As a nutrition coach, I am always trying to get my clients to eat more vegetables. My general approach is to teach them to 'crowd out' the junk by adding in lots of nutrient-dense foods, especially veggies. One of the common hurdles that my clients face on the road to more plant-based diet is that fresh produce often entails a lot of prep work (washing, peeling, chopping) and that takes time. Time that most people don't have! So what do I tell them?? Eat frozen veggies. When that comes out of my mouth, a tiny part of me cringes a little because, in my mind, frozen food has a bit of a stigma and 'fresh is always better.' Not to mention, few things in life make me happier than coming home from the farmers market / grocery store and stocking my shelves and fridge with heaps of fresh fruits and veggies, and I want my clients to share in a similar - but probably not quite so enthusiastic - joy :). BUT no one can deny the convenience of frozen veggies! I would much prefer they eat exclusively frozen produce than have them put cooking/eating vegetables into the "too hard basket" in view of the time factor. That said, I decided to investigate this frozen produce stigma and do a little bit of research on the nutritional value of fresh versus frozen vegetables. Right off the bat, I was pleasantly surprised. The science gave me the humbling I needed to shut down my instinctive cringe-response when I promote frozen produce to my clients.
So, here's what I gathered...
Fresh vegetables are brimming with nourishing goodness when they are fresh picked from organic, nutrient-rich soil. If you have your own garden and grow your own veggies, more power to ya baby - we're all jealous! Unfortunately most of us city folk don't have that kind of luxury and rely almost exclusively on the nearest grocery store. With our modern world and global economy, the produce aisles of the grocery store are stocked with fruits and vegetables from Vietnam, Costa Rica, New Zealand, etc. On the one hand, this is cool because we get lots of variety, but on the other hand, it's not so cool because it means a loss of connection with local and seasonal foods. We don't even need to know what's in season because we can pretty much get any fruit or vegetable any time of year we want it. Many of the vegetables you buy at the grocery store were not grown in your city/state/region/country. They were picked unripe (and consequently less nutritious) and then transported, anywhere from two days to two weeks, before they landed on your supermarket shelves. This long haul from farm to fork exposes the vegetables to heat, light, and oxygen - all of which cause the vitamins and antioxidants to escape from the food into the atmosphere. The unfortunate reality is that these beautiful, fresh, organic veggies are degrading from the moment they are harvested, not only in nutritional value, but also in flavor, texture, color and appearance. Makes ya want to have a farm, or at least a little veggie patch, ey??
Frozen produce is usually frozen almost immediately after being picked, when the vegetables are ripe and at "peak freshness." Just before the vegetables are frozen, they are washed, peeled (if necessary) and blanched, a process which removes any remaining surface dirt, pesticides or bacteria, and destroys enzymes that would degrade nutrients. Blanching also reduces anti-nutritional factors (e.g. phytic acid and tannins) which interfere with absorption of nutrients in green vegetables. This blanching-freezing protocol for frozen veggies has its pros and cons. Blanching causes the vegetables to lose some of their water-soluble vitamins (such as vitamin C and B vitamins) but this process has a protective effect on their nutritional content overall, as the freezing process "locks in" the rest of the micronutrients and antioxidants during the storage period.
Let me lay it out for ya...
Pros: usually higher in B vitamins and vitamin C, maximum nutrients when fresh picked, more variety of vegetables to choose from
Cons: often harvested before full ripeness, sometimes long travel time, vitamin and mineral degradation during storage, take time to prep (wash, chop, or peel), more food waste (a lot of produce gets thrown away due to spoilage)
Pros: frozen at "peak freshness" to preserve micronutrients and antioxidants at time of picking, often more affordable, quick/easy to prepare, minimal food waste
Cons: lose some of their water-soluble vitamins in the blanching process, limited variety of frozen veggies
So what's the verdict?
Unfortunately the answer isn't straightforward. I won't bore you with the nutrient content comparison for each vegetable, but basically the science shows that some individual nutrients are higher in fresh veggies while other nutrients are higher in frozen. For example, frozen spinach contains more fiber, calcium and vitamin E, but less iron and vitamin C than fresh. Hmm...
What can we take away from this?
- The nutrient content of the vegetable really comes down to the quality of the soil, breeding techniques and farming methods much more so than whether it's stored/sold fresh or frozen. Go organic!!
- To get fresh, ripe, local and seasonal veggies, shop at the farmers market! Most farmers pick their veggies the night before the market. Pretty damn fresh!
- Some nutrients stay intact better in fresh veggies, other nutrients are higher when those vegetables are frozen. What really matters is making sure you eat plenty of plant-based food - you can pick whether you buy it fresh or frozen, just get it in ya!
- Aim for 6-8 servings of veggies per day! That usually means eating some at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- To conserve micronutrients, choose cooking methods such as steaming or low-heat sauteeing, over boiling or frying, which will minimize the loss of water-soluble vitamins and antioxidants.
Now that we're all big fans of frozen veggies, here's a kick-ass winter soup that is super quick and easy using a bunch of 'em! I try to keep most of the below green veggies in the freezer at all times so I can easily whip up this soup whenever I am in need of a green injection.
Winter Green Detox Soup
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 white onion, finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 zucchinis (fresh or frozen), sliced
- 2 cups of frozen fine green beans (haricots verts)
- 1.5 cups frozen peas
- 1.5 cups frozen broccoli florets
- 5 cups vegetable stock
- 3 tablespoons of fresh mint, chopped
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, removed from stem and chopped
Warm a large stock pot. Add coconut oil, onion and garlic and fry on medium heat for approximately 5 minutes, or until onions have softened. Add zucchini, green beans, broccoli and peas to the pot and cook for several minutes. Add the vegetable stock, salt, mint and thyme. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the soup to a blender or use a stick blend to puree until smooth. Season with freshly cracked pepper and garnish with some pine nuts, if you like. Serve hot, enjoy!