When I say that I'm all about small, sustainable changes for life-long health, I mean it. When I say that any program we design together has to work for you, I mean it. Which is why I try not to ever say there's only one way to be healthy, or one way to do things.
One of the ways this plays out is that I can advocate for eating canned fruits and vegetables. You've probably heard over and over again that fresh is best, and to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. While this advice is well-intentioned, it can leave us feeling confused or guilty when we reach for some convenience items.
The Virtues of Canned Food
The long shelf life means you can keep things on hand for awhile before you need to use them. When your favorites are on sale, you can stock up without the fear of anything going bad. Also, the food is already prepped. No chopping required, which cuts down on prep time.
Canned food can actually be more nutritious than fresh food. Since canned food is packaged at the peak of ripeness, you're getting food at its most fresh from a can (just like frozen). While sitting on a truck, in a grocery store, or in the produce drawer of your fridge, fruits and vegetables lose vitamins and antioxidants. Canning locks in that nutrition.
True, some nutrients are lost in the canning process - most notably Vitamin C. But other nutrients, like lycopene and beta-carotene, are actually made more available to us when the foods are heated. So tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes all benefit from the canning process.
Canned foods are almost always cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Also, they are more likely to go on sale, and are easier to stock up on at that time. Canned foods are available year round, so seasonal prices aren't a factor.
Improved Diet Quality
A recent study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at the relationship between canned fruit and vegetable consumption and overall diet quality in both children and adults. The results linked eating canned fruits and vegetables with higher intake of some nutrients (protein, fiber, choline, potassium, vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, total sugar), lower intake other nutrients (total fat and saturated fat), and an overall higher quality diet.
There was no association with body weight or BMI and eating canned foods. Also, no association with blood pressure. I think this is significant because one of the top critiques of canned foods is the sodium content. Part of this may be explained by the fact that eating canned foods was associated with a lower sodium-potassium ratio. Some researchers believe that it's not just the total sodium that is the problem for blood pressure, but the ratio of sodium-potassium.
Things to Consider
As I alluded to above, there are criticisms of canned foods. Here are some things to consider.
Choose beans and vegetables with no salt added or labeled "low sodium" or "reduced sodium". True, not all products have a low-sodium version that you can easily find. But when you have the choice - take it! Rinse your veggies before eating to remove even more of the sodium (up to 40%!).
Choose fruits in water or it's own juice. Avoid canned fruit in syrup - that's just unnecessary sugar. Again, drain the fruit and rinse before using.
Some canned foods contain sulfites, which can cause respiratory problems in about 1% of the population. If you're in the 99%, the sulfites probably won't make any difference to you. But if you're concerned, read the label and avoid products with sulfur-based preservatives: sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfate, potassium metabisulfate or sodium sulfate.
Canned foods can carry a bacteria that causes botulism if the integrity of the can is compromised. Just to be safe, avoid cans with leaking, bulging, dents, cracks, or if the food is discolored and has a foul odor. Food safety is always a factor :)
Cans can contain trace amounts of bisphenol A (BPA), which has a known correlation to some cancers and developmental disorders. To reduce the risk, rinse canned foods, and look for containers that are labeled "BPA-free".
There are many great reasons to keep canned foods on hand for quick and easy meal prep. Also, don't forget that it's not just fruits and vegetables. Canned proteins are especially cheap and convenient - beans, tuna and salmon are excellent options. Sidenote: if you're going to donate food, this is a great place to focus. Proteins are always the top need!
My favorite canned foods to have on hand?
- diced tomato
- tuna (in water)
- salmon (no skin)
- pumpkin (especially this time of year!)
- artichoke hearts
Want more info, or some easy recipes? Check out Cans Get You Cooking for a great place to start!