Evaluating the Processing of Produce
Fruits and vegetables should be a key component to your diet but I am willing to bet you aren’t meeting the daily recommendation for intakes. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that in the US adult population, only 12.9% were meeting daily recommendations for vegetable intakes and 17.5% were meeting recommendations for fruit intakes.(1) The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming 5, 1/2-cup, servings of fruit and vegetables every day. (2) Are you meeting that recommendation? If not, keep reading to identify different types of produce, their nutritional values, and tips to extend the shelf-life of your fruits and veggies.
The food police tell us that we shouldn’t eat processed foods, but as a soon to be dietitian, I’m telling you that isn’t entirely true. Think critically about what processing means and if it is the act of processing or the addition of preservatives and additives that lessens the nutritional value of our foods. Fruits and vegetables have been processed for many years because produce can easily spoil, it only grows certain times of the year, and certain acts of processing can prolong the life of a piece of produce without compromising its nutritional value. Types of processing include but aren’t limited to freezing, canning, and dehydrating.
When you live some place that the only way to obtain fresh produce is to consume fruits and veggies with a tremendous amount of food miles, or the number of miles a food has traveled before it gets to a consumer, the nutritional value of the produce is often altered. This is because produce is picked prior to ripening and is transported in refrigeration to slow the ripening process. Living in New York, if I go to the supermarket and buy a ‘fresh’ banana (likely sourced from Guatemala) I am basically guaranteed that it was not picked at peak ripeness because it takes approximately 10 days to get from tree to my house!
There are many potential solutions you can implement in your home to increase the quantity, quality, and nutritional value of your produce.
Shop for fresh, seasonal produce at your local farmers market.
This potential solution is two fold because you are tricking yourself into purchasing seasonal produce and you’re supporting your local economy! Benefits of shopping at the farmers market include purchasing produce that was picked at peak ripeness, which not only tastes delicious but offers the most complete nutrition profile. The foods taste scrumptious, I mean hey, can you even compare a fresh, juicy beefsteak tomato to one found in the supermarket!? You can establish a relationship with the person growing your food, which allows your to ask questions if need be. Lastly, it is better for the environment because produce is typically being sourced from within a 100 mile radius, which conserves fossil fuels, and smaller family farms typically have more sustainable farming practices.
Purchase frozen produce.
Frozen fruits and vegetables can be a great option for consumers living in cold climates, where fresh produce isn’t readily available. This is because produce is picked at peak ripeness when the food tastes the best and has the highest number of nutrients retained in the fruit or vegetable then is flash frozen. As evidenced by researchers from Oregon State University, blackberries that were picked when overripe had a 4 fold increase in antioxidant benefits compared to underripe blackberries.3 Once picked, the produce is flash frozen, without added sugar or other preservatives. A study by Bernhardt and Schlich found that there was no difference in nutritional value between cooking fresh or frozen produce.4 When purchasing frozen produce, I want to remind you to please read the labels to guarantee that the only ingredient is the fruit or vegetable of interest and there is no hidden sodium or sugar.
Opt for canned produce.
Canning uses some very cool food science techniques to process food at extremely high temperatures for a long duration of time and store them in an airtight container, which kills potential pathogens and inactivates the enzymes that could cause food to spoil. Purchasing canned produce offers many great benefits such as an inexpensive option to buy fruits and vegetables that are shelf stable and contain a high nutrient value. Plus, cooking with canned produce saves time because most of the prep is already done for you! When purchasing canned produce, please read the label and ensure there were no added sources of sodium or sugar. When prepping your canned produce remember that draining and rinsing the food can reduce sodium levels by up to 41%; draining alone results in a 36% sodium reduction.
Reach for the dried fruit.
The process of drying fruit is synonymous for dehydrating it. This means that the dried serving is a more concentrated source than the whole fruit. One serving of whole fruit is typically 1/2 cup where dried fruit is 1/4 cup. Needless to say, the dried fruit offers similar nutritional benefits to the whole fruit such as the micro and macronutrients, bioactive food compounds, and fiber! As with other recommendations, read the label and opt for the unsweetened products.
As a nutrition professional, I want to help you identify appropriate dietary changes that are feasible and realistic for you. There are many different strategies you can adopt to increase your fruit and vegetable intakes, so have fun experimenting! What are some tips you have for meeting the recommendation to consume 5, 1/2 cup servings of fruits and vegetables per day?
Until next time.
- Burch E, Ball L, Somerville M, Williams LT. Dietary intake by food group of individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. January 2018.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.
- Siriwoharn T, Wrolstad RE, Finn CE, Pereira CB. Influence of cultivar, maturity, and sampling on blackberry (Rubus L. Hybrids) anthocyanins, polyphenolics, and antioxidant properties. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. December 2004.
Bernhard S, Schlich E. Impact of different cooking methods on food quality: Retention of lipophilic vitamins in fresh and frozen vegetables. Journal of Food Engineering. June 2005.