Early spring, with its promise of green, can sometimes be the cruelest season at the supermarket for shoppers trying to eat right. If youre looking to buy fresh, locally grown produce (perhaps some of the 11 healthy, seasonal veggies spotlighted in our March Special Supplement), depending on where you live, it may not quite be time yet. The produce that is available either looks past its prime, nutritionally and taste-wise, or has been transported from far away-with the price tag to prove it.
But theres good news for budget- and health-conscious produce shoppers: Your fruit and vegetable shopping doesnt have to be limited to whats fresh and in season-or pinched by the high prices of fresh produce not in season. Frozen fruits and vegetables, Tufts experts say, are at least as nutritious as fresh.
Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, explains, “For the most part, frozen vegetables and fruits are processed close to the point of harvesting, and, unless thawed and refrozen prior to sale, have the same level of nutrients as fresh or more due to the quick processing. Fresh fruits and vegetables-more so than frozen or canned-can vary in quality, depending on when they were picked relative to when they are available to purchase and the conditions under which they were transported and stored, the length of storage time and the conditions under which they are displayed.”
Nutrient loss is especially a concern for delicate fresh produce. Fruits and vegetables with a protective peel, such as oranges, squash, bananas or apples, are more robust and stay nutritionally intact longer.
CONSIDERING CANNED: What about canned fruits and vegetables? “Canned fruits and vegetables are different because they are cooked,” Lichtenstein says. “They may be a bit lower in the nutrients that are destroyed when heated during the canning process. However, in some cases they are good options because they have a long shelf-life, contain no waste and are ready to use directly from the can.” She adds one shopping tip: “If you choose to purchase canned items, make sure to look for those that have no added salt or sugar.”
If you cant find canned produce without added salt or sugar, drain the canning liquid and rinse the contents under running water. With canned beans, for example, draining and rinsing significantly reduces the sodium content from salt added in canning.
“Of course, it is also important how the vegetables and fruits are transported from the store to home and are stored and prepared once you get them home,” says Lichtenstein. “Minimize excessive heat and cooking fluid unless the liquid is going to be consumed, such as in soups. Microwaving or steaming vegetables is always a good quick option for preparation. It is also important to remember most vegetables and fruits can be cut up and thrown into salads to add a little variety and surprise.
COUNT ON WHOLE PRODUCE: Whether you buy fresh, frozen or canned produce, purchase whole fruits and vegetables whenever possible-saving the chopping for home. Chopping, peeling and crushing all accelerate the degradation process that leads to nutrient loss, says Jeffrey B. Blumberg, PhD, director of Tufts HNRCA Antioxidants Research Laboratory.
“Dont over-worry this frozen/fresh thing,” Blumberg adds. “The most important thing here is to eat plant food in whatever form it may be-up to nine servings a day. Most people dont eat enough produce, and not being able to buy fresh, local produce should not be an excuse to eat even less.”