If your access to fresh fruits and veggies has been reduced recently, don’t sweat it. There’s enough to worry about without adding fresh veggie FOMO to the list - and you can easily round out your nutritional needs with shelf-stable alternatives.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating a tomato straight from the vine, you’ll know it’s a special experience. Ripe, fresh-picked fruits and veggies are not just flavorsome, they’re at their nutritional peak. So you could be forgiven for assuming that everything in the produce aisle at the grocery store is nutritional gold, with frozen, canned or freeze-dried veggies coming in a poor second-best. In fact, the reality is much more interesting than that. The good news is that all fruits and veggies count towards your five-a-day - whether they’re heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market, or just regular ones in a can.
But surely the nutrition facts speak for themselves?
Firstly, let’s clear one thing up: there is no definitive nutritional content for fresh produce. Take, say, a strawberry. If you want an accurate measure of how much Vitamin C it contains, you first need to take into account what kind of strawberry it is, and where and when it was grown. Different fruit varietals, ripened in different climatic conditions, can have slightly different nutritional profiles. Secondly, and more importantly: how recently was it picked, and how has it been stored? As we’ll see, fruits and vegetables lose nutritional value as they travel down the supply chain from field to plate. Because of all these variables, the nutrition facts you see on the label are estimates based on average values, rather than exact information about the actual strawberries in your shopping basket. This makes it really hard to say for sure that “fresh is better”; the real answer is, “it depends.”
Doesn’t processing destroy all the vitamins?
The nutrient profile of any fruit or vegetable starts to degrade as soon as it is picked, and continues to decline over time. In general, we underestimate the amount of nutrient loss during storage of fresh produce. One study showed that fresh strawberries lost 20% of their Vitamin C and more than 80% of their antioxidants over the course of seven days in the chiller cabinet. And the produce in your supermarket may be older than you think: although soft fruits like strawberries were probably picked less than a week ago, it could be a whole month since those tomatoes left the vine. Carrots are often 6-9 months old, and apples and potatoes can spend a whole year in special cold-storage facilities before reaching consumers.
Far from destroying nutrients, freezing or freeze-drying is actually a smart way to press “pause” on perishability and preserve more of the food’s nutritional value. Some frozen veggies – spinach and peas, for example – retain more vitamins than the fresh equivalent after ten days. Freeze-dried strawberries, limes, broccoli, bell peppers and oranges have all been lab-tested and shown to retain all or very nearly all of their Vitamin C, antioxidants and polyphenols.
It’s important to note that not all nutrients are affected equally. Water-soluble compounds, like vitamin C, B vitamins and antioxidants, are easily damaged by storage and lost during cooking. Fat-soluble ones, like vitamins A & E, beta carotene and lycopene, are less prone to loss, while minerals and fiber are hardly affected at all. In fact, dietary fiber is one of the most consistently underrated benefits of eating fruits and veggies, and it’s present in similar quantities in fresh, frozen or shelf-stable fruits and veggies - as long as they haven’t been peeled or juiced.
Ok, so freezing works - but canned produce is junk, isn’t it?
It’s true that freezing or freeze-drying is better than canning for preserving the nutrients in most produce, because the canning process usually requires foods to be cooked or heat-treated. But home cooking destroys nutrients too: expect to lose 15-55% of vitamin C content, depending on the method you use. So for produce that you’re going to cook anyway - say, beans or spinach - canned versions are a decent substitute. For a few foods, notably tomatoes, canning may actually make them better for you. A can of tomatoes has just as much vitamin C as its fresh equivalent, and the antioxidant lycopene is actually more bioavailable when cooked than when raw. Calcium levels are also boosted by certain canning processes.
One thing to watch out for in canned produce is the level of sodium, which can be high: choose low or no salt if you can, and add your own seasoning to taste.
But fresh veggies are more expensive - they must be better!
The premium you pay for fresh produce is closely tied to how perishable it is. Transporting, storing and displaying fresh fruits and vegetables entails a huge amount of work - and an equally huge amount of energy and waste. Fragile fruits must be hand-picked, carefully packed and transported in refrigerated trucks, so that they look appealing on the shelf. Even the more robust veggies like potatoes need to be stored in climate controlled warehouses, sometimes for long periods of time. Anything destined for the fresh produce aisle also has to meet narrow standards of beauty: crooked carrots or potatoes with minor surface damage go straight on the scrap heap.
Produce that’s frozen, freeze-dried or canned before it’s shipped to stores doesn’t need to look so perfect. It’s also spared the wastage that occurs during transport and storage, because it doesn’t bruise or go bad. So it’s not just cheaper for farmers and suppliers to produce, it can also be lighter on the planet. We rate freeze-dried fruits and veggies particularly highly, because they retain all their nutrients, they don’t need to be refrigerated, and they’re very light and easy to ship - it’s a win-win for nutrition and sustainability.
So, what should I buy? fresh or shelf-stable?
Much as we love fresh fruits and veggies, it’s time to get over the notion that we’re failing if we don’t fill our refrigerators to bursting point with fresh produce. There are much smarter ways to get your five-a-day, using a mix of fresh, frozen and shelf-stable fruits and veggies.
Let’s face it, nutrition is not the only consideration when we go grocery shopping. Budget is a big factor for most of us. There are sustainability issues too: seasonality, food miles, packaging. And it goes without saying that flavor and appetizing appearance are key to our food choices. Being open to shelf-stable alternatives can stretch your grocery budget further and cut the amount of fresh food you waste, often without compromising on flavor. Now you know that canned tomatoes, frozen peas and freeze-dried strawberries are often more nutritious and less wasteful than their fresh equivalents, you can stock up on a few shelf-stable standbys - and maybe splash out on some gorgeous local produce at the farmer’s market, too.