If you buy most of your produce fresh, you may be short-changing your nutrition by skipping the freezer aisle. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy — if not healthier — than their fresh counterparts. Indeed, choosing a mix of fresh and frozen can be a great way to maximize your vitamin and nutrient intake while stretching your dollar.
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How Packaging and Processing Affects Produce
Produce selected for freezing is harvested when it's at its peak of quality. Vegetables and fruits are the most nutritious when they're ripe and freezing is the best way to preserve that goodness.
Before freezing, many vegetables are washed, peeled and sometimes blanched for one minute in boiling water and then transferred to an ice bath. While blanching preserves the veggies' color and flavor by inactivating natural enzymes that can cause them to spoil, water-soluble nutrients such as vitamins B and C may also leach out.
Fruits are typically not blanched before being frozen. However, some fruits, such as peaches, may be peeled before freezing, which can alter their fiber and mineral content. "That could be a reason to go for the fresh version still intact with the skin," Laura Smith, RD, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
By contrast, the "fresh" produce you buy at a grocery store was likely picked or pulled from the ground several days, or even weeks, earlier. It was packaged and shipped before waiting in the supermarkets' produce aisle. If you buy it and stow it away in your fridge for another few days, now you've got vegetables and fruits that have begun to lose some of their moisture and perhaps some nutritive value.
"Depending on where you live, sometimes that vegetable isn't even comparable to the frozen," says Danielle Lockard, RD, with Crozer-Keystone Health System in Springfield, Pennsylvania.
Which Is Healthier?
Good quality studies comparing the nutritional value of fresh and frozen produce are few and far between. What's more, the findings are often inconsistent, depending on which fruits and vegetables were studied, what nutrients were measured and under what storage conditions, Smith explains.
In a June 2017 study published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, researchers compared the nutritional value of fresh, frozen and "fresh-stored" produce, meaning the fruits and veggies you tuck away in the fridge for five days. The study included broccoli, cauliflower, corn, green beans, green peas, spinach, blueberries and strawberries. Researchers evaluated vitamin C, beta-carotene and folate. Overall, there were no significant differences in vitamin content, whether the item was fresh, frozen or fresh-stored. However, a lot of the produce tested lost some of its nutrient content after being stored at 39°F for five days after purchase.
It should be noted that the study was conducted in partnership with the nonprofit Frozen Food Foundation. However, the findings are worth considering because researchers attempted to mimic how real people buy and store produce.
"There really isn't a clear consensus whether one (fresh or frozen) is healthier than the other," Smith concludes from her review of the literature. Indeed, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says all fruits and vegetables, whether fresh or frozen, are good for you.
All That Matters Is if You Eat Them
The important point is to include fruits and vegetables in your diet — no matter what form they come in. Don't sweat small differences in their micronutrient content. Go with what you can afford and what tastes best to you, advises James Lucas III, RD, an exercise physiologist, certified specialist in sports dietetics and founder of JLucas Nutrition in Dallas.
Based on current nutrition science, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans eat fruits, especially whole fruits and a variety of vegetables, as part of a healthy diet. In fact, eating plenty of produce is linked to lower blood pressure as well as may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, some types of cancer, risk of eye and digestive problems and may regulate blood sugar, which can help keep appetite in check, according to Harvard Health.
How to Choose and Prep Your Produce
When it comes to selecting the healthiest options, buyer beware. Frozen fruits sometimes contain added sugar, which means they won't be as healthy as their unadulterated, fresh counterparts. Some frozen vegetables may be prepared with sodium-laced sauces and other unhealthy additions.
When it comes to fresh versus frozen canned produce, always choose fresh since canned produce may contain preservatives, Lockard says.
Also consider how you'll be preparing your produce. While fresh veggies are best for roasting, frozen versions make a great addition to soups and casseroles, Lockard points out. "You're not really going to notice that flavor or texture difference," she says.