Nutrition news

Are fresh produce better than canned and frozen fruits and vegetables? Not always, say these experts

As inflation drives up prices, many Australians are looking to cut costs at the supermarket.

Experts say opting for cheaper canned or frozen produce can be just as healthy as expensive fresh produce — and in some cases, even healthier.

Frozen can be better than fresh

Nutrition Australia registered dietitian Leanne Elliston says that, from a health perspective, frozen foods can sometimes be better for you than some products sold as “fresh” on supermarket shelves.

This is especially true for foods that are not in season, as these foods are sometimes transported over long distances and the nutrients they contain can break down during this long transport time.

Ms Elliston says water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C are particularly harmful for this.

So you can get a “fresh” orange, but due to the long time between picking this fruit and eating it, it may have lost some of its nutritional benefits.

Oranges that have come a long way to end up on your supermarket shelves will have lost some of their nutrients along the way. (Pexels: Anna Shvets)

But Ms Elliston said frozen food does not have this problem.

“Nutrients are locked up in this frozen state and they don’t degrade like fresh produce,” she says.

Anika Rouf, an accredited practicing dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians Australia, said most frozen fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets are frozen.

“They’re frozen as soon as they’re picked,” Dr. Rouf said.

“So their nutrient density is much better than getting something that’s been sitting in the supermarket for a week.”

And the preserves?

Canned fruits and vegetables are often poorly packaged, but Ms Elliston said there can be plenty of nutritional goodness in these cans.

She’s a big fan of canned corn and canned tomatoes as quick and convenient ways to boost the fiber content of dishes like soups, casseroles and curries.

And she says canned legumes like chickpeas and lentils can help bulk up meat dishes — think spaghetti bolognese — to spread them over more meals.

However, she says, just be careful with additives.

canned fruit

What to look for: Fruit in juice

Sometimes canned fruit is found in the juice of a different fruit, often apple or pear juice, but the juice is less likely to contain added sugar than other canned fruits.

What to avoid: Fruits in syrup

“It will just be sugar and water,” Ms Elliston said.

She points out that just because the fruit comes in syrup or juice form, you don’t need to consume it — you can strain it and just eat the fruit inside.

A can of canned pineapple that says "in juice"with a photo of the ingredient list confirming that it is juice.
Opt for canned fruit in juice rather than syrup. (ABC News: Danielle Maguire)

Canned vegetables

What to look for: Reduced in salt

What to avoid: Added salt

“Grab a few cans, look at the nutrition facts panel and look at the sodium,” Ms. Elliston said.

“Choose the one with the smallest amount per 100 grams.”

A can of canned corn kernels, with the words "no added salt" printed on the label.
Choose the option with the lowest salt content when choosing between types of canned vegetables. (ABC News: Danielle Maguire)

Check the star rating

If you’re trying to choose between different types of the same canned vegetables, checking the Health Star rating can eliminate the confusion of reading nutrition information panels.

“The Health Star Rating averages the pros and cons of the product,” Dr. Rouf said.

So, the benefits of canned fruits could be the fiber and nutrient content, which would boost their rating.

But a downside could be the added sugar, which would lower the rating.

However, not all products have a Health Star rating, as this is a voluntary labeling feature.

Which range to choose: Aim for 3.5 stars and above

it’s better to have a variety

Whatever you choose, remember that any serving of fruit or vegetables is better than none.

Dr Rouf pointed to a Bureau of Statistics survey which found that less than 7% of Australians ate the recommended five servings of vegetables a day.

“What matters in the end is that everyone finds a way [to eat vegetables]” she says.

Ms. Elliston recommended mixing it with frozen, fresh and canned goods.

“Some nutrients and vitamins break down when cooked,” she said.

“Other nutrients become more available to the body when cooked.

“So the more variety the better.”

The nutrition information panel on the back of a can of chickpeas on a white bench.
Canned foods can be very nutritious, but keep an eye out for additives. (ABC News: Danielle Maguire)

She gives an example using the humble tomato.

When tomatoes are cooked, lycopene becomes much easier for your body to absorb.

But fresh tomatoes contain more vitamin C.

“It’s good to have a mix,” she said.

Dr. Rouf also said to keep this in mind when opting for frozen vegetables.

She said a bag of frozen mixed vegetables was a smart choice.

“Variety is really important, rather than eating the same food all the time,” she said.

“Different colors have different nutrients.

“Better to aim for two to three colors on your plate.”