. Frozen foods can be found among all five food groups.1
Although consumers often assume that fresh foods are more nutritious, recent research shows a different outcome: The nutritional value of frozen foods is often equal to, if not greater than, that of fresh foods.2
Benefits Of Frozen Fruits And Vegetables
One of the problems with fresh produce is the amount of time it spends in transit on the supply chain (producers, wholesalers, and retailers), from being picked on the farm to reaching consumers. The journey from farm to table could take more than two weeks. During this time, fresh fruits and veggies may be subject to more pesticides, high heat, and excess light – all factors implicated in degrading their nutrient values, taste, and freshness.3
And after all that, it may end up sitting in a refrigerator for five or more days before being consumed.4
On the other hand, frozen fruits and vegetables are typically picked at the height of their ripeness and flash-frozen very quickly – within 4-6 hours. This may preserve the nutrient values. According to a recent study, nutritional values of frozen fruits and veggies are typically equivalent to their fresh analogs. However, with some nutrients, such as Vitamin A, ascorbic acid, and Vitamin B9 (folate), the frozen version retains more nutrients. This is because nutrients in fresh produce degrade while in storage.5,6 Some vegetables retain nutrition better when they are frozen and kept stored in the freezer. Examples include frozen peas and frozen green beans.7
In another study, a set of fruits and vegetables was evaluated, both fresh and frozen, to determine differences in nutrient content. The foods included corn, carrots, broccoli, spinach, peas, green beans, strawberries, and blueberries. They tested for vitamin C content, beta carotene, riboflavin, and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). In some samples, vitamin C and vitamin E levels were higher in the frozen, while beta carotene levels were lower. But for most of the samples, there were no significant differences between nutrient levels.8
Advantages To Frozen Produce:
- You can enjoy your favorite mangos, blueberries, spinach, and cauliflower at any time of the year.
- You can benefit from the fact that it won’t spoil as quickly as fresh produce because it has a longer shelf life while kept in the freezer.
- You can afford foods that might otherwise be too expensive fresh. Freezing preserves not only vitamins but also beneficial plant compounds that support your health.9
There are differences in how frozen produce is picked vs. fresh. Frozen fruits and frozen veggies are picked at peak ripeness when they are at their nutritional peak. They then go through the process of blanching, steaming, freezing, storing, and boiling.10 By contrast, fresh foods are harvested when they are less mature and nutrient-dense. This is to accommodate the time required for picking, refrigeration, transport, and storage. As a result, oxidation is likely to occur along the way, which compromises the vitamins and nutrients.11
Blanched Frozen Vegetables
Before they are frozen, vegetables are blanched in water at 90-95°F. The blanching process prevents the food from browning, retains its flavor, softens its fiber, and keeps its colors green. But it also kills enzymes and destroys as much as 50% of certain vitamins, like vitamin C.12 On the flip side, when the vegetables are blanched as part of the freezing process, they retain phytochemicals at the time of cooking better than their fresh counterparts. In particular, this applies to lutein and flavonoids. Also, more bioactive compounds were retained in frozen vegetables relative to raw vegetables, particularly in green beans and zucchini.13
Farmer’s Markets: The Best Option For Maintaining Nutrition
Still, when it comes to maximizing nutritional value, there is an even better alternative to fresh vs. frozen: Purchase fruits and vegetables from a farmer’s market. They are most likely picked at their peak ripeness the day before and refrigerated immediately.14 Buying local and eating at peak season will likely result in higher nutrient counts.15
The caveat is that in order for farm-fresh to be a benefit over frozen, you should consume the produce within a couple of days. This is because the water soluble vitamins degrade over time. For example, vitamin C rapidly degrades after harvest and during storage. The degradation varies by vegetable, with green peas losing vitamin C more slowly than green beans and broccoli. The vitamin loss is also temperature-dependent (the warmer the storage, the faster the loss).16
What About Canned Foods? Can Canned Fruits And Vegetables Be Nutrient Dense?
Another viable option is canned fruits and vegetables. You might think of canned peas or corn, staples that your grandparents would be familiar with. But today, you can find canned versions of everything from garbanzo beans to artichoke hearts. Depending on the commodity, canned foods may preserve nutrient quality better than fresh.
As part of the canning process, fruits and veggies are often heated at high temperatures. This causes a degradation of vitamin C of 10-90%. Once they are canned, though, there is very little change. There is a similar outcome with B vitamins. Overall, after the initial loss of water-soluble vitamins due to thermal processing, the lack of oxygen in the sealed cans virtually halts additional nutrient degradation. As there is minimal degradation in canned products, nutrition labels are also more reliable and relevant at the point of consumption.17
The most sensitive compounds to canning are polyphenolics, which exist mostly in the skins of fruits like peaches, pears, and apples. To benefit the most from polyphenolics, stick to a canned fruit that retains the skin. Or, purchase frozen versions.18
To retain maximal nutrition, canned vegetables should be consumed in the most nutrient-dense form possible. Choose vegetables lowest in added sodium.19 Choose a canned fruit lowest in added sugars. Also, instead of boiling in water, canned veggies should be lightly steamed.20
Fresh Vs. Frozen: Know Your Eating Habits To Maximize The Nutritional Content
Our grocery store choices often define us: Paper or plastic. Store brand vs. brand name. Fresh or frozen. With fresh vs. frozen, there is not a binary answer. Despite the age-old concept that fresh is always better, science does not play this out. There are a host of factors that influence peak nutritional value. These include everything from harvesting, processing, packing, and storing to how the food is finally prepared. It also depends on your eating habits: Will you eat the food within two days or will it be stored in your fridge or freezer? The choice is yours.
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