Published on 03/18/96

Frozen Produce Healthy in New FDA Ruling

Would frozen produce by any other term bring sales as sweet?

The folks who freeze fruits and vegetables don't think so. They wanted the term "healthy" on their labels. And the Food and Drug Administration says they're entitled to it.

The FDA has ruled that fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables have roughly the same nutrients. The agency proposes that frozen produce, without sauces or other ingredients, can bear labels using the term "healthy."

"The term 'healthy' has been very narrowly defined, as has the word 'fresh,'" said Connie Crawley, a food, nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"It's in the producers' interest to have healthy or fresh on their label because consumers think it's better for us," Crawley said. "FDA isn't always consistent with the terms across the food categories."

Before the current label definitions, producers could use terms like healthy and fresh on any product.

"They could say anything they wanted to before," Crawley said. "But now everything has to be looked at on an individual basis to use the term healthy."

In light of this new ruling, the canned-produce industry wants to label their products healthy, too. But FDA said they failed to submit data backing their request.

"Usually when you heat-process anything, there is some loss of nutrients, especially the water-soluble vitamins -- even vitamin A and carotene," Crawley said.

"With frozen foods there's no blanching," she said. "They're usually flash-frozen if they don't have a sauce on them."

Frozen fruits and vegetables, in short, are good for you.

"In some respects they are more nutritious than produce in the grocery store," Crawley said. "The food in the grocery has been exposed to air and light, and nothing has been done to slow the loss of nutrients."

As long as frozen foods are packaged well and don't suffer any freezer burn, they're as close to fresh as you can get.

"In some cases they may even be better for you," Crawley said.

For example, processors add vitamin C to frozen grapefruit to keep it from changing color. So the vitamin C content jumps to 235 mg in the frozen from just 6 mg in a fresh grapefruit.

"I can see why the canned food industry is upset," Crawley said. "When you look at the nutrients of canned versus frozen, there isn't that much degradation as long as they use the juice when packing.

"It's all about how you present the data, and the frozen food industry obviously made a good case," she said. "The actual change from canned to frozen to fresh is not that much."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.