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Fresh May Not Always Be Best

Updated January 22, 2019

Megan Jacobson

SDSU Extension Nutrition Field Specialist

Written by Lindsay Fisher, Dietetic Intern under the direction and review of Megan Jacobson.

To have a healthy diet all year long, consider all options (fresh, frozen, and canned) when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables. All forms count towards your daily amount. Each variety whether it is fresh, frozen, or canned contain essential vitamins and minerals that the body needs.  

During the off growing season, fruits and vegetables are often several times higher in price than what they are during their typical harvesting season. During the off months, fresh varieties are grown in locations that have climates to support the growth of these items. These locations are often not in the United States, which increases the cost of the fruits and vegetables to cover the importing charges. Ripeness is also a concern during the off season months. Fruits and vegetables may be harvested weeks before they are ripe to ensure ripeness when they are purchased by the consumer. This can cause both under and over ripeness of items. 

Frozen or canned fruits and vegetables can be half the cost or less of fresh varieties of the same fruit or vegetable during the winter months. Frozen or canned items are convenient and require minimal preparation. They are harvested and stored at peak ripeness, which avoids the problem of being under or over ripe. Both frozen and canned items may be considered a safer option as the high levels of heat to preserve the food can kill off bacteria and prevent pathogens from growing. 

Regardless of whether it is fresh, frozen, or canned, the amount of calories, protein, and carbohydrate are very similar. Frozen fruits and vegetables are rapidly blanched and stored which make them comparable in nutritional content as the fresh variety1. Canning fruits and vegetables require a longer heating process and they are stored in a liquid solution which can cause degradation of some vitamins and minerals. This includes the water-soluble vitamins, B and C, which are sensitive to heat and light. These vitamins can be decreased by 10-90% in canned items due to the processing and storage method 1. Vitamins A, and E may have little to no difference with some studies even showing them to be enhanced in canned items2

Canned vegetables are higher in sodium content than fresh or frozen varieties. Running the canned item under water can reduced the sodium content by up to 50% 3. Canned fruit may be stored in a sugary, high fructose corn syrup solution. Choosing canned items that say “in water” or “in natural juice” on the label are a healthier option. Look at the nutrition label on canned items and choose items that are lower in sodium and have the least amount of added ingredients. 

When fruits and vegetables are at the peak of their harvest, they are often comparable in price to frozen and canned items. At this time, choose the fresh options. You can also buy quantities of this item and freeze or can it yourself for use later on when prices are not so friendly. Freezing or canning items yourself also allows you to know exactly what was added to the item. 

During these cold winter months, feel free to choose frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. Frozen items can be a slightly better option than canned, as they are higher in certain vitamins and minerals and lower in added sodium and sugar. Regardless, it is important to have at least 5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day. Next time you are at the grocery store selecting your fruits and vegetables for the week, do not be afraid to throw frozen or canned items into your cart. 

Fresh, Frozen, or Canned?

Fresh

  • High in vitamins and minerals.
  • Ready to eat.
  • Largest selection of items, as some items cannot be frozen or canned.
  • Might be cheaper when in-season.

Frozen

  • Comparable in vitamin and mineral content as fresh varieties.
  • Often cheaper than fresh varieties.
  • Freezer life of 8-10 months.
  • Requires preparation before eating.
  • Altered taste and texture due to freezing process.

Canned

  • Often cheaper than fresh or frozen.
  • 1-2 year shelf life.
  • Vitamins such as Vitamin C and B reduced due to canning process.
  • May be safer as heating will kill off bacteria.
  • High in sodium.
  • Often high in sugar.
  • Altered taste and texture due to canning process.

Helpful Tips

  • When choosing canned fruits or vegetables, choose the ones that say "in water," "in natural juice," or "low in added sodium."
  • Rinsing canned fruits and vegetables with water can decrease the sodium and sugar that was added during the canning process.
  • Freeze or can your own fruits and vegetables when the fresh varieties are in-season and lower in cost.

References:

  1. Rickman JC, Barrett DM, Bruhn CM. Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables. Part I. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds. J Sci Food Agric. 2007; 87:930–944. 
  2. Miller S, Knudson B. Nutrition and Costs Comparison of Select Canned, Frozen and Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. Published February 2013.
  3. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Eat Right. What’s best? Fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables?