“Fresh” is a powerful adjective when tacked onto “veggies” and “fruit,” conjuring visions of crisp, colorful produce of superior nutritional value. While fresh vegetables and fruits are chock-full of vitamins and minerals, their frozen peers are also packed with health power. The Food and Drug Administration declared frozen produce on a nutritional par with fresh in 1998. In some instances, frozen vegetables and fruits actually present a more nutrient-rich choice.
Frozen produce often is a more practical option, too. Buying a giant bag of frozen berries or corn is usually much cheaper than buying fresh. And it keeps longer. If you buy more fresh berries than you end up needing, you may not use them before they’ve turned the corner from good to bad. Frozen berries won’t turn that corner, and you’ll have them on hand when you decide, on the spur of the moment, to make a smoothie. Again, you’ll save money: Americans throw away nearly $250 a year per person in spoiled produce.
You’ll save time as well. The packager often does the prep work for you. Stir-fries are quick meals when you don’t have to spend 45 minutes washing and chopping peppers and broccoli. Unlike fresh veggies and fruits in many parts of the country, you can find frozen produce any time of year.
How Fresh is Fresh?
Vegetables and fruit are not static; after picking, they continue to change, reacting to their environment. If you pick a vegetable from your garden to eat for dinner or bring home strawberries from the local pick-your-own, you’ll reap maximum vitamin potential. Picking fresh is usually an option for a limited part of the year, and then only for a few vegetables and fruits. For the rest of the year, you’re stuck with what may have been sitting around for some time.
Many of our fruits and vegetables travel great distances to arrive on your plate. The average piece of U.S.-grown produce logs 1,500 miles before reaching its final destination, spending four to seven days in transit from farm to supermarket. Fresh produce starts to lose nutrients three or four days after harvesting. Every day that blueberry travels to your supermarket, every day that broccoli sits in the veggie bin in your fridge, is another day spent losing nutrients.
By contrast, much frozen produce is preserved during “flash freezing,” preserving vitamins right after harvest. Other produce is quickly blanched and then frozen. In both cases, fruits and vegetables are frozen almost immediately after they leave the field or orchard, ensuring that maximum nutrients and phytochemicals are sealed up. Studies have actually shown frozen produce to be nutritionally superior to fresh produce if that fresh produce has been sitting around for a long period of time.
Vitamin C and folate especially fall prey to the ravages of time because of their extra sensitivity to shifts in light and temperature. While the vitamin C in fruits is often preserved thanks to fruits’ acidity, the vitamin C content in green vegetables actively declines once the vegetable is picked. In one study, frozen green beans contained twice as much vitamin C as fresh counterparts that had been sitting for six days. Folate stores are depleted as well; the folate levels in fresh produce stored for only a few days at room temperature can decrease by up to 70 percent.
Freezing also does a better job of preserving other nutrients in vegetables. As fresh peas are exposed to light over the natural course of transport and while sitting at the store, their carotene level decreases. (Carotene is a source of vitamin A.) Frozen peas fare much better, typically containing approximately 60 percent more carotene than their fresh cousins. Fresh spinach exposed to light fares more poorly than frozen, as well; the frosty version contains 80 percent more of the powerful, cancer-fighting antioxidant beta carotene.
Buying the Best
To maximize the benefits gleaned from eating frozen produce, take the following steps:
Feel the frozen package before buying. If the package is limp, wet, stained, or icy, or if the contents have frozen together in a lump, the produce likely has started to defrost or has been defrosted and refrozen. Refrozen vegetables and fruit may have lost nutrients and typically don’t taste as good as those that have remained freshly frozen.
Watch your ABCs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a quality guide for many frozen vegetables. Grade A, sometimes called “fancy,” denotes the best of the bunch. Grade B produce, which some packagers mark “extra standard,” is excellent as well, but it may be slightly more mature and less colorful and tender. Grade C is a good option when the produce will be used in conjunction with other foodstuffs, in stews, soups, or casseroles where appearance is not too important. “Standard” is another name for C-grade produce. Note: Producers are not required to undergo the standard testing, so grades are not always included on the package.
Stay pure. Watch out for veggies with added sauce, which typically means more fat and more salt. Fruits frozen in syrup contain sugar.
Minimize the time your produce spends away from the freezer by placing frozen produce in your cart last. Bring a cooler with you to carry it home.
As soon as you arrive home from the grocery store, place the frozen produce in the freezer.
Date and throw out unused frozen produce every six months to a year.