Most of us know that “fresh” food at the supermarket isn’t always fresh. It’s lost considerable pizzaz on its epic journey from the farm to your shopping cart.
So, is it healthier to buy frozen food? Are more nutrients preserved?
It depends on the nutrient. While some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are better preserved in frozen foods, others are not.[*]
Keep reading for a rundown of fresh vs. frozen foods and thoughts on maximizing your nutrient intake without starting a small farm in the countryside.
Fresh Foods and Nutrient Density
In a perfect world, everyone would grow their own fruits and vegetables. (Or live next to someone who did.) We’d pick and eat produce off the vine every day.
If this sounds like your life, congrats. You’re optimizing your nutrient density.
That’s because fruits and vegetables start losing nutrients the moment they’re picked. (Nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, folate, and various plant-based antioxidants.) By the time they reach the store (sometimes weeks later), they’ve lost their mojo.
In one paper, the vitamin C in corn, green beans, and blueberries degraded more during fresh storage (refrigeration) vs. frozen storage.[*] We’ll return to this comparison later.
Another paper found that fresh green peas lost 51% of their vitamin C content just 24 to 48 hours after harvesting.[*]
For most of us, unfortunately, it’s not practical or convenient to grow our own produce because:
- Your local climate isn’t conducive to farming
- Your tomato plant died when you were little, and the memory haunts you
- You don’t have time to tend a garden
- You live in an apartment
- You have no desire to farm, even after watching the movie Babe
So you go to the store, but the spinach looks wilted. Is it okay to hit the frozen section?
Do Frozen Foods Retain Nutrients?
Yes, they do - more than most people think.
Unlike “fresh” produce, frozen fruits and vegetables are picked ripe and quickly frozen to preserve nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, and antioxidants. These nutrients degrade more slowly compared to their refrigerated counterparts.
In one study, it took 3 to 12 months in the freezer to see significant folate declines in cauliflower and green beans.[*] Folate, by the way, is a B vitamin crucial for DNA repair and energy production.
Key point: the biggest nutrient losses in frozen goods don’t occur in the freezer. They occur during blanching.
Blanching is a process that involves boiling the item (say, spinach) to prepare it for freezing. One paper found that blanching and freezing peas and spinach resulted in 30-50% losses of antioxidants, though the remaining antioxidants stayed stable in storage.[*]
Keep in mind that many frozen foods (fruit, meat, fish, etc.) aren’t blanched. Less blanching, more nutrients retained.
Comparing Fresh vs. Frozen
As the Inuit of Alaska have long known, fresh food degrades more rapidly than frozen food.[*] Fresh fish is only good for days, but frozen fish is good for months.
Let’s review a few other points of difference between fresh vs. frozen vegetables and other foods.
#1: Nutrient retention
As you’ll recall, frozen vegetables sometimes outperform fresh vegetables nutritionally.[*] Sometimes, however, they underperform.
There’s a lot of science on this topic, but we don’t have time to review it all. Let’s summarize instead.
Frozen fruits and vegetables generally have comparable nutritional values to their fresh counterparts. What you lose in blanching is offset by slower declines (in the freezer) of beneficial compounds.
And remember, the definition of fresh varies. Vegetables picked this morning from the garden will outperform frozen veggies.
The wilted cabbage that journeyed 2,000 miles to reach the store? Maybe not.
#2: Taste and texture
You can’t make a delicious spinach salad with frozen spinach. You need the fresh stuff.
Frozen fruits and veggies have a distinct mouthfeel. They often lack the crunch you crave.
If you don’t want a side of soggy spinach, get creative. Mix it into ground beef, make spinach soup, or blend a green smoothie.
Fresh food lasts for days. Frozen food lasts for months or years.
You can return from a week at the beach, and your frozen blueberries will be waiting for you. Your fresh blueberries, however, will have taken a trip of their own—to blueberry heaven.
Healthy Frozen Foods
Speaking of blueberries, they’re among the best frozen foods out there. Why? Because frozen blueberries:
- Are packed with fiber, anthocyanins, pterostilbene, and many other plant-based super-compounds[*]
- Don’t lose many nutrients during the freezing process
- Are low in sugar
- Go great in smoothies
A similar logic applies to most berries. High in antioxidants, low in sugar, and suitable for freezing.
You should also keep a supply of frozen vegetables on hand. Even if the texture bothers you, they’re a solid backup when you run out of fresh.
Healthy options include frozen:
- And many other veggies
Beyond produce, don’t neglect frozen meat and fish. The texture might not be perfect, but you’ll get your nutrients.
And when the ice cream section beckons, consider a low-sugar option made with erythritol, allulose, monk fruit, or stevia. This will help you stay sweet without the empty calories or post-sugar-binge guilt.
Fresh or Frozen?
Yes, there are differences between fresh and frozen foods. But let’s not forget the big takeaway.
The big takeaway is to eat a nutrient-dense diet. And if you can buy local produce (or grow your own like Old MacDonald), your body will thank you.
But if you can’t, don’t let that stop you. If the store-bought kale looks old enough to qualify for Medicare, it’s probably still better than nothing. And if frozen spinach is all you’ve got, get the microwave ready.
In other words, don’t obsess over fresh vs. frozen. Just get the nutrients into your body however you can.