Soaring fresh produce prices have many shoppers pushing their carts to the frozen and canned food aisles at their grocery store. A University of Georgia nutrition specialist said frozen and canned foods may be the better nutritional bargains anyway.
"Many people prefer fresh fruits and vegetables. But canned and frozen products can cost less and contain at least the same nutrients," said Connie Crawley, an extension food, nutrition and health specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Excessive rains and cold weather have cut vegetable production in the nation and worldwide. A drop in supply can push produce prices through the roof.
Processors can and freeze produce right after harvest, Crawley said. Then they store it for sale throughout the year. So most processed food prices don't vary much.
"So right now, as prices rise in the fresh produce section, you may find bargains in both price and nutrition in frozen and canned foods," she said.
Chances are, much of the fresh produce in your supermarket now came from south Florida, California, Texas, Mexico or South America. Grocers must pay to get the produce from those distant areas, adding to the cost at the checkout.
Storage conditions at the supermarket and in your pantry affects nutrients, too, she said. The longer fresh produce is stored, even under perfect conditions, the more nutrients it loses. Canned and frozen produce storage is stable, Crawley said, keeping the nutrient levels constant.
Since the produce has so far to be shipped from where it grows, "it may have been picked before peak ripeness," Crawley said. "These fresh products still contain valuable nutrients, but not in the same quantities found in fully ripe products."
Produce for freezing and canning is picked at full ripeness, then processed quickly, usually very close to the field. Crawley said that preserves nutrients.
"About 10 percent of Georgia's vegetables are grown for processing," said Terry Kelley, an extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Georgia farmers grow snap beans, sweet corn, greens, lima beans, southern peas, squash and Irish potatoes for processing.
When preparing produce for freezing, processors blanch it by submerging it briefly in boiling water. That stops the action of enzymes that cause food spoilage. Then it's quick-frozen in separate pieces, rather than in large chunks.
Crawley said individual freezing can make preparation easier, especially for people cooking small portions. "This freezing technique makes it very economical to buy a large bag and then use small portions at a time," she said. "It also makes it easy to microwave the products."
Microwave-cooking fresh, frozen or canned produce is 'nutrient-friendly,' Crawley said. It uses a small amount of water and a short cooking time. That keeps more nutrients in the food.
Canned vegetables, like frozen, are harvested at peak ripeness. The heat processing used to seal the cans can damage some nutrients, but most remain in the product. Again, Crawley recommends microwave heating to preserve nutrients.
"It's long, slow cooking that destroys nutrients," she said.