Picking Produce: The Great Debate Over Fresh, Frozen, and Canned

It’s advice we hear all the time: eat more fruits and vegetables. A diet packed with produce can enhance overall health, promote weight loss, help to reduce blood pressure—the list goes on. As we seek ways to sneak the good stuff into our diets, the question often arises: Is fresh, frozen or canned the best option? Well, I’ve got good and bad news. The bad news is that the answer is not clear cut. The good news is that I’ve pulled together a quick guide to help you make the best choice possible.

Choice 1: Fresh

When we head to the store for fruits and veggies, we often go straight to the produce section. The bright colors remind us that fresh produce is chock full of vitamins and minerals, and the seemingly endless choices give us an opportunity to expand our flavor pallet. Studies have shown that families who routinely keep fresh fruits and vegetables at home are more likely to actually serve these foods at dinner, so filling your cart with these options is an obvious “yes.”

While I’m huge fan of all things fresh, produce does lose some of its nutrients during handling, transport and exposure to air. In addition, fresh fruits and veggies are vulnerable to decomposition (think: bugs, bacteria, etc.). Therefore, the sooner you gobble ‘em down, the better.

A few strategies:

  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables close to the day that you will need them.
  • Visit your local farmers market to get produce grown nearby.
  • Keep only certain fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator (read the rules!).
  • Handle all fruits and vegetables with TLC.

Choice 2: Canned

Tomatoes, corn, peaches—it’s pretty likely that you’ve had at least one of these foods straight out of the can (I sure have!). But, let’s face it—canned fruits and vegetables often get a bad rap. The salt used to preserve flavor and texture makes health-conscious consumers turn their carts in the opposite direction, and canned fruits are often soaking in syrups that drive up sugar and calories. However, canned produce has the longest shelf life (up to five years) and is often more economical. In addition, produce headed to the canning plant is often picked at its peak harvest, meaning that its nutrient content is top notch. While the canning process does require some cooking, causing the loss of some water-soluble vitamins (such as B and C vitamins), overall losses are minimal.

A few strategies:

  • Have high blood pressure? Choose products with labels that say “low sodium” or “no-salt added.”
  • If you stick with regular canned vegetables, rinse them in a colander. If you’ve got time, double rinse ‘em. You can drain off as much as 40 percent of the salt!
  • Skip canned fruit in heavy syrup, and instead choose fruits that are preserved in water or their own juices.

Choice 3: Frozen

In many ways, frozen fruits and vegetables are similar to canned options. They are more economical, and they are picked during the peak season (meaning that they are full of vitamins and minerals). The freezing process does require blanching (a cooking process where vegetables are briefly dropped into boiling water before being submerged in ice water), which can cause the loss of some nutrients (again, B and C vitamins). It is important to note that frozen produce has a slightly shorter shelf life than canned food; frozen vegetables must be consumed in eight months, while frozen fruit is good for up to 12 months.

A few strategies:

What to Pick

So, you still may be wondering: Which option has the most nutritional value? Well, in the end, nutrient values are pretty comparable. Frozen and canned options lose some nutrients while being processed, and fresh produce loses some nutrients simply as it ages. I say keep a variety stocked in your house, and figure out what works best for your budget, your time and your taste buds. In the end, your body will thank you!

By Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, CDN, Health and Nutrition Expert for NBC’s Today Show and founder of Nourish Snacks.

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Article Sources
  • Barrett, D.M. (n.d.) Maximizing the nutrient value of fruits & vegetables. University of California-Davis.
  • Rickman, J.C., Barrett, D.M. & Bruhn, C.M. (2007). Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 87, 930-944.
  • Trofholz, A.C., Tate, A.D., Draxten, M.L., Neumark-Sztainer, D. & Berge, J.M. (2016). Home food environment factors associated with presence of fruit and vegetables at dinner: a direct observational study. Appetite, 1(96), 526-532.