When it comes to nutrition advice, one of the most common things we all hear is to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. But, depending on where you live, fresh, affordable produce can be tough to find, especially when it’s out of season. Frozen fruits and veggies, on the other hand, are available year-round and they can be less expensive than their fresh counterparts. But are they equivalent in nutritional value?
Comparing Fresh and Frozen
In a perfect world, we’d all eat locally-grown, recently-harvested produce at peak season. But this doesn’t mean that all fresh produce is better than frozen. The fresh produce at the grocery store comes from a wide variety of places, so it’s often transported over long distances. In the process, it can be exposed to temperature variations, light and oxidation, which means that it may have lost precious nutrients as well as flavor and overall quality.
Frozen food, on the other hand, is processed immediately after harvest, so it maintains the bulk of its nutrition and flavor. This is why, according to researchers, the nutrition content of frozen fruits and vegetables can be comparable to fresh, and sometimes higher.
Generally speaking, the carbohydrates, protein and fiber content are equivalent between fresh and frozen produce. There is also little difference in mineral content, particularly for key micronutrients such as iron, magnesium and calcium, between fresh and frozen produce. One exception is potassium, which is more volatile than the other minerals, and tends to be lost during blanching (a heat-mediated process that takes place before freezing).
Tip: When you cook fresh produce, try to minimize cooking time and cook at the lowest possible temperature with minimal to no water to minimize nutrient loss.
When Is Fresh (or Frozen) Important?
For some nutrients, the fresh-versus-frozen choice can make a big difference:
- Choose fresh if your produce is high in vitamin C (especially citrus, leafy greens, bell peppers and strawberries). Vitamin C is extremely sensitive to oxidation, light and heat, and it starts to degrade soon after produce is harvested. If you are looking to maximize vitamin C, you’re likely to get more from fresh, local produce than its frozen counterpart, especially if you’ll be eating it raw. Eat your produce as soon as possible to ensure maximum nutrient density. If it’s several days or weeks old, frozen may have the advantage over fresh for vitamin C content.
- Choose fresh if your produce is high in B vitamins (especially papayas, oranges, dark leafy greens and cantaloupe). Like vitamin C, B vitamins are very sensitive to degradation after harvest and during cooking. Produce high in B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate and B12) is best enjoyed fresh and close to the time of harvest, with minimal heating and processing.
- Choose frozen if your produce is high in fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A and E) (especially carrots and cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower). Vitamins A and E are more stable than water-soluble vitamins like C and B, so they tend to remain relatively untouched during blanching and freezing. You can feel good about choosing frozen versions of produce high in these nutrients.
Tip: If you’re choosing frozen produce, make sure to consume it within eight months of purchase for frozen vegetables and within 12 months of purchase for frozen fruit to minimize oxidation and maximize flavor and quality.
The Bottom Line: Eat More (Fresh and Frozen) Produce
The nutrient content of produce is highly variable, and depends on many factors—from the quality of the soil the food is grown in to the way it’s transported, stored and cooked. But the bottom line, regardless of all of these factors, is that almost all of us could benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. Since both fresh and frozen fruits and veggies are beneficial, get plenty of produce in your diet by mixing and matching depending on the season, cost and what’s available near you.