by Chelsea Garcia, M.Ed., ACSM-EP
There has been much debate on what kind of vegetables are the most nutritious and best for you to ingest. Some people will only eat veggies they can get at their local farmers market. However, not all of us are so lucky to have regular access to reputable and diverse farmers markets. The majority probably get their produce at their neighborhood grocery store. The extremely lucky people have enough space and time to grow their own food in their personal gardens. Ideally, we would all be able to grow some amount of in season produce, pick it when it is most ripe, wash, prepare, and eat right away.
The most common way to buy vegetables is fresh, frozen or canned. Nutritionally speaking canned can sometimes be comparable to frozen, but beware of any BPA can lining. The best canned option would be to do it yourself in glass jars. With frozen and canned vegetables, you'll want to read the labels carefully to make sure no extra salt or sauces have been added. Most people already ingest more than their recommended daily allowance of salt per day. Picking frozen or canned veggies with no added salt will help cut down on your daily salt intake.
History of Frozen Foods
Frozen foods came about during the mid 1920's, but really escalated during the WWII era when more homes had freezers. There has been a lot of progress in freezing food over the years. The process and packaging has improved to help food maintain texture, appearance, and taste. Now, it could be said that they are nutritionally comparable to their fresh counterparts.
To freeze vegetables, they must first be blanched to stop anymore enzymatic reactions from going forward. Doing this also cleans the vegetable and helps maintain its flavor and texture. Adding in heat does reduce some nutrient levels slightly like vitamin C. However, a benefit of freezing is that the fiber in the vegetable is not lost in the process. Vegetables that will be frozen are picked at their peak ripeness and frozen right away. Fresh vegetables are picked before they become ripe. That way they are able to survive the trip to the grocery store and on the shelf until they are bought. This means that by the time the fresh veggies make it to your plate, they are nutritionally comparable to frozen veggies if not better.
In some studies, frozen was chosen over fresh to have a higher nutritional content. They also noted in the study that these people generally ate more frozen vegetables and in turn they received higher levels of potassium, fiber, calcium, and vitamin D per day than people who did not eat as many frozen vegetables.
Benefits of Frozen Vegetables
A huge problem in our world is the high levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. A big contributor of those high levels is the amount of CO2 released by decomposing produce that is thrown away. One great benefit of eating more frozen vegetables is that there is generally a lot less waste involved because whatever you don’t use you can put right back into the freezer to use for next time. Make sure to store your veggies properly in airtight containers, bags or in vacuumed sealed bags to get the most out of them each time. A good tip to follow is to eat fresh at the beginning of the week and frozen towards the end. That way you reduce your amount of wasted food. Even if you only buy fresh, try freezing half of what you buy or whatever amount you know you won’t use right away. That way you have it for later or when you forget to grocery shop and need to throw a meal together.
To Cook or Not to Cook
Another big factor of nutrient composition of your vegetables is how you decide to cook them. You can almost always eat them raw, but sometimes a recipe or a craving calls for it to be cooked. I personally love the crunch of raw vegetables, but when I cook them, I try to just slightly cook them, so they maintain their crunchy texture. The heat of cooking vegetables breaks down the cell walls and causes them to become mushy as well as let all the nutrients seep out. This means the crunchier your veggies are the more nutrient dense.
Frozen veggies are sometimes difficult to defrost or cook without sacrificing texture. One big mistake people make is actually defrosting them prior to cooking. Take them right out of the freezer and put them into the pan, a steamer, or even the microwave. They will defrost quickly in the cooking process and it will help maintain the texture to cook right from frozen.
If you are cooking your fresh or frozen veggies, you’ll want to avoid boiling them in large amounts of water. When they’re cooking in the giant pot of hot water their vitamins and nutrients start to leak out into the water. This leaves you with a lot of vegetables with little nutrient content and all the good stuff gets poured down the drain. Bottom line try to limit the amount of water you use to cook veggies.
Some other options would be to steam or microwave vegetables. This limits the water and loss of nutrients. You could even shorten your cooking time to preserve the vitamin content within the vegetable.
Some vegetables should actually be cooked because it helps the body absorb their nutrients easier. Tomatoes, dark leafy greens (spinach), broccoli should be cooked because the heat helps release more antioxidants. The cooking process of these specific vegetables also helps with the breakdown and digestion.
Make sure to limit and be mindful of how much deep-fried, grilled or caramelized vegetables you eat. Deep-fried anything is never too good for you even if it is a vegetable. Eating this type of veggie everyday will not be a healthy sustainable diet. The browning process of caramelization creates a type of carcinogen called AGE's (Advanced Glycation End Products). The level of AGE's in vegetables when they are caramelized or burnt is much lower than other foods like meat.
How To Buy
thing to consider while shopping for frozen vegetables is how they feel in the
bag. Make sure to inspect and squeeze the bag a little before dropping it into
the cart. The bag should feel like each vegetable is its own piece. If you feel
large clumps, that means the vegetables started to thaw out during their
journey to the store and have been refrozen. The clumps indicate that they have
also lost nutrients in the process due to thawing. You want them to be in
individual pieces because that means they are still in their original flash