You’ve probably heard about the debate over frozen versus fresh produce by now. Some people claim fresh is the way to go, while others tout the merits of frozen fruits and vegetables. The benefits of both sides are clear – fresh produce is picked straight from the vine and delivered to your local supermarket, making it at least seem fresher, while frozen produce is convenient, can be less expensive and allows you to enjoy your favorite fruits and vegetables even when they’re out of season.
But if you’re racking up a large grocery bill and trying to eat healthier in 2016, you need to know the facts. Read on to learn the difference between fresh and frozen produce and which you should toss in your cart.
Produce goes through quite the journey on its way to your plate.
The journey to your table
Most of the debate between fresh versus frozen produce stems from what happens to the fruits and vegetables during picking, processing and packing. Fruits and vegetables are most nutritious when they are at peak ripeness, according to Livestrong.com. Fresh produce is picked right before it becomes ripe so that it ripens as it travels to supermarkets, and while this journey can take just a few days, it can also take a few weeks. During this travel time, fruits and vegetables can ripen and then quickly begin to lose their nutritional value. Greatist noted that after produce is picked, it begins “respirating,” which means its nutrients start degrading. The produce is also exposed to heat and light as it is transported, which further breaks down the nutritional content.
The loss of nutrients can be significant after produce is picked. According to The Telegraph, a study conducted on behalf of Birds Eye found that green beans lose 45 percent of their nutrients 16 days after being picked, peas lose 15 percent, broccoli and cauliflower lose 25 percent, and carrots lose 10 percent.
“The nutritional content of fresh vegetables begins to deteriorate from the minute they are picked,” said nutritionist Sarah Schenker in an interview with the source. “This means that by the time they end up on our plate, although we may think we’re reaping the vegetable’s full nutritional benefit, this is often not the case.”
However, frozen food faces its own bumps on the way to your plate. Frozen produce undergoes a process caused “blanching” that subjects the produce to hot water to kill bacteria, Livestrong.com explained. Blanching degrades water-soluble vitamins, such as Vitamins B and C, in vegetables. Frozen fruits, however, are not blanched, the source noted, so they are not subject to the same degradation – however, some fruits are peeled before being frozen, which means you lose out on some of the fiber content. At the same time, though, the transportation process fresh fruit are subjected to can also reduce levels of Vitamins B and C, according to Eating Well.
In some cases, frozen veggies are better for you than fresh.
While respiration and blanching are the main factors affecting the nutritional value of fresh and frozen produce, respectively, certain fruits and vegetables respond uniquely to these processes. For instance, while the levels of water-soluble vitamins are generally decreased during the freezing process, fat-soluble nutrients escape unscathed, noted Greatist. These hardy nutrients include Vitamins A and E and carotenoids and are able to withstand processing, so opt for vegetables high in these compounds such as leafy greens, broccoli and carrots, suggested the site. Conversely, produce high in water-soluble vitamins like berries, bell peppers and citrus fruits are best bought fresh.
There are also some peculiarities to look for in certain types of produce, too. For example, fresh green beans contain a higher amount of the antioxidant beta-carotene than the frozen kind, while frozen peas have more beta-carotene than fresh peas, according to Livestrong.com.
The sensitivity of produce doesn't stop at the check-out register, though - the way you cook both frozen and fresh produce impacts its nutritional content, too. Whether frozen or fresh, nutritionists advise that you steam or microwave fruits and vegetables instead of boiling, baking or frying, since less water is used in steaming and microwaving and more nutrients are retained. Greatist noted that even stir-frying can reduce their nutritional content, too.
"Thawing frozen produce breaks down certain nutrients."
Thawing fruits and vegetables is also generally advised against. Livestrong.com cited a study that found that thawing vegetables decreases levels of nutrients like Vitamin C further. The source also recommended that produce is steamed in as little water as possible, since this minimizes the breakdown of water-soluble vitamins.
There's no clear winner in this debate, rather, whether you choose frozen or fresh depends on what type of produce you're buying, and when. Eating Well advised that you should generally buy in-season produce fresh when they're ripe and out-of-season produce frozen. Rest easy that you're getting your vitamins from frozen fat-soluble produce, and it's probably a better idea to opt for fresh produce for those water-soluble fruits and vegetables. What you buy also depends on when you plan to eat it.
"It can be hard to tell from looking at it how fresh it is," said dietician Adee Rasabi to the New York Daily News:. "If you won't be eating a vegetable right away, cook and freeze. That way, it won't lose nutrients."
Another solution? Buy locally when you can, since the produce doesn't have to travel far and you can eat it right when it ripens, guaranteeing the highest nutritional content.