fresh vs frozen - a question of nutrition...

Frozen vegetables are undeniably handy – they are relatively inexpensive, require minimal preparation, last for ages in the freezer, and can be prepared in minutes. Frozen vegetables help to ease the conscience of a working mum or busy singleton; but if we use them are we sacrificing nutrition for the sake of convenience?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified low vegetable and fruit intake as one of the top 10 risk factors contributing to mortality. We all know that we need to eat more vegetables, but do frozen vegetables counts towards the recommended 3 to 5 serving we should be eating a day? Yes they do, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1996 the FDA concluded frozen vegetables should not be barred from bearing the term ‘healthy’ as they are nutritionally comparable to fresh produce and ‘can contribute significantly to dietary guideline compliance’.

Fresh Produce: A Misnomer?
Most people agree that the flavour and texture of fresh vegetables can’t be beaten. You also have the option of crunching them raw – not a possibility with their frozen counterparts! These days, however, the word ‘fresh’ may sometimes be a bit of an exaggeration. The nutrient content of vegetables begins to diminish soon after harvesting. The longer they remain in transit or storage the less nutritious they become.

Vegetables and other produce are often shipped over long distances between countries to ensure availability out of season. To make sure they survive the trip without bruising or spoiling they are frequently harvested unripe and treated with gases, both of which can negatively affect their nutritional content. The fact that many of us use the ‘best before’ date as a guideline (unless obvious signs of spoilage are present) further detracts from the concept of ‘fresh’ produce.

Nutrients Frozen in Time
A large volume of published research has proved that the nutritional quality of frozen vegetables is the same or even better than that of supermarket fresh. The research shows that the nutrient content of the fresh vegetable will be equal to that of the frozen vegetable at some point during retail distribution and storage, but will then continue to fall to below that of the frozen vegetable (for which the values will remain unchanged).

A 1998 study compared the nutritional values of frozen versus fresh vegetables using vitamin C as a marker.  Frozen peas and broccoli were similar to fresh, store-bought produce, and frozen whole green beans and carrots were similar to the freshly harvested  vegetables. Frozen spinach compared well to freshly harvested spinach and was clearly superior to the fresh, store-bought variety.

Fresh is Best But Don’t Fret About Frozen
The key message is that if we can be sure that fresh vegetables are indeed fresh (i.e. harvested from the home garden or purchased from a farmer’s market and consumed immediately) they would of course be the most obvious, delicious and nutritious choice. However, as most of us lead hectic lives and don’t grow our own vegetables, the produce shelves and frozen food section of our local supermarket are our only alternatives. As long as we begin with the best-quality frozen or seasonal fresh vegetables we can afford, and are reasonably careful in their preparation, we will receive the majority of the nutrients and goodness they have to offer.

While the kinds of foods that we buy certainly make a difference, what we do with them in the kitchen can have an even bigger impact. Minimise nutrient losses by steaming vegetables rather than boiling them, washing vegetables quickly before cutting or peeling, and adding peeled or cut vegetables to vigorously boiling water in order to minimise the length of time they are exposed to vitamin-leaching water.

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