Frozen. It’s how we feel now that we’re in the depths of winter. It’s the name of a popular family movie. And it’s a way to purchase our vegetables and fruits. But is frozen produce as good as fresh?
On the one hand, we’re encouraged to purchase whole fresh vegetables and fruits and minimize the processed types. On the other hand, frozen produce is so convenient. At this time of year, family cooks find themselves facing a produce dilemma.
Is it preferable to buy fresh produce out of season, which could have spent days or even weeks in transit and storage before you purchase them from the local grocery store? Or turn to the freezer aisle for a package of berries, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts?
There are numerous benefits to frozen:
• You can take out just what you need, close the bag, and pop it back in the freezer for next time. No washing is required and there’s no food waste.
• A variety is available year-round.
• The price is usually quite reasonable.
• Pre-cut mixes of recipe-ready vegetables, such as pre-sliced onions and peppers for fajitas and blends with whole grains and beans, are offered.
Yet, there’s a trade-off: The texture suffers. While it’s not a problem for all dishes, the characteristic softness of previously frozen vegetables can be a turn-off. Why does this happen? Well, the water in fruits and vegetables expands during freezing and breaks down the plant cells, resulting in a mushy texture in some vegetable types.
What about the nutrition? Isn’t there some nutrient loss during the freezing process?
Not really. Immediately after picking, the veggies and fruit get a quick blast of hot water or steam that blanches them and kills microbes that are present. Blanching stops browning and loss of nutrients.
Several studies, including one published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, found that fresh and frozen can be nutritionally equal, depending upon how the produce was stored and processed. Another study at the University of Georgia compared nutrients in fresh produce the day it was purchased and after it had spent five days in the refrigerator. The frozen produce packed as many nutrients as the fresh and in some cases — broccoli, strawberries, and green peas — even more than what was kept in the home fridge for five days.
There were even greater levels of select fat-soluble nutrients — vitamins A and E and lycopene — that were released from their cell structure after being frozen.
Most people don’t realize that fresh produce destined for supermarkets is picked early, so it isn’t overripe when it arrives at the store. The full spectrum of vitamins and minerals is developed when it is fully ripe. What’s in the stores may be lower in nutrients due to early harvesting. As soon as produce is picked, the level of some nutrients begins to decline.
What do I keep in my own freezer? Several types of green vegetables such as spinach, sugar snap peas, corn, plus chopped onion and green bell pepper. And I always keep berries, such as blueberries and raspberries, ready to toss into a smoothie, cottage cheese, or oatmeal.
Cooking frozen peas, beans, and other vegetables is a snap. Place them in a skillet on medium-high heat with a little olive oil, a bit of sliced garlic if you wish, and about two tablespoons of water. Cover the pan and cook until heated through and the moisture has evaporated.
You can also toss frozen vegetables into stir-fries, soup, casseroles, stews, sauces, and lasagna.
While fresh is good, the convenience of frozen vegetables and fruits make it easier to boost your family’s recommended servings every day.
Christine Palumbo is a Naperville-registered dietitian nutritionist who is a new Fellow of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @PalumboRD, Facebook at Christine Palumbo Nutrition, or Chris