We all know that we need veggies on our plate at every meal.
But, from the rinsing and the peeling to the chopping or slicing, preparing fresh veggies can feel like a lot of work — especially if you're short on time or energy.
There's also the stress of feeling beholdened to cooking veggies while they're still fresh or before they go bad.
It's why many of us turn to veggies that come by way of a can or frozen in a bag.
The time-saving benefits of canned and frozen vegetables are fairly obvious. Both options provide pre-chopped veggies, meaning little-to-no prep work. Canned veggies are even pre-cooked, meaning they just need to be warmed prior to serving.
The stockpiling benefits are easy to see, too. Canned veggies can sit in your pantry for years, while frozen veggies can chill in your freezer for around a year.
But, while certainly more convenient, are canned and frozen veggies really as healthy as fresh veggies? And if so, is one of these a better choice than the other?
During the canning process, veggies are washed, chopped and then heated to kill any foodborne pathogens before the can is sealed.
"There are several steps to canning, but the good news is that nutrients and fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, are all retained during this process. In addition, the heat applied can result in extra antioxidants being released from certain veggies, such as tomatoes and corn," explains Emma Willingham, clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist.
This means that with canned veggies you can benefit from a long shelf life, plenty of nutrients and potentially more antioxidants than what's found in their fresh, raw counterparts.
What you can't find in canned veggies, however, are some of the water-soluble vitamins that the fresh vegetable originally contained.
"The high heat used before the can is sealed can damage some water-soluble vitamins, including vitamins B and C," adds Willingham. "However, common cooking methods, such as steaming, baking and boiling, have the same effect on vegetables as well."
Lastly, there's one (potentially unhealthy) thing you can find in certain cans of veggies: A lot of salt.
"Salt is a preservative added during the canning process. While it can help retain the flavor and texture of the vegetable, consuming large amounts of salt can be unhealthy," warns Willingham. "Fortunately, you can easily account for the salt found in canned veggies."
For starters, always check the label before preparing canned veggies.
If there's salt added, avoid adding any additional salt to your dish. If there's excess salt, drain the can of any liquid and rinse the vegetables with plenty of water before adding them to your dish.
Similar to canned veggies, frozen veggies are low cost and quite stable.
What's more is that the freezing process is very favorable toward vegetables, with nutrients, vitamins and minerals all being well-retained. In fact, frozen veggies may actually be more nutritious than fresh ones, in some cases.
"Freezing is like nature's pause button. Since frozen veggies are flash-frozen at the peak of their nutrient density, they can actually have higher nutrient profiles than fresh veggies that have sat around in the grocery store for a while," adds Willingham. "And keeping a few bags of frozen veggies in your freezer is a great way to have whole vegetables on hand without having to worry about cooking them before they go bad."
What you will need to watch out for with frozen veggies, however, is when they're incorporated into frozen meals — like TV dinners. That's because frozen meals often contain excessive amounts of salt as a preservative, and, unlike canned veggies, there's no way to reduce this salt before eating the meal.
Fortunately, this question has a simple answer.
Willingham says that the healthiest choice is whichever option helps ensure that you're eating plenty of veggies every day — regardless of whether they're fresh, canned or frozen.
"Fresh veggies often taste the best, especially if the vegetable is in season. But the good news is that the nutritional value of a vegetable isn't reduced during either the canning or freezing process — making canned or frozen veggies just as healthy as fresh ones. There's also no health benefit to choosing frozen over canned or vice versa, as long as you're taking the salt content into account before cooking," adds Willingham. "The best 'choice' when choosing between frozen, fresh or canned vegetables is what works best for you, your routine, and your family so you can simply get more vegetables in."