Fresh vs Frozen, the controversial debate

Is the convenience of frozen food taking away from society’s collective nutritional gain?

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Nobody knows winter better than Canadians; the prolonged cold renders local produce scarce, forcing prices upwards and prompting many to resort to frozen and canned food. Still, there is a widespread reluctancy to switch to frozen produce, although fresh foods is often three times more expensive than it would be during peak seasons. This stems from a widespread perception that frozen is inferior to fresh. Recent evidence points to the contrary.

Gene Lester, Ph.D. at the USDA Agricultural Research Center discusses this topic — recommending frozen produce from North American grocery stores, as they are selected for freezing and packaging at peak ripeness, where nutritional benefits are at maximum. Despite this, some critics suggest that the freezing process itself reduces the nutritional value of our food.

This argument is not entirely true. The first step of the freezing process is blanching the fruits and vegetables in hot water and/or steaming to remove bacteria and prevent the spread of food-damaging enzymes. While this process is aimed at purifying, it often causes water-soluble nutrients (vitamins B and C in particular) to break down, diminishing nutritional gain. However, the flash-freezing process to follow ensures that the fruits and vegetables are locked in a nutrient-rich state.

Paradoxically, the fresh produce we purchase at local grocery stores and supermarket chains are often harvested before they ripen, to avoid damage during travel time. While these fruits and vegetables will eventually ripen externally, they will never have the healthful and dietary value had they ripened on the vine.

The minute any fresh fruit or vegetable is picked, its nutritive value starts to deteriorate. In fact, in many cases, the time your produce spends traveling long distances (wherein they are exposed to light and heat), on the grocery store shelf, and finally being consumed after purchase could add up to several days. In principle, your produce’s journey from farm-to-fork could result in the loss of up to 50% of its nutritional value.

In principle, your produce’s journey from farm-to-fork could result in the loss of up to 50% of its nutritional value.

Studies at the University of Chester found that in two thirds of cases, frozen produce contained higher levels of polyphenols, vitamin C, beta-carotene and lutein compared to fresh varieties stored in the fridge for only 3 days. The health benefits of these nutrients cannot be understated, as antioxidants, lutein and vitamin C strengthen the immune system, beta-carotene has very positive effects for eye-sight, and polyphenols that prevent against cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

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Top performers in the fresh vs. all-natural frozen foods test:

  1. Carrots: Frozen carrots had 3x the lutein and 4x the beta-carotene.

  2. Blueberries: Frozen blueberries had higher vitamin C, anthocyanins and lutein.
  3. Sprouts: Frozen sprouts scored higher across all nutrient measurements.
  4. Broccoli: Frozen broccoli had 4x the beta-carotene and higher vitamin C.

Be mindful of seasonal shortages and the length of travel time that your food undergoes.

Locally sourced foods picked when ripe, experience less travel time, less exposure to light and heat, and less shelf time have health benefits far exceeding frozen foods’.

Pro-tip: Seasonality and food sourcing are only one vital component of healthier eating. The way we prepare our food has a huge impact on preserving nutrients. Cooking techniques when handling produce matter. Steaming, stir-frying and even microwaving foods for shorter periods of time with less exposure to water helps retain healthy components. If you decide on frozen produce, cook directly from the freezer. A study published in 2000 shows those thawing vegetables before cooking led to greater loss of vitamin C.

If you do decide on frozen produce, cook directly from the freezer.

The crux of the discussion is that it is important to look at frozen foods as a nutritionally comparable alternative to fresh produce. When certain types of fresh produce are in-season, locally sourced, and eaten shortly after purchase, opt for fresh produce. It is also important to note that naturally, frozen produce will inevitably degrade, but at a slower rate than fresh produce.

Luckily, ChefHero works with a variety of top quality food vendors that supply an abundance of both fresh and frozen goods.