Coming off of the summer months into full-swing harvest time, it’s easy to load our diets with fresh fruits and vegetables—and as any good dietitian will tell you, that’s a great thing! Take advantage of the ample supply; pile those plates with fresh, seasonal produce and you’ll reap plenty of vitamins, minerals, health-promoting phytonutrients and fiber as well.
As fall turns to winter, however, lots of people report eating less produce overall—probably because of lower availability and varieties in their markets, higher prices for fresh produce, and maybe a lack of familiarity with (or desire to cook) winter season produce options. I get it, I do. But maybe the somewhat shocking fact that most of us get just about half the number of daily produce servings recommended in the latest U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans will prompt you to take action. We can do better than that, people! And I’ve got a simple solution: frozen produce. You see, the saying “fresh is best” doesn’t always apply to produce, and there are benefits to frozen you might have been overlooking.
When Fresh Isn’t Necessarily Best
The first frozen fruits and vegetables were marketed in 1930, and ever since then people have wondered if they are as nutritious as their fresh versions. There is a growing body of scientific research examining this question. The most recently published study I’ve seen on the issue was conducted at the University of Georgia, and compared the nutrient content of eight fruits and vegetables that were stored in three different ways: frozen, fresh, and what they called “fresh-stored,” which mimics the way that people typically handle fresh produce once they get it home (i.e., they keep in in their fridge for five days before getting around to eating it, according to the Food Marketing Institute). The researchers looked at vitamin C content, beta-carotene content and total folate in the foods over a span of two years, in six different time frames in order to take into account seasonal variations in produce nutrient levels.
In the majority of cases, there were no significant differences between the nutrient values of fresh, frozen or “fresh-stored.” Surprising, right? But where there were significant nutrients differences noted, it was generally found that the five days of refrigeration (aka “fresh-stored” produce) was associated with lower nutrient concentrations. And, more often than not, the frozen vegetables and fruits had significantly higher nutrient contents than their “fresh-stored” counterparts. This makes sense because produce to be frozen is harvested at its peak of taste and ripeness, which is usually when nutrients are at their peak as well. Frequently it’s frozen within a day of harvest as well, further maintaining its quality.
So what’s the takeaway here? Two things: when you purchase fresh produce, don’t keep it for five days in your crisper drawer before getting around to eating it, and don’t worry that frozen veggies and fruits aren’t giving you the same nutrition that the fresh produce is—in most cases, they are basically equivalent.
Benefits of Keeping a Freezer Packed With Produce
Some folks freeze the great seasonal produce they found available during the summer and fall so they can eat it year ‘round—kudos to them! It’s a great idea. If you didn’t do that, no worries, just get in the habit of stocking up on frozen fruits and veggies at the market when you find a good sale. Choose unadorned produce—skip the sauces and mix-ins—plain produce is usually the most healthful choice and also the most economical. Here are some of the advantages of choosing frozen over fresh:
- A recent study* (not yet published, but presented via poster at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting) that examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (from 2011-2014) revealed that frozen fruit and vegetable eaters (from ages 2-99 years) consumed more produce overall (roughly ¼ cup more veggies and ½ cup more fruit per day) than those who didn’t eat frozen produce.
- This same study also found that nutrient intake—including those that the USDA considers “nutrients of concern” (potassium, calcium, vitamin D an’d fiber)—was significantly higher among consumers of frozen produce compared with non-consumers.
- On the practical side, we all know that getting the produce we want in the off-seasons means higher prices and general, lower quality (not to mention the environmental impact of shipping that produce around the world in order to provide it in your market). If you want blackberries in winter, frozen is a smart way to go.
- Consuming frozen produce is convenient: it’s already washed, trimmed or otherwise prepped and ready for you to use in whatever way you wish. The steady supply and consistent quality, combined with minimal prep needed makes frozen an easy choice when you need to get a veggie on the table quickly.
A Final Word
While it’s interesting to note differences between fresh and frozen produce, I really only point it out to support the consumption of frozen in addition to fresh—not instead of fresh. Both are healthy and tasty and belong in your diet. In fact, when it comes to long-term good health impacts, it’s the amount and variety of produce you consume that makes the biggest difference—not a few milligrams difference in vitamin content. Produce is more than it’s vitamin and mineral content, and we are still just beginning to learn about all the good stuff in fruits and veggies! So go ahead and choose the fruits and vegetables that work for your lifestyle, budget and cooking abilities—but by all means, eat them…and aim for increasing your intake.
* The Poster titled “Consumers of Frozen Fruit and Vegetables Eat More Total Fruit and Vegetables,” by Maureen Story, PhD and Patricia Anderson, MPP, was presented at the Experimental Biology scientific meeting in Chicago, IL in April 2017. It is currently under review for publishing. The study was supported by the Frozen Food Foundation.