By Heather Nicholds
Getting a lot of fresh vegetables in your diet is important. But what do you do through the winter, when fresh produce isn't in season or is being shipped from the tropics? And in the battle of frozen vs canned vegetables, who would win?
Overall, the quality of your produce is so much more important than the quantity for a healthy diet plan. The collective conclusion of all the studies done since 1980 is that organic produce has 25% more nutrients than conventional. (New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods - PDF)
Organic produce gives you more nutrients per cup, and there are other factors that aren't as measurable. If you buy organic produce from a farmer who embraces the full scope of organic methods, rather than just not using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, you get food that's actually healthy - not just pretty-looking.
This video puts that concept into a very simple and clear message from a little girl through her three attempts at sprouting a sweet potato.
Eating produce when it's fresh is the best way to get the most nutrients possible. Enjoy the fruits and vegetables in season while you can! Going to the local farmer's market, having a vegetable or herb garden in your backyard, or some sprouts growing on your windowsill, are all excellent ways to supplement the food you get from the store.
Getting absolutely everything fresh and local would be amazing, and is something to work towards for our future, but unfortunately isn't an option for a lot of people yet.
Through the winter, go for the produce that would have matured in the late fall and can keep. Those will be the freshest available, and won't have been shipped from a land (too) far away. Winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, beets, carrots, rutabaga, cabbage and other winter greens, apples, pears, oranges and others should be available in your grocery store and if you have a year-round farmer's market that's likely what you'll see. If you have your own garden, you can keep a stash from fall in a cold cellar. If you live in the tropics of course, this won't apply.
In general, frozen produce is better than canned. Vegetables are blanched (put briefly into boiling water) before freezing, and they'll lose some nutrients but not a ton. Really, any way you keep produce means it'll have less nutrients - even just having it sit around for too long. So it could be that produce frozen right when it's at its peak has more nutrients than produce picked early and shipped for thousands of miles.
Freezing is one of the best ways to preserve produce from your own garden. It's easy, quick and gives you a lot of flexibility when you want to use it later. The only catch is that you have to have enough space in your freezer, and if the power goes out you may be in trouble.
Canned vegetables and fruit are cooked more than frozen since the producer has to make sure there isn't any bacteria growth inside the can. The extra cooking destroys more nutrients. There's also usually use salt, sugar and chemicals used in canning to help preserve the food. Lots of cans use a BPA liner - that's the plastic that they've recently found to be harmful, the same one in water bottles. That and/or the metal of the can could leech into the food inside.
If you find a good brand, and check the ingredients used, some vegetables are ok. I usually use canned tomatoes from Eden Organics (US) or Aunt Gloria (Canadian) through the winter.
If you did the canning yourself from homegrown or local bounties of fresh produce, that can be good too. For certain vegetables (like cucumbers), canning makes more sense than freezing, and you can control the salt and sugar content. Home canning is usually done in glass jars, so there's no issue with leeching.
How you mix it up with the different ways of getting your vegetables - growing parsley or sprouts on your windowsill, storing your own squash in the cold cellar, buying sweet potatoes from the winter farmer's market, buying organic cabbage from the grocery store, getting high-quality frozen food, canning/freezing your own tomatoes, and buying some imported organic produce - is up to you.
I think those options all have a place and a benefit to you, so use them all. What all this comes down to is finding the highest quality foods you have available to you. Focus on that, and your choices should get easier. What's your favorite fall/winter vegetable? Mine is sweet potato. I could eat one every day.