The convenience of canned foods is undeniable. They have a long shelf life, are compact, and easy to carry and store. But they also have the reputation of being cheap, low-quality fare, loaded with sodium and preservatives.
That bad reputation is not always deserved, though. There are actually a handful of foods that maintain their super-food status even after they've been sealed in a can. Five canned foods in particular rate especially high in flavor and nutrition, making them a beneficial addition to any kitchen pantry.
Sardines are little nutrient powerhouses, loaded with omega-3s and Vitamin D.
Chris Mohr, co-founder of Mohr Results Inc.
No-Salt-Added Canned Tomatoes
Most of the time, eating fresh fruits and vegetables delivers a large nutritional boost to your diet. But when it comes to tomatoes, the canned ones outdo their fresh counterparts.
In America, tomatoes are the main source of the antioxidant lycopene. Unlike many other nutrients, when lycopene is cooked, crushed or processed, it actually becomes more readily available for your body to absorb and utilize. By eating canned tomato products such as no-salt-added diced tomatoes, your body will absorb two-and-a-half times more lycopene than if you had eaten fresh tomatoes.
Canned diced tomatoes are used for soups, stews, chili or curries. The major nutritional downfall of most canned foods is their high sodium content, so opt for those that say "No Salt Added" on the label, and you'll save 200 mg of sodium per serving.
Low-Sodium Canned Beans
Despite their infamous role as the musical fruit, beans, with their superior carbohydrates and fiber, help regulate digestion and contribute to a healthy gastrointestinal system. But for many people, the process of overnight soaking and the subsequent cooking of traditional dried beans is too much of a barrier.
Canned beans, however, are ready to use in less than 30 seconds -- just open the can, rinse the beans off and they're ready to eat. Because they're so much more convenient than dried beans, you'll be more likely to add this nutritional dynamo to your diet.
Beans are nutritionally distinctive in that they contain special carbohydrates called alpha-galactosides. Alpha-galactosides were initially thought to be indigestible and nutritionally void. But an April 2008 article in "Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition" notes that alpha-galactosides serve as an important source of energy for the good bacteria in the digestive tract.
Beans also contain 7 g of fiber, 23 percent of the daily recommendation. This additional fiber not only improves your gastrointestinal function, but also helps lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
Chris Mohr, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Mohr Results Inc., lists sardines high on his list of most underrated health foods.
"Sardines are little nutrient powerhouses," Mohr said, "loaded with omega-3s and Vitamin D. Swap out your boring can of tuna with a can of sardines -- use them on a sandwich, on a salad, give pasta sauce a little extra flavor and nutrition."
In addition to omega-3s and vitamin D, one can of sardines contains 13 g of portable and convenient protein. These little fish with the big nutritional benefits also tend to contain less toxins than other fatty fish. Their small body size, shorter lifespan and low position on the food chain mean that sardines are lower in levels of mercury and other potential toxins than larger fish, like salmon or tuna.
Chipotle peppers canned in adobo sauce are a simple way to spice up your meal and speed up your metabolism. Capsaicin, the compound that gives jalapenos their heat, are said to have numerous therapeutic benefits, and one might be weight loss.
Jayson Hunter, head of research and development for Prograde Nutrition, says that there are three main mechanisms by which capsaicin can help you lose weight.
"One, it increases energy expenditure," he said. "Two, it deters fat-cell growth by making the fat-cells metabolically active. The third mechanism is that it reduces food intake."
Stir chipotle peppers and their adobo sauce into soups, stews and chili, or use it to marinate beef and chicken for an infusion of flavor and a health boost.
Be warned that chipotle peppers have a lot of kick, so if you're not used to spiciness and heat, start with half a pepper and remove the seeds for a bit more mildness.
Coconut milk, a staple in Southeast Asian cooking, lends its creamy texture and subtle flavor particularly well to sauces, while also providing a distinctive blend of fatty acids to improve health.
The milky liquid from the coconut contains high levels of medium chain triglycerides. Medium chain triglycerides are different from the saturated fats found in butter and animal fat in that they are structurally shorter. These structural differences translate into metabolic differences once they enter your digestive system. Scientists say that the metabolic fat of medium chain triglycerides is more direct, bypassing traditional fat metabolism and fast-tracking itself straight into energy for the body.
Nevertheless, you will need to keep an eye on the amount of coconut milk you're pouring into your saucepan and use it in moderation. While medium chain triglycerides are more likely to fuel your activities than pad your waistline, the coconut milk itself is extremely high in calories.
Toxins in Canned Foods
Bisphenol-A is an industrial chemical coating on the inside of cans that acts as a barrier, preventing direct contact between the food and the metal can. While BPA has been used in food cans since the 1960s, it does have known estrogenic properties. Furthermore, as late as 2010 the FDA reported concerns about BPA's potential effects on the brains, behavior and prostate glands of the very young.
Recently, researchers from the University of Antwerp in Belgium tested the Bisphenol-A content of 21 canned foods. Canned salmon, anchovies and tomatoes all contained BPA levels that were less than half the average. Canned tuna fish had the highest BPA level, and it was still only one sixth the limit set by the European Commission in 2004.
The specific health effects of BPA are unknown, but certain companies have started canning their foods without using BPA. Next time you're picking up canned goods at the grocery store, look for those with labels that say "BPA-free."