Is Canned Food as Nutritious as Fresh Food?

updated May 30, 2019
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When it comes to veggies, the more you eat the better. But of course, not all vegetables are created equally. Eating iceberg lettuce, which is basically a vehicle for salad dressing, just won’t deliver as many nutrients as a powerhouse like broccoli or kale. And then, there’s the question of where you get your vegetables— from the produce section, the freezer, or the canned goods aisle.

Research reveals that fresh and frozen produce are basically equivalent nutritionally — in fact, with some vegetables, such as green beans, frozen has an edge over the limp, past-their-prime version in your fridge. But what about canned vegetables? Are budget-friendly, long-lasting canned veggies a good, healthy alternative to fresh?

To find out if you should keep your can opener at the ready, we checked in with Diana Orenstein, RD, a dietician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, who shared some considerations to keep in mind.

Nutritionally Speaking, Canned Vegetables Are a Winner

Canned veggies offer all the nutritional benefits of fresh ones, making them ideal for when you don’t have the time — or inclination — to scrub, trim, and chop fresh vegetables. “The amount of most nutrients is the same,” says Orenstein.

Here’s why: As with frozen foods, fruits and vegetables are often canned immediately after being picked, when they contain their peak levels of nutrients, explains Orenstein. And canning, she says, doesn’t affect most nutrients. “In fact, sometimes the heat involved in the canning process can make some nutrients more accessible,” Orenstein points out. One exception: Some water-soluble vitamins — such as vitamin C and B vitamins — may break down a bit during the canning process, Orenstein says.

Canned Foods Are Both Convenient and Budget-Friendly

When you buy fresh vegetables, you have to cook them right away — or at least within a few days or a week of purchase. Canned vegetables, in contrast, last for years in your pantry — no need to worry about them looking sad, developing soft spots, or devolving into mush. “Given their low cost and long shelf life, canned fruits and vegetables can be a great alternative for someone on a tight budget,” says Orenstein.

Do Check the Can’s Label Carefully Before Purchase

Eat a fresh carrot, and all you’ll get is pure carrot crunch — with no added sugar or salt. That’s not always the case with canned ones, which may have sodium or sugar added, says Orenstein. (Watch out, in particular, for canned fruits served in syrup — they’re basically a sugar bomb, and far from a healthy choice.)

Look for canned vegetables that say “no salt added” or “sodium-free,” recommends Orenstein. You can also rinse them with water to help remove any added sodium, she says.

What About BPA?

Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that’s used in the lining of cans. While the FDA asserts that the amount of BPA found in packaged food is safe for consumption, BPA has been linked to some cancers, infertility, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions. The thought of consuming any amount — even a small amount deemed safe by the FDA — may make you feel uneasy. If so, Orenstein notes that “most manufacturers have removed BPA from cans as a precaution.” You can search the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores site to find out if a brand is suspected to use BPA.

Should You Opt for Canned Goods?

Orenstein says that experts found that “the known benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables far outweigh any concern” about BPA. If you feel similarly — or if you have opted to seek out BPA-free cans — you can enjoyed canned vegetables knowing they’ll deliver all the nutritional benefits you’d get from fresh ones.

“When it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, there is no bad choice. Eating any fruit or vegetable is making a positive choice for health,” says Orenstein.

So go ahead: get started eating the 2.5 servings of vegetables that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends — in either the canned, fresh, or frozen form.