Food Smackdown: Canned versus Fresh

February 7, 2011 by  
Filed under The Fitness Bug

In this fast-paced modern world of pre-packaged consumables, it can sometimes be difficult to justify buying, preparing, and serving fresh food items.  We all know they’re better for us (or are they?), but fresh foods simply don’t offer the convenience of canned.  Besides which, canned foods can be safely stored a lot longer than fresh, adding monetary benefits to their appeal.  But when it comes down to nutritional value, it can be unclear to the casual shopper which is actually better for you.  You want to believe that fresh produce and animal products (in short, “natural” items) provide more of the vitamins and nutrients needed to keep us healthy, but is that really true?  Don’t canned goods still retain the many nutritional elements that are present when they go from being fresh to being freshness-sealed in vacuum-packed receptacles?  Well, that is exactly what we’re going to examine in this nutritional smackdown where fresh foods are compared to their canned counterparts.

Here’s the lowdown on freshness.  So-called “fresh” foods may not be quite as brand-spanking-new as you think.  If you know anything about how supermarkets work, then you are likely aware that they receive food shipments once or twice a week.  The items that make it to their shelves may be several days old by the time they get there, thanks to transportation, inspection, and arrangement time.  Many items also undergo interesting procedures to make or keep them suitable for sale.  Most fruits and vegetables are picked prematurely and then “flash” ripened with heat and moisture to prepare them for sale.  And some are treated with chemicals or waxes to keep them fresh and presentable on store shelves for longer (since they will quickly spoil otherwise).  So these supposedly fresh items might not look as appealing all of a sudden.  Throw in the fact that they contain traces of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (or hormones and antibiotics, in the case of animal products) and you might not want to touch them with a ten-foot pole.

As for canned produce, there is an upside.  Fruits and vegetables that are slated for canning often go straight from the field to a canning facility (sometimes on the farm premises), ensuring that they retain peak levels of freshness, including nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.  The same is true of canned meats, which are often preserved shortly after slaughter.  In fact, nutrient levels in canned foods have been found to be at the same (or even higher) levels when compared to fresh produce.  Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and International Food Information Council (IFIC) have made statements confirming that nutrient levels in canned foods are at least equivalent to their fresh alternatives.  Vitamin and mineral levels remain high (along with protein levels for meats) and apparently, the canning process has even been shown to increase calcium levels in fish.  Hooray for canning!  Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.

Not all of the health effects of canned foods are produced by the nutrient levels of their natural contents.  Most canned foods have a number of detrimental additives to contend with.  First and foremost, the majority of canned goods require preservatives.  How do you think they retain a shelf-life of several years while their fresh relatives spoil within days?  Of course, vacuum packing doesn’t hurt, but it generally won’t stop spoilage on its own, especially not until the expiration date listed on most canned products.  So you can expect high levels of chemical preservatives with unintelligible names (found on the ingredient list beneath the nutrition label) or even natural ones like sodium (also detrimental, especially if you suffer from high blood pressure or weight-related diseases).  Of course, canned items are also subject to additives for flavor.  Sugars, in particular, are a common additive.

Consider that when fruits and vegetables are picked, they may not be entirely ripe (leaving them tasting a bit off).  When fresh items are shipped to stores, they have time to ripen fully so that they are ready to eat by the time they reach store shelves.  Foods that are canned can’t wait for that.  So flavor and color additives (often chemically based) are thrown in the mix, adding no nutritional value and often detracting from the benefits that may have been otherwise gained from canning.  It’s also a little-known fact that our first and longest-lasting taste sensation is sweet, meaning that we are susceptible to sweetness (a fact that most food manufacturers have not failed to account for and will use to ensure you keep buying their products, despite the fact that processed sugars are terrible for your health).

For all of these reasons, your best option is probably to select fresh produce and meat that is not only organic, but also locally grown.  Of course, the only way to ensure that the items you’re getting are authentic is to visit a local co-op of organic farms in your area and buy directly.  Often, such organizations will offer a delivery service so that you can pay a monthly fee to receive regular deliveries.  You may also want to frequent your local farmers market whenever possible to purchase truly fresh produce and meats.  However, in many areas these options are not feasible.  If you must purchase from a market, try to find one that guarantees locally grown, or at least organic products.  They may even be willing to volunteer information about the sources of their food so that you can verify their claims of organic and local goods.  And of course, you could always try your hand at growing your own vegetable garden (although you will be limited to items that can reasonably grow in your region).

Of course, if you can’t get your hands on fresh, organic produce and meats, or you simply can’t afford the cost, you shouldn’t entirely avoid these sections of the food pyramid.  You can still get the nutrients you need from canned foods (even if you have to suffer through the additional additives and preservatives that seem to be par for the course).  It is imperative that you make every effort to sustain a balanced diet that provides you with the many vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that will ensure a long and healthy life, even if that means resorting to canned versions of the foods you need.  While fresh, local, and organic products are ideal, it is better to opt for canned items than opting out completely.

Leon Harris is a writer for DustPruf which specializes in dry food packaging and bottling equipment. DustProf puts an end to product debris and buildup.

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