In this post, I’ll answer a question I receive often from clients who want to increase their fruit and vegetable intake. In terms of frozen fruit and vegetables vs. fresh, which is better? Is frozen produce less nutritious than fresh? Do they have preservatives and unwanted additives? Keep on reading for the answer to these, and more, questions.
We know eating more fruit and vegetables is one of the cornerstones of healthy eating. It’s one of the main recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020, which advice from 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. These food groups provide us with a wide variety of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. In addition, they provide color, flavor and texture to meals.
Frozen fruits and vegetables are mistakenly thought to be less nutritious and generally just “less than” their fresh counterparts. If you’re confused with the debate over frozen fruit and vegetables vs. fresh, here’s what the research, and this health professional, have to say on the topic.
Are frozen fruit and vegetables as healthy as fresh?
The short answer is: yes. Contrary to common belief, frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy, and sometimes even more so, as fresh produce. In fact, this recent study from the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis found that the “majority of comparisons between nutrients within the categories of fresh, frozen, and ‘fresh-stored’, the findings showed no significant differences in assessed vitamin contents”. The authors also state that “frozen produce outperformed ‘fresh-stored’ more frequently than ‘fresh-stored’ outperformed frozen”.
The reason for this is that fresh produce can lose nutrients during the picking, sorting, shipping and supermarket displaying phases, as well as during storage in the fridge or on the counter top. Nutrient loss is due to enzymatic activity as well as oxidation, when exposed to air and light. Which brings us to the next point…
Do you still get the same nutrients from frozen fruit and vegetables as fresh?
Frozen fruits and vegetables, in contrast, are picked and frozen at their peak ripeness, in order to preserve the maximum amount of nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Natural enzymes in fresh fruits and veggies cause changes in flavor, color, texture, and nutritional value. Freezing slows down this activity (although it does not stop it). Freezing also slows down the growth of bacteria, molds, yeasts and other pathogens, which can further deteriorate fresh fruits and vegetables.
This research paper analyzed the amount of Vitamin C, Vitamin B2, Vitamin E, and β-carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A) in several fruits and vegetables in both refrigerated and frozen environments. The authors found that “overall, the vitamin content of the frozen commodities was comparable to and occasionally higher than that of their fresh counterparts”.
Are frozen fruits and vegetables cheaper than fresh?
Frozen fruits and vegetables are, for the most part, cheaper than the fresh versions. Which is great news! A common concern I often get from my clients is how they do know that consuming more of these food groups is important for their health, but they’re just so expensive!
Well, dear reader, now you know that frozen fruits and veggies are an excellent option. Not only are they just as nutritious (and sometimes even more so!) as fresh (as we just saw above) but they’re budget friendly as well.
Frozen produce also tends to last longer, due to the very nature of the freezing process. Which means less spoilage, less food waste and more bang for your buck. There’s even evidence to back it up, such as this study, which examined the cost effectiveness of frozen (and canned) produce and found that “ 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”. Was that the sound of our collective wallets breathing a sigh of relief?
Does frozen fruit have more sugar than fresh?
Another question I receive often is whether frozen fruit has added sugars, or a higher sugar content than fresh. Frozen fruit is processed the following way:
- The manufacturer washes the fruit
- A chemical compound such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is added to stop the enzymatic activity that we discussed above. This helps prevent fruit from continuing to ripen.
- The fruit undergoes a flash-freezing process, which quickly freezes the fruit without damaging it.
Added sugars are not used, which makes the sugar content of frozen fruit the same as that of fresh. But always check the food label since many frozen fruit products may contain refined sugar for added sweetness. If the package says “sweetened” or “lightly sweetened”, then it does have added sugars.
Do frozen fruits and vegetables have preservatives?
Another additional health benefit of frozen fruits and vegetables is that they don’t have any preservatives or unwanted additives. The reason being that the temperature of these frozen foods don’t allow bacteria and other pathogens to continue to grow. In fact, freezing foods as a means to preserve them has been used since thousands of years ago, especially in colder climates.
Once thawed, though, these foods are exposed to air and environmental pathogens, so you want to make sure to cook them or eat them as soon as possible.
Frozen vegetables are also usually blanched before freezing. Blanching is the method of submerging vegetables in very hot water for a short amount of time, which helps prevent loss of flavor, color and texture due to enzyme activity. Blanching can also kill surface pathogens, further helping to preserve these foods. It can also brighten the color of some veggies, such as broccoli and green beans. This method also does not need any preservatives other than temperature.
Be wary though, of packaged vegetables covered in a cheesy sauce or otherwise seasoned. These types often contain not just unwanted preservatives, but added sodium as well.
How long do frozen fruits and vegetables last?
Freezing temperatures of 0° F (-18° C) keeps food safe indefinitely. However, frozen produce between a period of 12-18 months ensures that quality is not lost due to factors like freezer burn, color and texture changes. Fluctuating temperatures can also compromise food safety in these items, as well as quality.
It’s also important not to over pack your freezer, as the cold air needs to circulate in order to keep food temperatures constant.
Do you have to wash frozen fruits and vegetables before eating?
Frozen fruits and vegetables are washed before the freezing process, so there’s really no need to wash them before using. Also, frozen vegetables are usually cooked after thawing, which gets rid of any potential pathogens present.
