Fresh vs Frozen Vegetables and Fruits: Which Are Better For You?
Frozen food has gotten a bad rap over the years for being highly processed and unhealthy. And while many frozen foods—think TV dinners and toaster strudels—are still deserving of this reputation, is frozen produce among them? Let’s settle this fresh vs frozen vegetables and fruits debate once and for all.
Freezing Vegetables and Fruits 101
Freezing is one of the easiest and most effective food preservation methods, and one that doesn’t typically require any added ingredients. Fruits and vegetables to be frozen are often harvested at peak ripeness and frozen within the next 24 hours (often within the next several hours) to lock in their nutrient content.
Once harvested, the fruits or vegetables are washed and rinsed well, de-stemmed, chopped, or sliced (if applicable), and inspected for debris and/or damage. Vegetables are then blanched before being frozen. Blanching involves briefly exposing the vegetables to hot water or steam to deactivate enzymes in them that would otherwise cause loss of flavor, color, texture, and nutrients, and to help destroy microorganisms on their surface. The vegetables are then cooled immediately to prevent them from cooking.
Fruits don’t typically require blanching before freezing. Instead, ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C) may be added to promote color retention and prevent browning. This is most commonly seen with frozen bananas and peaches.
Fresh vs Frozen Vegetables and Fruits
Generally, freezing vegetables and fruits helps to preserve their nutrients. However, some micronutrient loss will occur during the blanching and freezing processes. Frozen produce items will also lose nutrients the longer they are frozen.
On the other hand, fresh produce is often picked before it’s fully ripe, giving it less time to develop a full range of nutrients but preventing it from over-ripening during transport. Fresh fruits and veggies are also more likely to sustain some nutrient loss during transport from field to supermarket. However, this is greatly minimized when you purchase locally grown produce. Plus, fresh produce that is grown locally is often harvested when it’s ripe, as it doesn’t require long distances for transport.
Both fresh and frozen produce have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to nutritional quality. So, where does this leave us in the fresh versus frozen debate? The good news, studies have found that frozen vegetables and fruits are—for the most part—comparable nutritionally to their fresh counterparts.
Are Frozen Fruits Healthy?
Frozen fruits hold their own when it comes to nutritional quality, and certain fruits may even be slightly more nutritious than their fresh counterparts.
Take, for example, the humble blueberry. Several studies comparing fresh and frozen blueberries have found that frozen blueberries retain as much, and in some cases, more, of their vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content. In fact, blueberries that had been frozen for 90 days were found to have significantly higher levels of vitamin C and phenolic compounds (phytonutrients with antioxidant properties) than fresh blueberries that had been refrigerated for 10 days.
Frozen fruits are also conveniently de-stemmed, peeled, sliced, and/or diced for you, so they’re ready to be added to smoothies, oats, and more. The convenience aspect of frozen fruits may make you more inclined to take advantage of all the health-promoting nutrients they have to offer.
A question that often comes up in the fresh vs frozen fruit debate is: does frozen fruit have added sugar? The answer: Sugar isn’t added to frozen fruits; so, they have the same sugar content as their fresh counterparts!
Are Frozen Vegetables Healthy?
As with frozen fruits, when it comes to frozen vegetables vs fresh ones, both are nutritious and convenient. However, you may be wondering, do frozen vegetables lose nutrients from blanching?
The blanching process that most frozen vegetables undergo does result in some loss of nutrients, especially water-soluble vitamins, like vitamin C and B vitamins, which can leach out of the vegetables and into the blanching liquid. Still, levels of these nutrients are typically comparable to and occasionally higher than that of their fresh-stored counterparts because 1) the blanching process also deactivates enzymes that will break those nutrients down over time, and 2) freezing helps slow further nutrient loss during storage.
In a study comparing the vitamin content of fresh versus frozen vegetables, corn and green beans that had been frozen for 90 days were found to have significantly higher levels of vitamin C than fresh corn and green beans that had been refrigerated for 10 days. No significant differences in vitamin C content were found for frozen carrots, spinach, peas, and broccoli when compared to their fresh-stored counterparts.
In the fresh versus frozen vegetables and fruits debate, it’s pretty much a tie, so which should you choose? Both!
Nothing beats the taste and nutrient content of in-season and locally grown fresh produce enjoyed as soon as possible after purchasing.
On the other hand, frozen produce is often cheaper, more convenient, and lasts longer than fresh, which means less waste and more produce intake. It’s true—consumption of frozen vegetables and fruits has been linked to higher total produce intake (and higher potassium intake), which is necessary for most of us given that only one in ten adults gets enough fruits and vegetables in their diet.
So, don’t let the controversy surrounding frozen food deter you from taking advantage of it and enjoying more produce.