If your one of your New Year’s resolutions is to eat more fruit and vegetables, you may be surprised to learn that you should be steering your shopping cart toward the frozen food aisles to load up instead of at the fresh produce stand.
As winter continues its icy grip, local produce is limited—and expensive—in much of the United States. The only local wares will be shelf-stable late crops such as onions, hard-shell squashes, and hardy root vegetables. Then where are all the strawberries, baby lettuces, oranges and bananas coming from that are rounding out all the store shelves?
Thanks in part to large commercial greenhouses and global imports from warmer locales, the produce bins in major supermarkets with buying power stay stocked with fruit and vegetables long after the local growing season. Sometimes, these products lose a lot of nutritive qualities along the way.
Vitamins and other nutrients in fresh fruit and vegetables break down over time as they are exposed to light and air. Most produce arrives in grocery store warehouses up to two weeks after harvest, and they often sit on shelves for a while longer before they are distributed and shipped to the stores. In winter, fresh produce shipped to North America has to travel a long distance, adding mileage and fossil fuels to the mix.
For shipping purposes, produce is harvested well before ripeness so they can “ripen on the ride” in less than ideal conditions, unable to fully process sugars and nutrients to peak flavor, consistency, and vitamin content.
On the ride, the produce may be exposed to extreme heat and light, which degrades delicate nutrients—vitamin C is especially vulnerable. In some cases having a glass of orange juice from frozen concentrate may be more nutrient rich than eating an orange sent from New Zealand weeks ago.
Fruits and vegetables are often picked for shelves while still green. Outward signs of ripeness may still occur, but these products will never have the same nutritive value if they had been allowed to fully ripen on the vine.
Frozen produce pack more powerful punch
Fruits and vegetables destined to be frozen are picked at the peak of ripeness, which is also their nutritive peak. Modern processing methods will have your blueberry picked, washed, quickly blanched to enhance color, and flash frozen in less than two hours.
By moving so quickly from picking to packaging, vitamin and mineral loss is held at a minimum. And by holding off harvesting until maximum taste, texture, and appearance are achieved, the highest quality produce is attained.
Just how the pros do it
Compellingly, this processing is the same method chefs use to lock in color and taste when preparing fresh vegetables for presentation: they wash and trim, blanch quickly in water to bring out the best color, and then quickly shock the produce in ice water to immediately stop the cooking process and seal in the wonderful color. They will then cook these vegetables to order, assured that they will be at their best color and flavor no matter the preparation. Once blanched and shocked, green beans will not turn an unappetizing green-gray mushy color.
If a chef will not use a prepared fruit or vegetable for immediate service, he or she will “glaze” item (freeze by coating with thin layer of ice), much like the frozen produce processor.
Grocery tip for a healthy family lifestyle:
The bottom line: when fruits and vegetables are in season, buy fresh and local. The less time your produce is in transit, the higher nutrient value will be. (And much better tasting!) Off season, flash frozen produce will give you the highest nutritive punch, taste, and appearance.
Choose packages stamped “U.S. Fancy” which indicates produce of the best size, shape, and color. Prepare and eat your selections soon after purchase—frozen produce does eventually degrade. Steam or microwave your produce instead of cooking in boiling water to reduce loss of water-soluble vitamins.