Fresh is always best when it comes to fruits and vegetables, right? The answer is it depends. That box of freshly picked strawberries you brought home last night might not be as fresh as you thought.
Many people prefer fresh produce, picked from their own gardens, farmers’ markets or the produce section of your local grocer. But what defines “fresh?” Fruits and vegetables may have been picked before they’re ripe to keep longer, yet also before the full complement of vitamins and minerals have developed.
They may spend a number of days on a truck, then in the grocery store and finally in your refrigerator waiting to be eaten. The longer fresh produce sits after being picked, the more nutrients it loses.
On the flip side, frozen fruits and vegetables tend to keep nutrients locked in when they are flash frozen. This technique means the berries or vegetables are frozen at extremely low temperatures with cold, circulating air. It’s a quick-chill method that keeps ice crystals small, which prevents moisture loss in the food when it thaws.
Canned fruits and vegetables foods may also be processed quickly to preserve nutrients, although they change appearance and texture more so than frozen foods.
So what’s your best option for the freshest, nutrient rich ingredient?
Here’s a quick guide on what to eat fresh, frozen or canned. There’s some crossover in the lists (berries show up on both fresh and frozen) because of convenience and how long they’ll last. Whether fresh, frozen or canned, make sure you include lots of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet.
Fresh is best for foods that are in season and local. You may get them from your backyard garden or at farmers’ markets. Eat them quickly before they go bad or lose too many nutrients. For most fruits and vegetables, that means less than a week after harvest.
Fresh is also best when you’ll eat it fresh but don’t like it frozen or canned. Carrots and peas are good examples. They may have more nutrition frozen, but you may not like the texture change.
Seven to buy fresh when in season
Vitamins B and C are water-soluble and can dissolve in processing, so fresh can be best for citrus fruit, bell peppers and berries.
According to natural foods advocate Rodale, some of the best foods to get fresh and locally grown for also are rich in nutritional value. They include:
When fresh isn’t an option, or even sometimes when it is, frozen may be your best option. If you find yourself throwing out a lot of the fresh fruit or vegetables you buy, consider frozen. They can last as long as eight to 10 months when frozen, locking in nutrients. Or if you open them while frozen, you can still enjoy them for up to six months.
You might also want to buy frozen products when your produce of choice is not in season (think berries in Wisconsin in January).
Also, if the fresh stuff doesn’t look or taste good because it’s been on the shelf too long or picked too early, frozen might be a better option.
Consider how you plan to serve the fruit or vegetable. For example, frozen berries make thicker, colder smoothies.
Finally, if you’re on a tight budget, frozen may be a cheaper option
Seven to buy frozen anytime
Foods that are rich in fat-soluble nutrients (vitamin A, carotenoids, and vitamin E) hold up well to the overall freezing process. That’s why spinach and cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, make the Men’s Health list of best frozen fruits and vegetables.
Finally, if fresh or frozen aren’t an option, try canned.
Canned fruits and vegetables maintain their nutrient levels very well. They can lose some of their B and C vitamins during the canning process but fat soluble vitamin E and carotenoids content increases. This is due to these nutrients becoming more available to the body for absorption.
Canned foods can also be high in salts and sugar due to the canning process, so always read your labels carefully. Again, consider how you will serve or prepare the dish. For example, canned tomatoes are perfect for soups, stews and chili.
Whether you prefer fresh, frozen or canned, the most important thing is to get plenty of fruits and vegetables in your diet. Pick the tastiest approach that best locks nutrients into your diet to keep you coming back for more.