We’ve let too many bags of spinach, bunches of asparagus and cobs of corn go bad in the refrigerator to keep exclusively buying fresh vegetables. But we’re always torn over which alternative to lean on instead. When it comes to canned vs. frozen vegetables, which is healthier? We asked Dr. Felicia Stoler, DCN, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and exercise physiologist, for the scoop. (Spoiler: The truth is simpler than you’d expect.)
Canned vs. Frozen Vegetables: Which Are Better for You? We Asked a Nutritionist
Canned Vs. Frozen Vegetables: Which Are Healthier?
In short, “canned and frozen are equal from a health standpoint,” says Stoler. “The variables between the two are sodium and/or other additives, like fat and sugar.” Multiple studies say that frozen vegetables are closer to fresh vegetables than canned since the production process removes fewer nutrients (canned vegetables need to be cooked longer to prevent bacterial growth), but Stoler feels you really can’t go wrong with either.
What Are The Differences Between Canned And Frozen Vegetables?
Canned vegetables are most often packed in liquid, while frozen veggies aren’t (although there are plenty of frozen vegetables packaged in a sauce made with butter, cream or cheese). Depending on what the vegetables are packaged in, their fat, sodium and sugar content will go up. But if we’re talking plain vegetables, the variances are minimal.
“In terms of health benefits, there really aren’t any [differences],” says Stoler. “While frozen vegetables tend to have more vibrant colors than canned…eating any vegetables is better than eating none.”
Are Fresh Vegetables Always Healthier Than Canned Or Frozen?
“While fresh vegetables are always preferred, if [they’re] going to rot in your refrigerator and get thrown out, then it doesn’t matter,” says Stoler. Flash-frozen vegetables are closest to fresh, in case you’re guilty of letting veggies go bad in the crisper drawer on a regular basis. But for certain veggies—like salad greens, cucumbers and cabbage—fresh is usually the only way to buy. In that case, you can also always freeze the fresh veggies before they go bad. Stoler freezes hers to repurpose down the road in soups, stews and other dishes.
Don’t stress over the differences too much. In the end, getting more plants into your diet is the way to go, no matter how they’re packaged. “Whatever vegetables people are able and willing to eat, they should,” Stoler says. “Your cells don’t care how they were stored, just as long as you eat them.”
How To Shop For The Healthiest Canned Or Frozen Vegetables
First, consider your storage situation, cooking capabilities, budget and intended use for the vegetables. “Canned and shelf-stable products come in real handy when I’ve lost power or can’t get to a grocery store because of inclement weather,” says Stoler.
Once you decide which type is best for you, shop for canned and frozen vegetables that have the least amount of added ingredients. That includes salt, sugar, sauces and preservatives—herbs or spices are fine.
While Stoler touts that any vegetable is better than no vegetables, we’ve rounded up a few of the most popular ones to simplify your shopping before you hit the store. Read on for our practical suggestions for which type is best.
“A frozen pea bears the same nutrition as a canned pea,” says Stoler. But while they’re nearly identical from a health standpoint, their quality can differ. As soon as peas are picked, their sugars turn to starch. If you buy them fresh, they can turn mealy and bland overnight. Peas that are frozen at maximum ripeness will maintain their sweetness without turning grainy.
Because we refuse to wait until summertime to make our famous Mexican street corn dip. As long as there are no additives, canned corn is the best way to keep the vegetable on hand year-round. But if you have the foresight to store and freeze fresh corn while it’s at peak deliciousness, go for it. “I make my own frozen corn with leftover fresh corn after steaming it,” says Stoler. “I got all the kernels off the cob, and they’re in a reusable bag in my freezer, [so] I take out [just] what I need or want.”
Greens are most often bought fresh, but frozen spinach is a game changer (especially for dips, sauces and skillet dinners). We think frozen spinach is a practical buy because there’s more leafy goodness packed into the compact packaging than if you buy in the produce section (so you won’t have to pay for a boatload of fresh spinach to pull off one recipe). Frozen spinach also typically tastes better than canned and is lower in sodium, as well as more nutritious than fresh.
Green Beans: Depends
Sure, frozen green beans may be higher in nutrients than canned, but we feel the optimal choice depends on how you’re going to utilize them. If you’re serving them solo, frozen green beans are the way to go. If they’re being added to a cooked dish or casserole, canned green beans are just as handy. Look for frozen ones packaged without additional salt or sauce and reduced-sodium canned options.
Because carrots are so dense, they lose their nutrients at a slower rate than other veggies. Despite the heat treatment that’s required for canning vegetables, carrots (and tomatoes) retain their A and E vitamins well during the process. Frozen carrots are just as solid an option and may contain less sodium than canned depending on the brand, but when you factor in cost and shelf-life, canned is the way to go.