Frozen Versus Fresh Produce: Which is Healthier?
It is widely reported that Americans, on average, don’t consume nearly enough fruits and vegetables. In fact, the USDA recommends that we should consume five to nine servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day. We all know that consuming produce is good for us. Having said that, many have questioned whether or not frozen produce is as healthy as fresh produce. Is there a difference with respect to nutritional value? And, if you opt for the frozen produce, are some types better than others? This bite will explain the ins and outs of fresh versus frozen produce.
Nutritional Facts and Figures
Before we start, understand that hands down, the less processing involved and the closer a food is to its natural state, the better. Therefore, in the summer, vine-ripened or fresh-from-the-garden (or good farmer’s market) produce that is eaten immediately always offers the most relative nutritional value. However, the belief that fresh produce is always the optimal choice is not necessarily true.
So, in order to answer the question of whether fresh or frozen produce is more relatively nutritious, the most important consideration is the state of the produce when consumed. Are the fresh fruits and vegetables picked when they are ripe and eaten immediately afterward? Or, has the produce been sitting on a supermarket shelf or in a refrigerator for a number of days before eating? The answers to these questions greatly impact the nutrient content of the food.
Surprisingly, throughout most of the year (i.e., during months when local produce is not in season), while shopping at your local supermarket, the frozen produce may be as nutritious, if not more nutritious, than the fresh produce! Often, fresh fruits and vegetables have been sitting on the shelf for a number of days, gradually losing nutrients. In fact, it can sometimes take up to two weeks from the time fresh produce has been picked until they reach your plate at home. By this time, 10-50% of the less stable nutrients may have disappeared.
On the other hand, most frozen fruits and vegetables are picked when they are ripe (at their peak nutritional state) and frozen soon thereafter via a quick-freeze processing technique. Although a small amount of nutrients are lost during this process, once they are frozen, the food’s nutrients are “locked in”. Therefore, nutrient losses are very minimal during shipping, on the grocer’s shelf, and while frozen in your home. Studies conducted by food scientists that measure the mineral, vitamin, and fiber content of various fruits and vegetables show that in most cases the frozen produce retains the same amount of nutrients (if not more) as compared to their fresh counterparts.
In a recent study, conducted by the Institute of Food research and published in the UK’s Daily Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/7374249/Frozen-vegetables-more-nutritious-than-fresh-vegetables-says-report.html), frozen vegetables retained their nutrients longer than their fresh counterparts. The research showed that fresh vegetables lost up to 45 percent of their nutrients by the time they were eaten.
In another study conducted at the University of Illinois under Barbara Klein, PhD, it was shown that frozen green beans contained twice as much vitamin C versus their raw counterparts. After three days in a display case and three days in a refrigerator (a situation that typically occurs after purchase), ‘fresh’ green beans retained only 36% of their vitamin C content. Frozen green beans, on the other hand, retained 77% of their vitamin C content – more than twice the vitamin C!
In addition to being highly nutritious, other benefits of consuming frozen produce include the following:
- Availability – Frozen fruits and vegetables are never out of season; they’re available all year long, so you can consume a much wider variety of produce
- Freshness – Frozen fruits and vegetables are processed at the peak of freshness. There is no waste from spoilage.
- Nutrition – Frozen fruits and vegetables often have the same nutrient value and health benefits as fresh.
- Convenience – Frozen fruits and vegetables are easy and quick to prepare and serve.
- Portion Control – One can prepare only what is needed at the time and store the rest for another time. This is great for individuals or small families because it allows them to have more variety in their meal planning.
- Economical – Frozen foods are economical because you do not pay for stalks, pits, skins, rinds or damaged food. Edible ounce for edible ounce, frozen food usually costs less than its fresh counterpart.
- Shelf-life- Unlike most fresh produce, which at its best lasts a number of days or weeks, frozen produce has a much longer shelf-life. Frozen fruit and fruit juice can safely be stored for 8-12 months and frozen vegetables can by stored for up to 8 months. (For more information on how long particular produce stays fresh, check out www.stilltasty.com)
Since consuming frozen produce can be a healthy alternative to fresh produce, are certain types of frozen produce better than others? Whether the brand is Bird’s Eye, America’s Choice, Master Choice, Green Giant, or Cascadian Farm…just to name a few, one should follow the few simple tips below when purchasing frozen produce:
- Avoid vegetables prepared in any sauces- including butter, cream, cheese, or garlic sauces (these add a good deal of extra calories, fat, and sodium to the food).
- Avoid fruits with “added sugars”; the natural sugars in fruits already provide enough sweetness on their own.
- Read ingredient lists to make sure that the package only contains the fruit or vegetable of choice (no extra sauces, additives, or preservatives).
- Maybe opt for organic – while there is not solid evidence that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce, the former does have fewer pesticide residues and lower nitrate levels than the latter.
The highest levels of nutrients can be found in fresh fruit and vegetables that are in season and sold at local farmer’s markets or grown in your own garden and eaten quickly after being purchased. However, if these conditions do not exist, frozen produce is a great runner-up in terms of nutrition and often provides as much, if not more, nutrients than its fresh counterpart. Consuming frozen produce is an excellent way to get a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet. Consuming more produce by taking advantage of frozen fruits and vegetables is yet one more way to reach your goal intake of five to nine fruits and vegetables a day.
Important Note: Make sure to store all foods in the freezer at 0 degrees or lower to retain vitamin content, color, flavor and texture of the foods.