In our quest for a healthy diet, we are always told that fresh fruits and vegetables are healthier than frozen food. But convenience and all-season availability mean that we tend to use the latter as smart hacks in the rush of daily living. However, not all frozen foods are necessarily unhealthy, and a certain category can actually be nutrient-dense. It all depends on the type of vegetable, the time it takes to get from harvest to consumption and the specific freezing and storage methods employed.

What matters is the preservation methods used for these essential food groups, be it freezing or canning. First, let’s define frozen foods. These are vegetables and fruits whose temperature is reduced and maintained below the freezing point for storage and transportation purposes.

What kind of freezing is healthy?

The common process used is flash freezing, which retains all the nutrients with minimal loss of some water-soluble vitamins, especially vitamin C. “Speed is of utmost importance in the frozen food industry. As soon as produce (fruits and vegetables) are picked from farms, it becomes a nutritional race against time,” says Ritika Samaddar, Regional Head, Nutrition And Dietetics, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, New Delhi.

Freezing fruits and vegetables make them more convenient, easily available and safe for consumption, provided they have been stored at freezing temperatures and thawed appropriately.

“Advances in food technology mean that much of the fresh food, like frozen peas for example, have been harvested at peak ripeness and snap frozen and processed within hours, preserving much of the nutrition. So, spinach stored at room temperature can lose up to 100 per cent of its vitamin C content within seven days as there is more oxidative damage. But frozen spinach that is snap frozen immediately after harvest will retain its vitamin content until it is cooked. So, you get a nutrient-dense food,” says Samaddar.

Festive offer

The rapid freezing process helps to lock in nutrients, preventing the degradation that occurs over time in fresh vegetables. Says Bhakti Samant, Chief Dietician at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai, “Frozen vegetables have a significantly longer shelf life than fresh ones. Their availability throughout the year also ensures a consistent source of nutrition. High-quality frozen vegetables usually do not contain added preservatives, salt, or sugars, so you have more control over your dietary choices.” She even lists frozen vegetables that can be used on a regular basis. Frozen spinach is typically blanched and quickly frozen, preserving most of its nutrients, including vitamin K, vitamin A, iron, and folate. Frozen peas are often harvested at their peak ripeness and quickly frozen. They retain a high level of nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A, and fiber. Frozen corn is harvested and frozen at its peak, preserving its vitamin C, vitamin B, and dietary fiber content.

However, it’s essential to be aware that some frozen fruits and vegetables may have significant amounts of salt, sugar and fats added as preservatives, and these should be avoided.

What we need to watch out for in canned foods?

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Canning is a method of preserving fruits and vegetables for an extended period in airtight containers. This process usually retains proteins, carbohydrates and fat-soluble vitamins with minimal loss. However, there may be a loss of water-soluble vitamins like vitamin B and C. Sometimes, salt, sugar, or preservatives are added to canned foods to improve color and texture. “Hence, it’s crucial to read labels and choose accordingly,” says Samaddar.

Frozen vs canned

One advantage that frozen vegetables and fruits have over canned ones is that they contain little or no added salt or sugar because the freezing process itself can stop bacterial growth. Canned fruits and vegetables benefit from the sterilization process used, making them safe and free of microorganisms.

When it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, the time taken from the farm to your home is vital, as well as how well they were stored. Proper washing and storage are essential to maximize nutritional value and protect against infestation by microbes and pesticides. Fresh fruits are often the best source of vitamin C, as this vitamin can be easily destroyed by heat and air. What’s most crucial is to maintain a diverse diet, which means consuming a variety of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.