Is it always a case of ‘fresh food is best’ for our health? Dr Tim Crowe explores new research that might surprise.
The results are in — and Aussies fare poorly in coming anywhere near to the recommended target for fruit and vegies each day. Recent surveys reveal that just 7 per cent of us are eating the recommended five servings of veg each day, while just half are consuming the recommended two servings of fruit.
Frozen fills the gap
One way to overcome the big fruit and vegie consumption gap is to make them more accessible and convenient.
The limited shelf life of fresh produce means you can’t always have plenty on hand.
The situation can be even more of a problem for those living in remote areas. So, do people who have plenty of frozen produce available eat more fruit and vegies?
Using food and nutrient intake data gathered from two large dietary surveys conducted in the United States, researchers looked at fresh and frozen fruit and vegetable consumption at the household level.
People who regularly ate frozen plus fresh fruit and vegies consumed significantly more fruit and veg compared to those who consumed only fresh produce. The flow-on from this was that eating more frozen fruit and vegetables meant that a person’s diet was healthier. Their diets contained more fibre, potassium, calcium and vitamin D —and less salt — than those who ate solely fresh.
How fresh is ‘fresh’?
But frozen food provides less nutrients than fresh, you say? Not so fast. Frozen produce is normally blanched and frozen shortly after harvest. The blanching does degrade some of the vitamins, such as vitamin C, but is still on par with what happens to fresh produce when cooked. After this, freezing ‘locks in’ most of the nutrients.
To keep that nutrition locked in, it’s best to use cooking methods such as steaming and microwaving to minimise heat and water losses.
Now compare the case for what can pass as ‘fresh produce’. Fresh food may have spent days or even weeks in transit and storage before it finally makes it to the store. That’s quite a lot of time for light and heat to do their work degrading the nutritional quality of fresh food.
Research studies find there is little difference between the nutritional profile of frozen versus fresh produce. This makes frozen a convenient, cost-effective and nutritious option for meeting daily fruit and veg recommendations.
Frozen berries hit the spotlight in 2016 when it was revealed that several imported batches were contaminated with hepatitis A. Fortunately, such outbreaks are very rare and unrelated to the actual food being frozen, but are usually caused by poor hygiene practices at the processing end.
Fresh and frozen foods are both equally susceptible to contamination, as are local and imported foods. To put things in perspective, many cases of food poisoning arise from improper home food preparation and storage practices, rather than from food being contaminated at the point of purchase.
The bottom line
Frozen fruit and vegetables should be a backup option in the freezers of most Australians. Such foods are a nutritious, cost-effective and convenient way for you to get more, and a greater variety of, fruit and vegies into your diet every day.
Five freezer essentials
1. Frozen mixed berries
A handful of frozen berries is the perfect addition to smoothies, porridge, baking and yoghurt. One cup of frozen berries counts as one serve of fruit.
2. Frozen peas
A bag of peas in the freezer means there’s no excuse not to eat your greens. Add half a cup to any meal as an easy way of giving an extra serve of veg.
3. Frozen stir-fry mix
Get a stir-fry on the table in minutes! Just one 600g bag of pre-cut mixed frozen vegies will provide a family of four with two serves of veg each.
4. Frozen spinach
Save the fresh stuff for salads and use frozen spinach to bulk out soups, curries and rice dishes. Squeeze out the excess liquid before using.
5. Frozen mango
Extend summer fruit by adding frozen mango to smoothies and yoghurt, or blitz it into a one-ingredient, delicious sorbet.