(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Fewer than one-third of Americans eat the recommended two servings of fruit per day and just 26 percent consume the suggested three vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means one thing: packing more healthy produce into our diets is a must.
While any extra fruit and veggies are good things, it turns out some methods of packaging and storage are healthier than others, thanks to factors like time of harvesting and processing method. Grandparents.com spoke to Mira and Jayson Calton, nutrition experts and co-authors of Rich Food, Poor Food, to get the lowdown on which is best for your body.
(MORE: 8 Underrated Vegetables With Huge Health Benefits)
THE BEST WAY: Fresh and locally grown
Get thee to a farmer’s market. Fresh produce is usually preferable to frozen and canned fruits and veggies, but those grown within a 100-mile radius of your home are ideal, because they’re picked in-season at the height of ripeness, when nutrients are at their peak.
"Farmers allow their produce to fully ripen prior to bringing it to market, while most large-scale conventional farming operations are essentially forced to harvest produce early, in order for it to withstand damage or spoilage in transit to its destination," says Mira Calton.
This means that supermarket produce, while still a good choice, may not be as nutritionally dense as you'd hoped. "This premature picking is detrimental to a food’s overall micronutrient value," she notes. In both cases — farmer's market and grocery store foods — organic is usually a better choice since there are, according to Mira Calton, "over 400 chemical pesticides routinely used in conventional farming." Eek.
(MORE: Is Organic Food Really Better for You?)
VERY GOOD: Frozen
First, the good news: Frozen fruits and veggies are, says Calton, "more likely to be picked at their peak of ripeness, when they are at their most micronutrient dense," which means iced foods "often start out with higher levels of micronutrients than their fresh non-local counterparts." Even better, they retain those nutrients for up to a year in your freezer.
Now, the (semi) bad news: Before they’re flash-frozen, fruits and vegetables must be blanched (briefly boiled), a process during which some health benefits are inevitably lost. "This is where the micronutrient content of many of the water-soluble vitamins are reduced by an average of 20 to 60 percent,” says Calton.
Furthermore, she adds, "loss of antioxidants (which are needed to fight free radicals) also occurs."
Still, frozen is a solid choice for those looking to pack in the produce. For the healthiest frozen foods, look for bags with zero or minimal added ingredients, including salt, sugar or artificial colors.
Like frozen produce, canned fruits and vegetables are usually harvested at the height of ripeness/nutrient content, and then blanched before being packaged, meaning they lose some water-soluble nutrients, like vitamins B1 and C. However, certain canned foods actually benefit from the process.
For example, the amount of lycopene (a phytochemical said to help prevent cancer) in tomatoes actually increases when they’re canned. Similarly, canned carrots and pumpkin benefit from a boost in beta carotene, a carotenoid and antioxidant important to immunity.
One curveball in the canned goods game: the presence of Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, a "plastic additive" used in food packaging that’s been linked to cancer and endocrine issues, among other illnesses.
"BPA is especially good at leaching into canned foods that are acidic, salty or fatty, such as coconut milk, tomatoes, canned fish, soup and vegetables," says Calton. While the Food and Drug Administration says that BPA "is safe at the current levels occurring in foods," the Caltons advise consumers to purchase BPA-free canned goods to avoid potential health pitfalls.
The age-old preservation method of drying comes with a multitude of benefits, including long shelf life, high fiber content and lots of nutrients retained after the drying process.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks.
- Rehydration, particularly of certain veggies, can take awhile, making dried food a bit less convenient than frozen, fresh or canned.
- With vegetables, some vitamins and minerals are lost during that lengthy drying process, while others, like thiamin and niacin, are diminished during rehydration. (Tip: Re-use the rehydration liquid during cooking to get those minerals back.)
- Dried fruits contain significantly more calories than regular fruits by volume, meaning one cup of dried mango has many more calories than one cup of fresh mango. Subsequently, it’s important to watch how much you’re eating.
Still, dried produce is a good addition to your diet, as long as you’re supplementing with fresh fruits and veggies, as well.
Though store-bought juices can contain important vitamins and minerals — Tropicana Orange Juice includes vitamin C, folate and potassium, for example — many are loaded with extra sugar, diluted with water and crammed with artificial ingredients, making them inefficient methods of increasing your produce intake.
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Diet: Should You Be Juicing?)
If you must buy supermarket juice, "the gold standard is ‘100 percent juice,'" says Calton, because it most likely contains fewer additives. "However, there is no guarantee that it isn’t watered down, or that citric acid or artificial flavors or colors have not been added in."
On the other hand, juicing — in which you make your own juice from a variety of fresh produce at home — effectively packs a ton of crucial micronutrients into the average diet without needless additives. The comparatively few drawbacks include dubious health claims (like "detoxing"), lack of fiber (left behind when the pulp is removed) and high calorie content if you opt for too many fruits and too few vegetables.
To avoid these pitfalls and maximize health benefits, read up before you buy that blender.
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- Surprising Benefits of Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
- Fiftysomething Diet: 8 Must-Haves for a Healthy Pantry
- How I Became a Grown-Up Who Eats His Vegetables
- Fiftysomething Diet: Make a Healthier Breakfast
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