Fresh vs. frozen: which is more nutritious?

The arrival of fall signals an exciting time in Colorado: trees glow with vibrant orange and yellow hues, snow begins to fall in the mountains, and everyone gears up for the holiday season. As we say goodbye to summer, we also say so-long to all the fresh, local produce from the farmer’s markets and our own gardens. While this cyclical food phenomenon is a fact of nature, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get nutritious produce options during wintertime.

As most of us have heard, freshly-picked produce from our local community is generally more nutritious – packed with more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients – than food that comes from afar or from the freezer. Generally speaking, getting fresh, locally-sourced produce will taste better and be better for you. That being said, when buying fresh produce from the grocery store in the non-harvest months, you can get the same amount of nutrients from frozen foods. A recent study by the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry demonstrated that frozen foods were just as nutritious (or even more so) than fresh. The analysis showed that fresh and frozen foods had similar amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A).

There are multiple factors that affect the nutrient content of produce, like when it was picked, the nutrient content of the soil it was grown in, and how long it traveled or sat on the shelf before it was eaten. Just because fresh broccoli is displayed in the bin doesn’t mean it’s more nutritious than frozen. Most fresh, non-local produce is picked before its peak ripeness (to help avoid bruising and damage during transit), which means it hasn’t had time to fully develop its array of vitamins and minerals. Conversely, when a product is destined for the freezer, it is typically picked at peak ripeness and flash frozen to lock in the nutrients.

Also, the longer a fruit or vegetable stays on the shelf or sits in transit, the more nutrients it loses due to oxidation. Non-local, fresh produce usually travels from other states or countries, and sits in storage for days. Opting for frozen fruits and veggies can be a great way to get healthy, plant-based nutrients during the off-season.

Some things to consider when determining whether to buy frozen or fresh produce.

  1. Cost – you can usually buy bulk bags of frozen fruits or veggies at a fraction of the cost of fresh. Frozen foods also last longer than fresh, so there is less risk of spoilage and food waste. It can also mean less trips to the grocery store, which is a time saver for many people.
  2. Season – produce that is picked at peak ripeness and eaten soon after harvest has a much better flavor and nutrient profile. Just think about a freshly picked tomato from your garden versus one that’s been sitting on the grocery store shelf for days. You can get most produce year round, but it’s more nutrient-dense, flavorful and cost effective when purchased during its natural harvest season.
  3. Taste –foods that are picked locally at peak ripeness and eaten soon after harvest have more flavor than frozen foods. When you have access to this type of produce, fresh is usually the way to go. Additionally, frozen foods when thawed have a different texture than fresh foods and can affect how you use them.
  4. Use – when foods are frozen, the water expands inside the cell walls, making them soft when thawed. Because of their mushy texture, frozen produce, unlike fresh, isn’t great eaten raw. They are best when cooked or blended to break down their cell walls to make them more palatable. Get the most out of frozen produce by using them in smoothies, soups or sauces. I especially love soup during the winter months!

So don’t fret, during the non-growing season uphold your nutrient-density with a mix of fresh and frozen produce!