Fresh, Frozen or Canned—What’s Best?
It probably isn’t surprising that Americans are not consuming the recommended four and a half cups (nine servings) of fruits and veggies each day. But, exactly how far are we from reaching those levels? In 2005, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that among adults in the US, only 33 % consume the recommended levels of fruit, while 27 % consume the suggested amount of vegetables. It is time to face the facts; that glass of orange juice we drink as we’re running out the door isn’t cutting it. Seniors are the most likely to get their full serving of fruits and veggies each day. But what exactly qualifies as fruits and veggies? You’d be surprised to find out.
Americans consume an average 445 pounds of vegetables and 282 pounds of fruit and tree nuts a year. It sounds like we’re healthy, right? Think again. Most of the increase resulted from eating more French fries. Tomatoes total 1/5th of our fruit intake (yes, tomatoes are a fruit), with 80% of the tomatoes we eat being in the form of tomato paste. Thirty pounds of the average American fruit intake is from a special type of processed non-halal grape product: wine1.
1 Rural Migration News, migration.usdavis.edu
What about our children? According to an American Dietetic Association report on a Gerber Company study, one-third of children under age two do not consume fruits and vegetables daily, and when they do, French fries are most common for children over 15 months old. And the rest of their diet? Many infants and toddlers are already eating pizza, French fries, candy and drinking soda.
Why do we need to eat more fruits and vegetables? Fruits and vegetables help keep weight down because they are low in calories and help fill you up. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is proven to help prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, lower your blood pressure, and reduce the risk factors associated with heart disease and stroke.
Buying in-season doesn’t always mean you are getting a local product. In 2005, the U.S. produced 100 million tons of fruits and vegetables on 13 million acres of land, only 3% of the available crop land. We imported $14 billion worth of fruits and vegetables in 2005. Where are our fruits and vegetables coming from? Latin America supplies most of our fresh and frozen fruit. Mexico supplies 66% of vegetable imports, including tomatoes, peppers, asparagus and melons. And almost all mango, papaya, lime and squash imports come from Mexico.
Most tomato imports occur when US tomato production peaks. And, the majority of increases in citrus imports occurs during the US citrus season. Bananas are our #1 choice of fresh fruit, but no bananas are grown in the continental US.
In the late 90’s, 52% of the vegetables Americans consumed were canned, frozen or dried, and 43% of fruit was juice. Orange juice accounted for 86% of the oranges Americans consumed in the late 90’s. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are chosen because they are convenient to prepare. The most popular fresh fruit is the banana. It is prepackaged, easy to eat, and it’s not messy. Baby carrots and bagged salads are also on the rise.
Fresh fruits and vegetables have a short shelf-life. Immediately after harvest, they begin to lose moisture, their quality deteriorates and spoilage can quickly become a problem for consumers. Freezing and canning transforms fruits and vegetables into products that can be stored safely for months, or even years, and eaten year round. But processing reduces their nutrients.
We wanted to compare the nutritive value of fresh fruits and vegetables to processed options such as frozen, canned, dried, and juice so we looked to the USDA and the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) (www. pbhfoundation.org) for help. PBH is a not-for-profit consumer education foundation that promotes healthy eating and is a source for educational material. There are guidelines on sugar, fat, sodium and fiber that determine whether a processed product counts as a sufficient serving of fruits or vegetables. The key points to look for are low sugar, low fat, low sodium, high fiber and 100% juice.
The USDA (www.mypyramid.com) recommends that at least half of the fruit and vegetables we eat each day should be in the form of whole fruit, including fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, rather than fruit juice.
The USDA National Nutrient Database (http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/) provides complete nutrient information for 7,146 different foods. The database makes it easy to compare fresh fruits and vegetables that don’t carry a nutrition facts label compared to their processed counterparts.
The Produce for Better Health Foundation recommends the following criteria for processed fruits and vegetables, which were set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The numbers might look confusing, but it’s easy to check on the nutrition facts label of the foods you buy. Grams of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, sodium and fiber per serving are all listed on the nutrition facts label.
Whole fruit is rich in fiber and will keep you from consuming the unwanted sugar in juice drinks and cocktails. Orange juice and orange drinks contain less fiber and vitamin C than fresh oranges, and orange-flavored drinks are loaded with sodium. Remember, your goal is 1.4 grams of fiber in every 100 Calories. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, orange juice and orange-flavored drinks don’t make the cut. The orange-flavored drink contains twice as much sodium and only one quarter the fiber as compared to fresh oranges, while orange juice is only half as rich in fiber as fresh oranges.
If you drink juice, choose 100% juice, and opt for fortified varieties. Above the back label listing nutrition information will be a statement with the percentage of real juice used in the ingredients. Stay away from juice that has the wording “juice drink” or “cocktail” on the label. These contain high levels of sugars, typically in the form of high fructose corn syrup.
Dried fruits are a good choice for on-the-go healthy snacking since they are portable and do not require refrigeration, but they shouldn’t make up the bulk of our fruit intake. Dried fruits are typically preserved with sulfites (especially dried pineapple, papaya, and other tropical fruits) and contain sulfur dioxide for color retention. Consumers with asthma or allergies to aspirin should avoid sulfites and sulfur dioxide. Dried products have been exposed to extreme temperatures, destroying much of the vitamin C content. Dried fruits obviously lack the high water content of fresh fruit (typically over 90%) that helps you feel full. The water in fruits and vegetables is also important because most people don’t drink the recommended 8 glasses of water a day When snacking of these make sure you drink the requisite amount of water.
Frozen vegetables are typically blanched (plunged in boiling water and then dipped in ice cold water) prior to freezing and canning. Blanching hinders enzyme and bacteria activity, brightens color in greens, removes air and loosens skins – all useful prior to freezing and canning. But blanching also destroys heat sensitive nutrients such as vitamin C, and frozen and canned vegetables need to be cooked at home before eating, resulting in additional nutrient loss.
Using the USDA database, we compared the fat, sugar, sodium, fiber, and vitamin C content between green beans that are raw, cooked from fresh, cooked from frozen, canned with no salt added and canned with salt added. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) was included because it provides an overall estimate of nutrient retention in processed foods.
All varieties of green beans we looked at met the recommendations for processed fruits and vegetables set by PBH. But notice the sodium content of 100 grams of canned beans with normal amounts of salt added during canning: 262 mg, as compared with less than 10 mg in all other types. Then consider that a one-cup serving of regular canned green beans weighs 135 grams and contains a whopping 354 mg of salt! Remember, PBH recommends limiting the salt in fruits and vegetables to less than 480 mg per serving.
The typical impression is that fresh is best. But studies have shown that the loss in quality and nutrients from transportation and storage of some fresh fruits and vegetables may make them as nutritious as our frozen, canned and dried options. Even if we try to choose processed products carefully, we’re likely to run into trouble. The high sodium content of canned vegetables and low fiber in juice makes them poor choices for improving our health. Stick to the USDA recommendation of choosing fresh for at least half of your fruit and vegetable each day and you’ll be on your way to better health.
|Raw||Fresh, Cooked||Frozen, Cooked||Canned, Salt Free||Canned, Salt Added|
|Total Fat, g||0.12||0.28||0.17||0.1||0.11|
|Vitamin C, mg||16.3||9.7||4.1||4.8||4.3|