Is Frozen Produce Less Nutritious than Fresh?
With winter setting in, I've been tempted to use frozen veggies and fruits in my meals. Are these less nutritious than fresh produce?
At a glance, it's easy to assume that frozen vegetables aren't as healthy as their fresh counterparts, but that's not always the case. In fact, frozen vegetables are often just as full of nutrients. In some cases they even retain nutrients better.
Frozen Produce Is Often Just as Nutritious as Fresh
Generally speaking, we tend to think of frozen produce as less nutritious than fresh produce because it's usually found in the same grocery aisle as things like frozen pizza and microwave dinners. It's an image problem more than an actual one, and frozen produce is usually just as nutritious as the fresh produce you buy at the grocery store.
Generally, it takes anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks for produce to get from a farm to the grocery store. During its travels, nutrients escape produce as they're exposed to heat, light, and oxygen. This time is extended even further when produce isn't in season, which is why berries are usually more expensive and harder to find in the winter.
By contrast, frozen produce is usually picked when ripe and then immediately frozen. This locks in the nutrients, which sometimes makes frozen produce more nutritious than fresh, but it really depends on the vegetable. The Wall Street Journal explains the process and the results of a study from The Frozen Food Foundation:
Soon after they are picked, vegetables destined for freezing get a quick blast of hot water or steam-known as blanching, which zaps some nutrients but also stops browning and loss of nutrients after freezing. The biggest losses during this step are of water-soluble vitamins like C and B. Then the vegetables are quickly frozen, locking in most nutrients for long-term storage....
Frozen broccoli, strawberries and green peas all had more vitamin C than the refrigerated samples. Frozen spinach, however, had less vitamin C than the fresh or the refrigerated samples. This may be because spinach, when chopped, has a large surface area and more vitamin C can leach out during the blanching step, Dr. Pegg wrote in the paper.
Study after study show the same thing: frozen produce and fresh produce have similar nutritional value. When produce isn't in season, it's typically better to buy frozen. When it is, seek out local farmers at the grocery store or farmer's markets for the maximum nutrients from fresh produce.
That said, frozen produce doesn't get the immediate nutritional pass that raw produce does. Since it's packaged, that means it's often sealed with cheeses, sugars, and other not so healthy ingredients. When you buy frozen produce, the fruit or vegetables should be the only item on the ingredient list. Also, Eating Well recommends buying frozen produce with packages marked with the USDA "U.S. Grade A (also known as "fancy")" shield that denotes that high quality produce was used.
How to Make Frozen Produce Taste Better
The stigma around frozen produce doesn't come just from it's nutritional value. Frozen produce doesn't taste the same as fresh, so it's hard to imagine it being as healthy. The root of this problem is the texture of frozen produce.
To deal with that, The Kitchn recommends seasoning it, avoiding simple dishes, and most importantly, steaming the veggies instead of boiling them:
The quickest way to icky up a batch of frozen vegetables is to boil them. If you don't have the time or inclination to bust out the steamer basket and boil water, put them in the microwave with a little water. Just make sure that your water only goes 1/3 of the way up the side of the veggies and cook just until warmed through. That said, if you have time, bust out the stovetop steamer and treat 'em right!
Taste is a matter of personal preference, but there's no denying that frozen produce tastes a bit different than fresh. That matters to some people more than others, but a completely unscientific ranking over at the Huffington Post breaks down some of the best and worst produce to buy frozen. On the worst list include brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli, and asparagus. Staples like corn, sweet peas, and edamame are often just as tasty as fresh. Either way, when cooked properly with the right sides, most frozen produce can be rescued in some way.