It might be frozen blueberries sprinkled on cereal, or steamed broccoli with your dinner. You could pull baby carrots out of your purse, or throw a can of peaches on your yogurt. There are so many ways to get those good fruits and veggies. So does it matter where they come from?
Contrary to popular belief, both fresh and processed produce undergoes some sort of packaging, cooking, or processing before reaching your plate. Earth, wind, fire, and ice, the classic elements, can help us look at how our fruit and veggie prep can impact nutrients.
The nutrient value of the produce in our refrigerators is determined by a number of external factors including harvest location, harvesting conditions, and amount of time spent in transportation and storage locations. Healthy soil can also lead to even better nutrient value, which is one reason farmers use sustainable practices like crop rotation and fertilizer!
Freezing food is a common preservation technique that is great for nutrient retention. Most frozen fruits and vegetables maintain high-quality nutrient value for approximately 12 months. Additionally, since produce is blanched and frozen immediately after being harvested, frozen produce may be nutritionally superior to fresh fruit that has undergone days of transport and storage post-harvest.
Blanching is the process of boiling vegetables for a short period of time before freezing. Blanching stops enzyme activity that would decrease the flavor, color, and texture of the vegetable. Blanching time is crucial because under-blanching can stimulate enzyme activity (rather than halt it) and over-blanching leads to a loss of vitamins and minerals.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides a table that shows proper blanching times for different vegetables—follow this table to blanch produce with the least amount of nutritive losses.
Heads up: Improper blanching and freezer burn are two common ways frozen foods will experience nutrient losses. You won’t have to worry about this in your freezer aisle, but make sure to be conscious if you’re freezing food yourself!
Steaming is generally seen as the best way to maximize taste and color, while also maintaining nutrient value. Keep steam time low, and cook vegetables to an al dente finish (crisp on the outside, tender on the inside) for the most nutritious results.
Microwaving your foods may actually lead to higher retention of water-soluble vitamins than any other cooking process due to the lack of water required to cook. Two separate studied have concluded that microwave-cooked foods retain more Vitamin C than foods cooked by boiling.
Boiling isn’t the most optimal preparation to maintain nutrients, since water-soluble vitamins and minerals leach into cooking water. You can help minimize nutrient losses by re-using the water in which you cooked the produce, reducing the amount of time produce spends in the water, or cooking produce in larger pieces so that it does not cook as quickly.
Canning exposes fruits and vegetables to higher temperatures. These high temperatures can reduce vitamin C, specifically. However, once canned and stored, fruits and vegetables experience very few nutrient-content changes.
Drying reduces the water content of plant foods, thereby reducing enzyme activity and microbial growth and decreasing the likelihood of food spoilage. The means the nutritional content is high due to reduced water content.
Final note to keep in mind: Water-soluble vitamins, especially Vitamins C and B, are most susceptible to nutrient loss induced by heat, water, and air. Keep the elements in mind when storing and preparing fruits and vegetables, especially those that are rich in water-soluble vitamins!
- National Center for Home Food Preservation
- FAO: Recommendations for final product quality
- Fruits & Veggies, More Matters: Fill Half your Plate with Fruits and Veggies
- USDA Food and Nutrition Services (FNS): Quality Matters
- University of California: Maximizing the Nutritional Value of Fruits and Vegetables
- Today’s Dietitian: Digging Into Soil Health