Is Fresh Produce Always Best, Or Should You Have Chosen Frozen?
Because food closest to its natural state is usually the most nutritious, you may initially suspect that fresh fruit is a better choice than frozen. However, there are some surprising reasons that this isn't always true!
For one thing, because fruits and vegetables that will be sold fresh will continue to mature while they are being transported, they are usually picked before they are completely ripe. This means that these plants may not have time to develop all the vitamins and nutrients that they usually might.
This produce will then spend anywhere from a few days to several weeks in transit before arriving at a distribution center like a supermarket. However, certain kinds of long-lasting produce, like apples, might be allowed to languish in certain conditions for more than 12 months!
Your food will then probably spend a few more days on store shelves, and could then spend as much as a week in your home before you get around to eating it. That's a lot of time, which means that some of the nutrients that this produce did develop may degrade before they make it to your stomach.
On the other hand, produce that is to be frozen is often picked at its ripest and freshest, and then cut and packaged within a few hours. What happens in this few hours, however, is much different for vegetables than fruit.
Most vegetables that are to be frozen go through a partial-cooking process called blanching, in which they are placed in boiling water for a few minutes. This kills any lurking bacteria and helps preserve flavor and texture, but it also leads to the loss of certain nutrients, especially B and C vitamins. However, less water-soluble nutrients, like antioxidants, tend to remain intact.
On the contrary, fruits are usually treated with a form of vitamin C called asorbic acid or with sugar. They are also sometimes peeled, which means you might end up missing out on the nutrients usually found in these peels if you eat your fruit frozen.
However, after these preparatory processes, the nutritional content of this food will stay relatively stable in the freezer. Unsurprisingly, though, the food will still start to break down eventually, especially if it is stored for longer than three months.
Formal studies on the subject have found that while significant nutritional differences were found in the nutritional content of specific foods or in the preservation of specific nutrients across foods, fresh and frozen foods were pretty comparable overall. Broccoli, for instance, lost much of its glucosinolates in the pre-freezing process, but its frozen form was higher than its fresh counterpart in phenols, carotenoids, chlorophyll, antioxidants, and vitamin C.
Generally, going with fresh provides the biggest advantages for fruits and vegetables high in water-soluble vitamins, like bell peppers, citrus fruits, cabbage, and berries. Meanwhile, freezing favors produce like leafy green vegetables that contain high amounts of fat-soluble nutrients, like vitamin A, carotenoids, and vitamin E.
You should also think about when you plan on consuming your food before choosing what form you'd like it in. If you're going to eat it in the day or two after you buy it, go ahead and choose the fresh option, but if you're planning on letting it linger in your fridge for a while, frozen may make more sense.
Of course, there are more factors to consider when choosing between fresh and frozen produce than those that are solely nutritional. Frozen produce can sometimes be cheaper than raw varieties, and the ease of preparing and storing frozen food could mean the difference between successful meal prep and settling for unhealthy take-out.
Freezing can also allow you to have a greater variety of fruits and veggies at your disposal without worrying about any of them going bad, and to enjoy fruits and vegetables that aren't always in season all year long.
Of course, certain fruits and vegetables, like lettuce, celery, cucumbers, and melons, simply aren't frozen because they wouldn't maintain their flavor and texture if they were. So if you're only eating frozen vegetables, you may be missing out on some important nutrients. Some people also find the taste of fresh foods more enjoyable, or find it easier to grab-and-go rather than wait-and-thaw.
Finally, if you want fruits and vegetable with the best possible nutritional value, you may want to check out your local farmer's market. The offerings there were likely picked riper than the food you'd find in a supermarket, and will have gone through far less processing before they get to your kitchen. Or, if you're truly committed to eating the healthiest produce you can come up with, you could even try growing some yourself!
Whichever way you end up eating your fruits and veggies in the end, don't stress too much about it. It's far less important where you get your produce than that you consistently eat it! However, since both frozen and fresh produce can have their nutritional pitfalls, its probably wise to take a multivitamin to make up the difference, just in case.