Fresh or Frozen Vegetables? Which are Better for You?

Global Demand for Frozen Fruit and Vegetables Is Growing. But Are They As Healthy As Fresh?

Peas-in-IcecubesThe rise in popularity of homemade fruit smoothies and juicing is just one of the factors driving a substantial increase in consumption of frozen fruit and vegetables. A report released this week by the market research firm Global Industry Analysts (GIA) predicts steady growth in frozen produce sales and forecasts that by 2020, over 28 million tons will be sold annually.

Frozen smoothies in the blender was not the primary reason according to the report. The convenience factor of frozen vegetables was one of the major reasons the scholars identified. With people’s lives increasingly more busy and the rise of two-income households everywhere, especially in the developing world (Asia had the highest rise in frozen consumption as their economies have boomed), consumers find that frozen vegetables help them save time compared with buying and preparing fresh vegetables.

While we still think fresh is best, it’s a relief to know that these households are not choosing fast-food restaurants and less healthy options to solve their mealtime pressures. And that is attributable to another reason for the rise in popularity of frozen cited by the report. Consumers everywhere are increasingly looking for healthier options in their daily meals and they have been convinced that new freezing technologies are making frozen vegetables as good or perhaps even better than fresh. But is that so? Haven’t we always been taught that fresh is better than frozen when it comes to fruits and vegetables?

Well, if one could eat fresh fruit and vegetables right off the tree or vine, there would be no doubt they are superior to being frozen. The problem is that the vast majority of people don’t have that luxury or ability. Some of us during the summer months with our home gardens and those in warmer climes that can grow year round, can keep daily fresh vegetables coming straight from the plant to the dinner plate. But that is increasingly rare all around the world as developing nations ramp up into industrialization and urbanization.

And since more and more of us have to rely on our produce coming from some distance away, that delay from farm to table may be costing us something that frozen can give back. Studies have shown that fresh fruit and vegetables lose some of their nutritional value during transportation and storage, regardless if they are stored at proper temperatures during the process. And it may be quite a bit more than we thought. In contrast, new freezing methods, many of which are done very quickly after harvesting, can help frozen vegetables retain more of their nutrients until they are prepared and eaten.

Several studies have been done over the past half-century to compare the nutritional value of fresh versus frozen vegetables, but the most recent and comprehensive was one done at the  University of California at Davis in 2007. In that study, which also compared canned vegetables with fresh and frozen, fresh generally won the battle in the short term—that is if they are eaten very soon after harvest. But surprisingly, frozen vegetables moved ahead of fresh after longer storage times because the freezing process reduced nutrient loss.

In the Conclusion of the report the researchers said, “Losses of nutrients during fresh storage may be more substantial than consumers realize. Depending on the commodity, freezing and canning processes may preserve nutrient value. Fruits and vegetables are typically over 90% water and, once they are harvested, begin to undergo higher rates of respiration, resulting in moisture loss, quality deterioration and potential microbial spoilage.”

Perhaps not so surprisingly, canned vegetables lost on all fronts except one. The process of canning is much more heat and pressure intensive and causes a great drop in nutrients during that process. But once put in the can these vegetables remained more stable as far as nutrient loss over a much longer time than either fresh or frozen.

According to the UC Davis study, “The initial thermal treatment of processed products can cause loss of water-soluble and oxygen-labile nutrients such as vitamin C and the B vitamins. However, these nutrients are relatively stable during subsequent canned storage owing to the lack of oxygen. Frozen products lose fewer nutrients initially because of the short heating time in blanching, but they lose more nutrients during storage owing to oxidation.”

Here at Produce Buzz, we are FRESH fruit and veggie fans. We think that fresh is best on many levels, primarily because of taste and texture. But frozen and canned produce are great options to supplement your 5-a-day efforts. It’s better than skipping your veggies all together. And the new freezing technologies are greatly improving the nutritional benefit of these time savers.

Many of us remember when freezing and canning vegetables from the garden was an annual ritual. But as families became much busier and more affluent, the past 50 years have seen a dramatic decline in the use of homemade storage methods. However, with the rise in popularity of farmers markets and an increased push toward eating foods closer to their source, many people are experimenting with freezing and canning their own veggies that they find at these markets. This is especially popular in climates where farmers markets can only be seasonal. There is also a big movement for people to “grow their own” even if they live in very small homes or apartments with no yard space. So freezing and canning are starting to make a come back and frozen vegetables are shedding their “not-as-healthy” image. The big global food companies, many of which took part in the GIA study on frozen veggies, are seeing this is as a market opportunity and pushing forward to develop more and better ways to lock in your nutrients in those freezer bags.

Our advice is to keep eating fresh when you can get it and eat it soon after harvesting. But don’t miss out on your veggies because you think that frozen bag of peas might not be giving you all the nutrition that your grandmother’s garden variety did. It might just be better than the fresh ones on the store shelf, especially if they have come from the other side of the world and have been there for awhile.

GIA Report on Global Demand for Frozen Vegetables
University of California at Davis Study on Fresh, Frozen and Canned Vegetable Nutrition

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Fresh or Frozen Vegetables? Which are Better for You?

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