Frozen vs. Fresh: Which Fruits and Vegetables Are Best?
Right now, you’re probably thinking, “Um, duh, fresh is always better than frozen!”
Actually, that’s not true. Even though we are programmed to think that fresh fruits and vegetables are by default the best option, they’re not always superior to frozen or canned produce. While everyone can agree that fresh produce is more visually pleasing and easier to prepare, frozen produce actually contains a much higher concentration of nutrients.
Yes! It’s true. It’s all about what happens from farm to fork. After we take a look at the freezing process of frozen produce versus the harvesting process of fresh produce, you’ll see why frozen fruits and vegetables are normally of higher quality.
Frozen produce: the freezing process
It is required that fruits and vegetables chosen for freezing are harvested at their peak ripeness, a stage when they contain the most nutrients. Next, the harvested fruits and vegetables are immediately washed and peeled, and then blanched in hot water or steam. This is when bacteria and food-degrading enzymes are killed and arrested, respectively. However, this is also when water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C or B-complex vitamins break down or percolate away into the water or the steam. All is not lost, though, because the very next step involves flash freezing, a process where the fruits and vegetables are quickly frozen at extremely cold temperatures. Flash freezing retains as many nutrients as possible and locks the produce in a nutrient-rich state.
At this point, the enzymes, a type of substance that breaks down nutrients and accelerates the spoiling process, have slowed down to the point where they’re nearly inactive. The fruits and vegetables remain frozen while being transported to the grocery store, where they are immediately placed in the freezer. By the time you buy the fruits and vegetables, they will be almost as nutritious as they were during harvest.
In fact, the nutritional value (which includes vitamins, minerals, fiber, fat, protein, and carbohydrates) of frozen produce remains the same for up to one year. Even though blanching may cause the loss of some water-soluble vitamins, the freezing process still retains most of the flavor and nutritional value.
You can’t really say the same about fresh produce being sold at supermarkets.
Fresh produce: the harvesting process
Fruits and vegetables destined to be sold as fresh produce are normally picked before reaching ripeness, which means they have yet to develop a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. While those fruits and vegetables may seem to ripen on the outside, they will never contain as many nutrients as those of fully ripened produce.
The loss of nutrients doesn’t end here. When those fresh fruits and vegetables are transported to the grocery store, they are exposed to a lot of heat and light, which destroys some nutrients, especially vitamin C. By the time the fresh produce is displayed in the grocery store, the food-degrading enzymes will already be in full motion, breaking down all the important nutrients until the fruits and vegetables succumb to spoilage.
In essence, the fresh fruits and vegetables found in grocery stores don’t contain nearly as much nutritional value as that of freshly harvested produce.
- The best form of fruits and vegetables is fresh and harvested on the same day. For example, the vegetables from your garden contain more nutritional value than the frozen vegetables at the grocery store.
- If you don’t have access to freshly picked produce, consider buying only in-season produce fresh and ripe at the grocery store. Off-season fruits and vegetables are best frozen.
- If you want to get the most nutritional value, buy the highest grade produce. The fruits and vegetables with the best size, shape, and color come in packages marked with a USDA U.S. Fancy shield. Fruits and vegetables that come in a U.S. No. 1 or U.S. No. 2 label are lower-grade produce and they aren’t as nutrient-rich.
The best ways to cook vegetables
There are many different ways to cook vegetables. Some methods are way better than others. Some cooking techniques boost nutrient content; others destroy it. Let’s take a look at the best ways to cook vegetables:
- Microwaving: Despite all the bad rap this method gets, nuking is actually an effective way to heat up vegetables. It’s actually the best way to retain nutrients and preserve antioxidants. However, be sure to keep cauliflower out of the microwave, because it loses more than 50 percent of its antioxidants if microwaved.
- Griddling: Griddles – or thick frying pans without oil – allow vegetables (especially beets, celery, onions, and green beans) to retain their antioxidants. Just to be sure to use a griddle without Teflon or nonstick coating, because it leaches cancer-causing chemicals into the food.
- Roasting: This method works particularly well with certain vegetables, but not so well with others. Roasting helps some vegetables (asparagus, broccoli, and peppers) retain their antioxidants, and increases the antioxidant levels in some other vegetables (green beans, corn, eggplant, and spinach). However, onions, zucchini, garlic, and peas shouldn’t be roasted, because this cooking method destroys the nutrients in those vegetables.
- Boiling: Again, this method is a hit-and-miss. While boiling or steaming may kill nutrients in vegetables loaded with water-soluble vitamins, it actually boosts levels of free radical-trapping antioxidants and other important nutrients in vegetables like broccoli, zucchini and carrots. Here’s a tip: next time you boil vegetables, save the nutrient-rich water for when you make soup or sauce.
Never cook your vegetables using this method
Some popular cooking methods aren’t so hot when it comes to retaining the nutritional value in vegetables. Let’s take a look at one of them:
- Frying: Not only does frying cause a lost of between 5 and 50 percent of nutrients, it also adds way too much fat to the vegetables.
Which produce is best frozen?
Frozen fruits and vegetables that give you the most nutrients for your buck are those loaded with fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin E. Fat-soluble nutrients survive the freezing process, especially blanching, so they remain intact after being frozen. Such fruits and vegetables include citrus fruits, carrots, leafy greens, and broccoli.
Which produce is best fresh?
Fruits and vegetables with high amounts of water-soluble vitamins (such as vitamin C or B-complex vitamins) don’t fare well during the freezing process. Blanching kills most of those vitamins, so produce like bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and berries are usually more nutritious when fresh, not frozen.
It’s always better to eat fruits and vegetables in any form than no fruits or vegetables at all! If you’re like most Americans, you eat only one-third of the recommended daily intake of vegetables. So if you’re pressed for time or if you’re low on cash, you should work with what you have on hand, may it be canned vegetables, frozen fruit, or fresh produce, rather than opting for some junk food. Some nutrition is better than nothing, after all!