However, if you have any concerns, you can always quickly rinse them in clean water before using and consuming them.
Which are the best frozen fruit?
- Blueberries: These nutritional powerhouses are packed with antioxidants and fiber. They also freeze well, and are convenient for quickly adding them to smoothies, oatmeal and yogurt bowls. They also tend to be more budget friendly in their frozen form.
- Strawberries: High in quercetin, an antioxidant with anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties, strawberries are a delicious addition to your healthy diet. Fresh strawberries tend to spoil very quickly, but frozen ones have a longer shelf life, and are fun to eat straight from the freezer!
- Raspberries: Just like blueberries, frozen raspberries are easier on your wallet than fresh. And did you know they’re one of the fruits that have the highest amount of fiber? A walloping 8 grams per cup!
- Peaches: Don’t be fooled by their sweet taste–peaches are surprisingly low in carbohydrates. They’re great paired up with low fat cottage cheese for a quick snack.
- Dark cherries: Their dark color is due to anthocyanin, a very powerful antioxidant. The frozen version will give you the best nutritional bang for your buck, since these tend to be a bit on the expensive side when they’re fresh. Add them to yogurt, or just thaw them and combine them with a piece of dark chocolate for a healthy treat.
- Mango: This tropical fruit is full of Vitamin C, folic acid, antioxidants and fiber. We adore mangoes here in Puerto Rico, but they’re not always available throughout the year. Thank goodness for frozen mango chunks though! For a more exotic smoothie, add some straight from the freezer and pretend you’re relaxing in the Caribbean!
- Pineapple: Another tropical delight, frozen pineapple is available year round. The best part is you don’t have to go through all the trouble of peeling and slicing a fresh pineapple (seriously, how ripped do you really have to be to tackle that ordeal?). Get the boost of Vitamin C, beta carotene and other antioxidants that pineapple has to offer, without pulling a muscle!
What are the best frozen vegetables?
- Broccoli: This is definitely a frozen veggie staple. Fresh broccoli tends to spoil rather quickly, and most of the time, we don’t need the whole head at once. In order to prevent food waste (and save food dollars), choose frozen broccoli instead. Although its cancer‐preventative agent, sulforaphane, is greatly decreased during the pre freezing blanching process, we don’t have to miss out on it. This study found that adding “daikon radish…to frozen broccoli that was then allowed to thaw supported sulforaphane formation”. This substance is abundant in uncooked radish, horseradish, red radish, mustard, cauliflower, and arugula.
- Brussel sprouts: In order to avoid the mushy texture that comes from defrosting brussel sprouts, try to cook them without thawing first. Roasting them in a sheet pan with some olive oil, garlic and black pepper is a tasty way to prepare these little balls of antioxidants (and Vitamin K).
- Cauliflower: Being in the same family as broccoli, cauliflower is chock full of nutrients and powerful antioxidants. Frozen cauliflower rice is super convenient since you don’t have to go through the process of “ricing” it. Just thaw and prepare as a great alternative to rice or couscous.
- Carrots: Frozen carrots are very versatile in that you can just toss them right out of the bag into a soup, stew or braise. Orange fruits and vegetables are highly recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, and with their high content of beta carotene (a Vitamin A precursor) and antioxidants, carrots certainly comply.
- Spinach: Full of iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folic acid, potassium, calcium and fiber, frozen spinach lasts much longer than fresh. Although frozen spinach doesn’t have the leafy texture that the fresh version has, it’s still very handy to have around for dishes like lasagna, omelettes and dips. And you can have a much better measurement for your recipe when using frozen spinach, since fresh tends to cook down significantly.
- Edamame: This vegetable is a great source of plant based protein and it also has omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, fiber and antioxidants. You can find them shelled or in the pod. They make a great snack or appetizer; just lightly steam (remember, they’re already cooked) and enjoy!
- Asparagus: I love asparagus, but it’s also another one of those vegetables that are not available all the time here. And, I’m sorry, but I’m just not a fan of the texture of canned asparagus. Frozen asparagus has a much more firm texture, and it’s just as full of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folic acid and fiber as fresh. It’s also a great source of antioxidants that have blood pressure-lowering, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anticancer effects.
- Corn: Fresh corn is so delicious, but when it’s out of season, frozen corn is a great alternative. I love adding it to my favorite slow cooker tortilla soup recipe, and it retains its texture quite well. It doesn’t have the sodium that canned corn has, and it’s much faster to prepare than fresh. And did you know corn is high in certain carotenoid antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect your eye health?
Summary of the benefits of frozen fruit and vegetables vs fresh
In order to recap what we just learned, here is a summary of the benefits that frozen produce provides us:
- They’re just a nutritious, and sometimes even more so, as the fresh version
- They last longer than fresh, due to the temperature used to preserve them
- Frozen fruit and vegetables vs. fresh are much more affordable
- They’re very convenient: these foods are usually prewashed and precut, making heating them in the microwave or tossing in a pan fast and easy
- Frozen produce is also available year-round
- They’re versatile, easily added to many different dishes, and are already pre-cooked
- They don’t contain any preservatives or unwanted additives
So next time you’re in the supermarket, make sure to visit the frozen produce section and pick up some nutritious, convenient and budget friendly goodies to add to your healthy diet. And let me know in the comments sections which are your favorite picks!
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…