Fresh vs. Frozen Vegetables
Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
Americans typically don't eat enough vegetables. Could frozen vegetables help us meet our needs?
Most adults should be eating 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables per day (it's recommended that men get a little more veg). Only 9% of adults are getting the recommended amount of vegetables and only 12% get enough fruit. Yikes.
A vegetable in any form is better than no vegetable at all. Vegetables are packed with nutrients—vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Freezing is a safe way to increase the shelf life of nutritious foods. However, many people incorrectly believe that frozen vegetables are much less nutritious than fresh vegetables. There still seems to be some controversy about if frozen vegetables are healthy, and how they stack up to fresh produce. We have the answers on what to choose and when.
While the first step of freezing vegetables—blanching them in hot water or steam to kill bacteria and stop food-degrading enzymes—causes some water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C and the B vitamins to break down or leach out, the subsequent flash-freeze locks the vegetables in a relatively nutrient-rich state. A 2017 study found that there were no significant differences in vitamin content between frozen and fresh vegetables. Furthermore, when there was a slight difference, it was more likely that the frozen vegetables had a higher concentration of nutrients than their fresh counterparts.
There is also a notable price difference between fresh and frozen produce. For those shopping on a budget, frozen (and canned) vegetables may be more cost-effective. The average price for frozen cauliflower is $1.68 per pound, whereas fresh cauliflower florets are closer to $3.13 per pound. The American Frozen Food Institute published a white paper showing that a grocery list comprised of 95% frozen food could be in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for an adult woman for only $8.52 a day, or $59.66 per week.
Additionally, fresh vegetables have a much shorter shelf life than their frozen alternatives. If you are going to use the produce promptly, fresh is a good choice. However, to reduce the risk of spoilage and waste, frozen is a safe bet.
Frozen vegetables work well in cooked dishes like casseroles, stir-fries, pastas and soups (learn more about our favorite cooking techniques below). Favorite options are broccoli, peas, corn, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and squash.
When vegetables are in season, buy them fresh and ripe. Out of season, frozen vegetables will give you a high concentration of nutrients. Choose packages marked with a USDA U.S. Grade A shield, which designates produce of the best size, shape and color; vegetables of this standard also tend to be more nutrient-rich than the lower grades, B and C. Eat them soon after purchase: over many months, nutrients in frozen vegetables do inevitably degrade. Finally, steam or microwave rather than boil your produce to minimize the loss of water-soluble vitamins.