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Fresh, frozen, or canned? Selecting the best veggies in the winter

 

As fall fades into winter and the selection of fresh produce at your local farmers’ market or grocery store dwindles, you may wonder what the most nutritious choice is for vegetables—fresh, frozen or canned.

Considering a report by The New York Times that Americans eat 31 percent more packaged foods than fresh foods a year, more than many of our counterparts around the globe, this is certainly a topic worth examining.

Fortunately, Columbia St. Mary’s Women’s Heart Secrets dietitian Kathy Redlinger has some advice to help you navigate the grocery aisles during the winter months.

Fresh is best, especially if it’s locally grown
While fresh produce is best, the locally grown varieties are truly ideal because fruits and vegetables that are picked while unripe and then shipped across the country – or the ocean – often lose some nutrients by the time they reach your local grocery store. For example, imported tomatoes may never develop quite as much vitamin C and flavor as the farmers' market variety.

“Fresh, locally grown foods tend to retain the most vitamins C and B because these delicate vitamins degrade over time, and some are sensitive to heat and light,” says Redlinger.

While growing season for produce in our area ends by November, you can still select local varieties of several hearty vegetables like potatoes, carrots and onions, which can be stored year round.

Cook frozen vegetables correctly to retain the greatest nutrients
Frozen foods can be a very economical and convenient choice. You can buy a big bag of frozen green beans, for example, but cook just enough for one or two people at a time. And, frozen foods are often already washed, peeled and chopped, saving lots of time.

Nowadays, many foods are frozen quite rapidly after being picked fresh from the fields. Some are blanched first–meaning they are dipped into boiling water to destroy enzymes that would increase spoilage. Then they are flash frozen–cooled to below-zero temperatures in a few minutes to prevent ice crystals from forming inside the foods.

Overcooking vegetables until limp can destroy vitamin C as well as the B vitamins. Cook them until they are just tender, and cooking them only until crisp is an even better option, nutritionally.

Redlinger suggests if you’re cooking frozen vegetables in water, try to use as little as possible because some vitamins leach out into the water and are lost. Rather than plunging the veggies in a pot of boiling water, try steaming them in a steam basket over cup of water or microwave them in a covered dish with a few tablespoons of water.

According to the National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Association, you can store frozen foods for up to one year.

Be picky when selecting canned foods
While the benefit of canned foods is that they last a long time — up to two years —they have a couple of significant drawbacks compared to fresh and frozen foods.

Many canned vegetables are high in sodium, but rinsing them before use can be helpful. You can also look for ‘low-sodium’ or ‘no salt added’ varieties. 

Another canned food concern is its packaging. Some cans have an inner coating that contains Bisphenol A, also known as BPA.  Although this chemical is allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it is controversial as some believe it may carry health risks that have effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children. To limit your BPA exposure, purchase canned foods labeled BPA-free or purchase foods sold in glass jars. 

“Still some canned foods are a best bet and a few canned foods actually have more nutrients than fresh,” says Redlinger. Healthier canned convenience foods that are not readily available fresh or frozen include tomato paste and canned beans. 

Most tomato paste is up to 10 times lower in sodium than tomato sauce and is easy to use. Just add a can of water and season with garlic, oregano and other Italian herbs for a quick, low-sodium sauce for pasta or pizza.

Canned beans are incredibly quick, ready in just minutes rather than the hours of cooking their dry counterparts take. Canned beans are also versatile; try them on top of salads, in soups and as part of many dishes.

In addition, beans are high in soluble fiber, which is good for digestion and helpful for lowering cholesterol. They are also rich in folic acid, a B vitamin that is good for the heart and helps prevent some birth defects. Finally, beans are a great source of protein and a delicious, healthy alternative to meat or cheese.

“The bottom line is that because the selection of fresh foods, especially the locally grown kind, is so limited in our region during the winter, it’s fine to use some frozen veggies and, occasionally, some canned foods,” says Redlinger.

 

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