Frozen, canned, bottled or fresh?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 31 March 2010.
Tagged: fresh food, healthy eating, nutrition

Frozen, canned, bottled or fresh?

Just because food’s frozen, or comes in a can or a bottle, doesn’t mean it’s junk! Think of frozen peas, bottled tomato pasta sauce, canned chick peas, canned apricots or baked beans, those handy kitchen staples we reach to create a fast meal when you're busy. Here Catherine Saxelby takes a look at the merits of such "minimally-processed" foods.

It’s 6 pm! I arrive home tired, with two hungry kids.The perennial problem surfaces – what to cook for dinner? It must be quick, the ingredients must be in my kitchen and, as a nutritionist, I’d like it to be reasonably healthy. I peer into the fridge. There’s some cold cooked chicken left over from last night. I ponder my options ... 

  • I could boil some pasta and make an Italian sauce with onion, garlic, a bottle of pasta sauce and toss in the diced chicken.
  • Or I could open a can of butter beans, drain and mix them with the chicken and make a salad with a bag of mixed leaves, some cherry tomatoes, cucumber along wtih crusty rolls.
  • Or I could defrost a pack of frozen spinach and use it to create a sauce with an Indian curry paste plus a small can of tomatoes with the chicken. Hmm, nice and spicy but would the kids eat it?

I settle on the pasta-chicken–sauce option. Dinner was ready and consumed within 30 minutes. It was easy, good-to-eat and good–for–you too. 

Healthy prepared foods from the supermarket

Just because a food isn’t fresh doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy or “bad for you”.  Consider the merits of each of these three pre-prepared foods from a supermarket (I like the term "minimally-processed" to distinguish these from the more highly-processed items - I know the word "processed" has ugly connotations but there's no other word in its place):

  • The bottled tomato sauce offers the same nutritional value as fresh tomatoes that have been simmered - which is what my mother used to do.  It contributes vitamin C (although both the bottled and home-cooked would have less than fresh), fibre and lycopene, an important anti-oxidant. It is convenient with good flavour and I rely on it regularly for pasta sauces and casseroles.
  • Canned beans have the same levels of protein, fibre, carbohydrate and B vitamins as beans that have been soaked and boiled.  We nutritionists have been urging people to eat more beans for years, but who’s got the time to soak and boil them?
  • Frozen spinach is a good source of fibre, as well as the minerals iron and potassium.  Sure, fresh spinach is tops for vitamin C, which is heat-sensitive. But it’s not always available and tonight, my choice was between frozen or nothing! The process of freezing retains more vitamin C than canned or bottled and acts as a “preserving agent”, so no preservatives are needed. 

Choose carefully and eat with confidence

All food cans, bottles and packages these days come with a list of ingredients. It takes only 5 seconds to read the label and choose the healthier alternatives such as the tomato pasta sauce with low fat, or the tuna in spring water over the one in brine, or the baked beans with reduced-salt. 

The dilemma of being time-poor

If we want meals that are quick and easy, we have to accept that there is value in prepared foods when chosen carefully and combined well with fresh.  We have to let go of our “suspicion” of all things bottled, canned and frozen.

As a rule, their nutritional profile is comparable to fresh food that’s been cooked.   Don't forget that many people overcook their fresh vegetables. I'm horrified when I see vegetables boiled to death - which destroys most of the heat-sensitive vitamins. In this case, fresh peas boiled until they are soft and 'grey-ish' are nutritionally worse than frozen peas that have been snap-frozen and just heated for a minute until tender.

The bottom line: Minimally-processed foods

It’s time we accepted the value and time-saving  merits of minimally-processed foods such as canned tuna, canned salmon, frozen berries, frozen fish fillets, canned corn, tomatoes, beetroot, baby potatoes, bottled artichoke hearts, bottled pesto and frozen yoghurt.

I'm not saying don't bother about buying fresh. Obviously it's important but it's not the only way to eat when you're in a hurry.

So next time if you only have 15 minutes to whip up dinner, think of how best you can combine fresh with minimally-processed.  You’ll be serving up a healthy meal and doing it in no time flat!


44-creamy_spinach_soupTry one of our quick yet healthy recipes using a minimally-processed food frozen spinach, a handy nutritious stand-by to keep in your fridge. This is an easy soup made using frozen spinach, stock, onion, nutmeg, milk and flour to thicken.


Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.