Fresh or Frozen Veggies??Experience Momentum | Food & Nutrition, | June 28, 2018
We asked Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Crystal Franck to talk about the bioavailability of phytonutrients – specifically, the fresh vs. frozen produce debate. Read on to find out how to maximize the nutrients you eat in your produce!
One common question we receive a lot as dietitians is regarding the differences between fresh, frozen, and canned produce. Since most of us are consuming veggies for their health benefits, we want to make sure we are obtaining as many health promoting plant compounds, or phytonutrients, as possible. It turns out that there are some differences in the amount of nutrients in fresh and frozen produce, as well as variability in how easily we can digest, absorb, and utilize different plant compounds.
The term bioavailability refers to the degree to which food nutrients are available to digest and be utilized by the body. Research shows us that the amount of nutrition we extract from food can vary hugely, influenced by factors ranging from the quality and age of the food, how the food was prepared, the soil health, sunlight hours and water content, as well as our own body's ability to break down foods using enzymes, stomach acid, and gut bacteria. To further complicate matters, some nutrients are most readily available when the foods containing them are consumed raw, but other nutrients are best available when the foods containing them have been altered through cooking, cutting, or crushing.
To get the most bioavailability bang for your phytonutrient buck, follow these general guidelines:
Consider the time factor: nutrient quality starts to decline once food is picked. Therefore, it is best to consume your produce quickly rather than have it laying around your kitchen for weeks on end. Opt to buy produce from a local grower when you can, such as through your local Farmer's Market. Produce sold at Farmer's Markets has typically been picked within 24-48 hours, where produce sold at your local grocery store was likely picked weeks, months, or even up to a year ago - apples and potatoes are two examples of foods stored for up to 12 months before being transported for sale at a local grocer.
Store your food properly: keep your produce easily accessible and stored for optimal nutrient quality. This means storing your foods in visible places and being mindful of temperature and moisture. Most veggies (aside from root vegetables like potatoes and parsnips) prefer to be kept in the fridge. Fruits aside from berries (including tomatoes and avocados) prefer room temperature storage out of direct light. Store cut up fruits and vegetables in glass containers with a squeeze of lemon, and boxed containers of greens/sprouts upside down. For added longevity, chop up herbs and freeze them in an ice cube tray with water.
Keep cooking time and liquid to a minimum: you can lose over half of the nutrients in some produce through cooking, especially via cooking liquids. Therefore, opt to blanch, roast, or steam your veggies rather than boiling them to help retain more nutrients. Reduce cooking liquids and time when you can. If you prefer boiled veggies, retain the cooking liquid to use in homemade vegetable stock.
Don't forget about frozen: both canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at their peak ripeness and stored. Typically, frozen veggies are washed, blanched, frozen, and packaged within a few hours of being picked, which means they could potentially contain more phytonutrients than fresh produce that was picked several weeks or months ago. Evidence suggests that freezing can preserve the nutritional value of veggies and fruits, and that there is similar nutritional content in fresh and frozen produce. Therefore, frozen and canned produce can be a great way to get some extra variety into your diet.
Read the labels with packaged options: while frozen and canned produce might be relatively similar in their vitamin and mineral content with their fresh counterparts, often additional sugar and/or salt has been added during the food preservation process, especially to fruits. Read the labels and opt for reduced sodium and sugar choices. When in doubt, drain and rinse canned veggies to remove excess sodium.
Eat with variety in mind: for optimal wellness, variety is the name of the game. Eating a varied array of produce in a rainbow of colors that has been prepared in different ways helps ensure you are obtaining a variety of phytonutrients.
In summary, freshly picked produce from your garden or a local farm is the best option for high quality plant nutrition. However, frozen produce may be equal to or even more nutritious than some fresh options available to your local supermarket, so opt for a blend of fresh and frozen options. At the end of the day, it is most important that you and your family are consuming fruits and veggies in some form.