With produce bins holding the best of the fall harvest, it’s hard to make a case for the benefits of frozen fruits and vegetables. But naturally, that’s just what the American Frozen Food Institute and the National Food Processors Association has been doing, with the government’s blessing.
In March, the Food and Drug Administration declared that frozen produce can be just as good for you as the fresh stuff. At issue were 1994 food labeling regulations, which held processed fruits and vegetables to a higher standard of proof than raw foods when branding the produce with a “healthy” label.
Industry representatives argued that produce frozen just after picking was nutritionally equivalent to fresh. They bolstered their position by saying that such items as spinach, grapes or carrots may spend a long time between being picked and being consumed — on trucks, or in store displays — losing nutrients as they age.
The FDA found merit in that claim, concluding that the overall goal is to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, at least five servings a day. Many nutrition professionals agree.
“Frozen foods are frozen at their peak in terms of freshness and nutrition,” says Diane Quagliani, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “So there’s really no reason that people should not choose frozen. I love fresh vegetables, don’t get me wrong, but frozen vegetables are wonderful items in terms of convenience.”
That’s also the message from Christine Perry, senior editor at the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter in Boston.
“It’s better to focus on getting fruits and vegetables in your diet, whether they are fresh or frozen,” she says. “It’s tricky to say that one is better than the other; fresh produce loses vitamins if it has been sitting on the shelf. Others may argue that the fresh stuff tastes better and it’s good to support local farmers.”
The decision is easy in the summertime, when farmers’ markets offer freshly picked produce and when home gardens yield ingredients that barely have time to cool before being put in a salad. But as winter approaches, local sources shut down and much of the produce consumed through the spring comes from other states or other countries.
Food held at temperatures above freezing after being picked begins to lose nutrients, according to the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine’s “Total Nutrition” guide.
Still, years of experimenting with poor-tasting canned and mushy frozen foods have turned off many consumers from anything that isn’t fresh.
“In my classes people always think fresh is better,” says Chris Rosenbloom, associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University. “They don’t realize how easy and convenient frozen food is. Even the cooking-impaired can heat up (frozen) vegetables.”
Rosenbloom encourages consumers to buy frozen produce that is loosely packed in bags because it’s easier to extract single servings from them than from those firmly packed boxes. Food that has been purchased frozen, then thawed and refrozen, can deteriorate in quality.
What’s important to remember, though, is that even if freezing helps preserve nutrients, it does not protect food from bacteria. The cold “halts the growth of microorganisms,” according to “Total Nutrition,” but “does not improve food or kill bacteria, although it does prevent them from multiplying.” Once you’ve thawed a food, the clock starts ticking.
So keep the food at subzero temperatures, wrapped in airtight, waterproof bags or boxes. If the produce isn’t sealed well, it will develop freezer burn, white patches that indicate moisture — and nutrients — have been lost.