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Americans have certainly heard the message, over and over again. Eat more fruits and vegetables; they’re good for what ails you.

However, the message is often qualified with the word fresh. Eat more fresh fruits and ­vegetables.

For apple growers, that hasn’t hurt. Apples, stored for a year, are still labeled as fresh. But for growers of less storable fruits—peaches, pears, plums, and cherries—and most vegetables, the word fresh consigns them to seasonal status, and sends consumers looking to points south for fresh produce several months of the year.

The other alternative would be to eat processed fruits and vegetables, and processed is not a positive word.

A recent study shows that imported produce has fared much better than domestic produce over the last decade (read “Labor shortage favors imports”) and that American growers have lost opportunity as a result.

If consumers had chosen to eat processed fruits and vegetables, would domestic growers have done ­better?

A new paper in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine prepared by Drs. Steven Miller and William Knudson at the Center for Economic Analysis and the MSU Product Center at Michigan State University addresses the question.

They find that canned and frozen foods are about equal to fresh in nutrient value—and sometimes better.

The scientists compared eight common vegetables and ten fruits in different options—fresh, frozen, or canned. They found the nutrient values were similar for the vegetables though, for fruits, there was more variability in nutrient value.

Their conclusion: “Fruits and vegetables packaged as frozen or canned are cost-effective and nutritious options for meeting daily vegetable and fruit recommendations in the context of a healthy diet.”

Processing advantages

In the United States, most of the processed fruit and vegetables are produced in northern states in intense, seasonal production and processing operations. The goal is to catch produce at peak quality and fix that quality in place by processing.

Processed products are less affected by time in storage or transit, and are not subject to refrigeration requirements or conditions in warehouses or while on display in produce departments. There is less shrinkage.

Among fruits, canned pears cost more than fresh pears; that was also true for apricots, cherries, and blueberries.

Peaches cost about the same either way. A number of other types of canned fruits were cheaper than fresh, however.

Canned fruits are often packed with sugar syrup, which lowered their nutrient scores since sugar adds calories but not vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients.

Canned vegetables, it was noted, are often packed with salt, scoring lower for violating current dietary guidelines for sodium.

The authors believe that canned products offer distinct advantages for people with “documented barriers to healthy food”—people living in so-called food deserts. In inner cities, supermarkets are less accessible, and convenience stores rarely have fresh produce departments.

Canned foods allow shoppers to shop less frequently—reducing transportation costs especially for consumers who live in food deserts.

Canning destroys illness-causing microorganisms, and may improve digestibility, especially of fiber, the authors say.

“Properly processed and prepared canned fruits and vegetables can be as healthful, if not more healthful, than their fresh counterparts.

“Canned fruits and vegetables are … nutritious options available year-round at a competitive cost to fresh and frozen ones,” the authors say.

The body of evidence suggests that although the canning process may sometimes compromise the nutritive value of fruits and vegetables, a similar effect is observed with increasing length of storage of fresh and even frozen produce, they wrote. •