Should I eat fresh, frozen, or canned fruit? This is a question that we get asked regularly so let’s address it here. The answer is that it entirely depends on when/how you’re eating the foods. Let’s start with this basic fact: produce is generally at its highest nutrient content when it stays on the plant until it is fully ripe. This allows the fruit or vegetable the maximum time to absorb nutrients from the soil. This means that two things are important: when in the course of the year are you eating the food and is it a food that is grown anywhere near you? Since it’s national Peach Month let’s use peaches as an example. If peaches are in season that means that growers and suppliers are more likely to pick it close to perfect ripeness since there’s a big demand from stores for the food.
It also means that it will likely be less expensive. If it’s not in peak season for produce that means that stores won’t be going through as much of that item and while most like to keep fresh foods on hand the food is either coming from a different country or is picked very early to give it a longer shelf life at the store. This brings in the second point: where are you located geographically? To the best of my knowledge, there is nowhere in Alaska that grows peaches. Their produce is likely shipped in from the south or imported which means that the food had to be picked much sooner and has lost many valuable nutrients from not getting to ripen on the plant. So what’s the story with frozen produce? Frozen produce has the advantage that it is picked and frozen as close to ripe as possible and is often frozen within hours of being picked to ensure the best flavor for the consumer. This means that these foods often have the maximum nutrient amounts from ripening fully on the plant. The draw back is that several nutrients can be damaged by the blanching process that many vegetables especially undergo before freezing. This involves exposing produce (vegetables especially) to a quick boil (1-2 minutes) before putting it in ice water. This temperature shock helps preserve color and texture of vegetables during the cooking process. This blanching process can cut down the nutrient levels, particularly for heat sensitive nutrients like Vitamin C. The last option is canned produce. This is generally my least favorite, particularly for fruit. The main concern with canned produce is that flavor enhancers like salt and sugar are often added to the produce being canned to help preserve the foods for a longer period of time.
Another concern with canned produce includes suspected BPA chemicals in the metal of the can that are thought to be able to leach into the foods inside. Am I saying that I never cook with canned foods? Absolutely not. I’m a cook that tries to match convenience with health benefits. I avoid canned fruit unless I find one that has two ingredients: water and fruit. As for vegetables, always give these a rinse to help reduce the amount of extra salt you’re getting from these and never add salt to canned vegetables. They have usually been soaking in salt water for quite some time anyways!
Here’s the summary:
All methods have their pros and cons- convenience, nutritional quality, quick spoilage, etc. Here’s my rule of thumb:
If it’s a food that can be grown near me and is in season (check out this produce season chart from CookSmarts) then I’ll go fresh if the options look ripe. If they look like they’re still two weeks from being ripe, no thank you. If it’s out of season or the fresh options look like poor quality, frozen is my next choice. Canned is always my last choice.