We tend to assume that fresh food is always better than frozen food, and when it comes to comparing pre-packaged frozen meals to their homemade counterparts, yeah, that’s a pretty safe bet. But fortunately for anyone who has trouble using produce before it inevitably becomes all green and fuzzy — I swear I was going to figure out how to cook you eventually, giant fennel bulb — frozen fruits and veggies are perfectly fine.
“For some reason, there’s a misconception that frozen fruits and vegetables are less healthy than fresh ones,” says Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “But this simply isn’t the case. Frozen fruits and vegetables are often packed at the peak of their ripeness, when their vitamin and mineral levels are the highest, and they taste the sweetest. Then they’re flash frozen right away, preserving the ripeness and those vitamins and minerals.”
Science supports this explanation: Multiple studies show that freezing can preserve nutritional value, and therefore, the overall nutritional content of fresh and frozen produce is similar. Furthermore, when studies do report a nutritional decrease in some frozen fruits and veggies, it tends to be insignificant.
In fact, it could be argued that some fresh produce is less healthy than its frozen brethren, since unlike like the frozen stuff, fresh fruits and veggies are picked before peak ripeness, which gives them less time to develop all their vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It can also be argued that frozen produce requires fewer pesticides to prevent spoilage, whereas fresh fruits and veggies usually need extra chemicals to keep them crisp during the days, weeks or even months they spend in transportation and storage.
Now, the one obvious downside to frozen produce is its often gross, spongy texture, particularly in those bags of pre-chopped veggies for stir fries and the like. “When you defrost them or reheat them, they often become mushy, but that has more to do with their molecular breakdown from being frozen than their actual healthfulness,” Hunnes explains. More specifically, the water inside the produce can freeze, especially when kept unsealed in the freezer for long periods of time. This forms a crystalline structure that begins to expand, tearing the produce from the inside out and creating that mushy texture. To help avoid this, make sure all frozen produce is well-sealed, and when you do go to cook them, the big thing you want to avoid is boiling them, which adds more moisture that will contribute to the unpleasant mushy texture.
The best way to deal with frozen vegetables in particular is to steam, bake or stir-fry them at high heat (using the microwave is usually a bad idea), ensuring that the larger veggies are given more time to cook than the smaller ones. Also, some water-heavy veggies, like spinach, are best thawed and drained before cooking them to avoid excess moisture, and therefore, extra mushiness. Lastly, don’t be afraid to season your frozen vegetables heavily — they can dehydrate after sitting in the freezer for long periods of time, which dilutes their flavor, so adding a little extra seasoning can go a long way.
As for frozen fruits, they can really only be used in smoothies, jams, sauces or baked goods, like cakes and pies, where you can simply stir them right into the batter, then bake.
The real bonus, of course, is just how long this stuff lasts. “The best part is that they’re often less expensive than their fresh counterparts, but they also last significantly longer in their frozen state,” Hunnes says. Frozen fruits can be kept in the freezer for about a year, and frozen veggies will last for about 18 months. Plus, besides being generally cheaper upon purchase, you’ll also save money on frozen produce, since it won’t go to waste like the fresh stuff often does when it goes bad before you get a chance to use it.
Basically, frozen produce is an easy way to up your green intake when you’re not a big fan of greens, too, as I learned while researching my guide to eating more fruits and veggies. “Freeze greens in a ziplock bag,” nutritional therapy practitioner Laurie Hammer told me. “Once they’re frozen, crush them up into small pieces while they’re in the bag. Store them in the freezer, and add those tiny pieces to meatloaf, meatballs, soups and smoothies. They’ll be barely noticeable!”
All in all, so long as you cook them properly, there’s really no difference. So stop fruit-shaming me, okay?