Canned foods have been a staple in America for more than a century. However, their convenience and appeal have diminished in recent years, perhaps due to misconceptions over their quality when compared with their fresher counterparts. Your clients may be asking whether canned foods are a good choice when farm fresh (ie, ripe, in-season produce) has the benefit of full nutrients and optimal color and texture.
The answer is yes!
History of Canned Foods
The “original convenience foods,” canned foods were integral in 1950s cooking. But canning really began in the late 18th century as a means of safe and reliable food preservation for traveling armies.
Before canning, there were limited ways to prevent foods from spoilage, including drying, smoking, and curing. All of these methods were time-consuming and difficult. Limited preservation options especially affected soldiers, who needed access to food while traveling. Without adequate provisions or access to nutritious foods, soldiers went hungry or resorted to spoiled foods.
Sailors also were affected by a lack of reliable preservation, often succumbing to scurvy. Between the 1600s and the 1800s, many sailors relied on cured foods, which weren’t only high in sodium and thus dehydrating but also lost much of their nutritional value through processing. These included foods such as salted beef or pork transported in barrels and dried fruits and vegetables. Sailors sometimes were able to forage from the land but often skipped meals or starved.
In 1806, Nicolas Appert, a French chef, confectioner, and distiller, took on the challenge of improving preservation by developing the method of heat-processing food in glass jars that were reinforced with wire and sealed with wax. This is a method similar to home canning processes that have been perfected and are still used today.
Fortunately, we are far from the life-or-death food circumstances soldiers and sailors of the past faced. But we have different challenges, such as time management, encouraging fruit and vegetable consumption, and creating healthful meals the entire family can enjoy. Do canned foods still fit into this paradigm?
One benefit of canned produce is that it’s harvested at peak freshness, unlike fresh fruits and vegetables, which have to be picked earlier and sealed in cold storage to slow ripening before they reach grocery store shelves.
Flavor Loss & Discoloration
Flavor loss and, in some cases, discoloration, are results of the canning process. Including salt and sugars (and other additives) can make up for at least some of the flavor loss. That’s why clients may see those additives in many (but not all) canned foods.
As for discoloration, there are clever ways to disguise the lack of appealing color, such as incorporating canned fruits and veggies into a mixture with colorful ingredients. Clients can use canned peas in a fried rice or stir-fry dish with bright red and green peppers or add canned asparagus to a zesty lasagna recipe with a vibrant red tomato sauce.
While canned foods are processed, they don’t necessarily require any more processing than occurs when cooking fresh foods. They’re simply cooked at much higher heat to kill off any bacteria that could spoil the food and then vacuum sealed for stability.
In spite of canned foods’ convenience, myths abound concerning their healthfulness and quality.
Myth 1: Canned foods are loaded with preservatives.
Canned foods don’t need preservatives. The heating and vacuum seal processes make them safe to eat and shelf-stable. Sugar, salt, and other flavors may be added as a means to improve the flavor lost due to the heating process.
Myth 2: Canned foods make sodium-watching a challenge.
There are plenty of low-sodium and reduced-sodium, as well as no-salt-added and no salt, no sugar added, varieties such as Hunt’s Diced Tomatoes, No Salt Added, and Libby’s Naturals No Salt & No Sugar Added Whole Kernel Sweet Corn. When sodium is added, simply draining and rinsing can reduce sodium up to 41%.
Myth 3: Canned foods aren’t as nutritious as fresh foods.
It’s true that some nutritional losses can occur (albeit minor) as a result of the high heating required to kill off any bacteria that would cause a threat, but they actually retain their full protein and fiber contents. The effects on macronutrients such as carbs and fats are actually quite minimal as well. Some micronutrients, such as vitamins C and B, partially degrade when exposed to heat, but others remain largely stable. In the case of carotenoids, heating actually makes these nutrients more bioavailable.
Myth 4: Canned foods aren’t as tasty or appealing.
Mixing canned foods with fresher foods in healthful, delicious dishes can make them more appetizing in both taste and appearance.
Show your clients how to make canned foods a tasty addition to healthful meals using the following tips and recipes:
• Combine canned foods with farm-fresh foods to create healthful homemade meals such as this Hash Brown Breakfast Bowl from Street Smart Nutrition or this Mediterranean Quinoa Bake from Delicious & Nutritious Eating.
• Cut down on red meat intake with blended burgers that mix beef with canned mushrooms (instead of fresh) or make a delicious Meatless Monday option like this Fennel Seasoned Falafel by Nutri Savvy Health.
• Emphasize the convenience factor. Canned foods can extend a week of groceries when clients’ fresh fruits/vegetables inventory is low. That doesn’t mean replace fresh fruits and vegetables with canned altogether; it’s simply an option to keep on hand when in need. Canned foods can simplify healthful meal planning, including for lunch box meals and dinner prep.
• Support influencers, such as TV personalities, with ideas and uses for canned foods to extend and simplify the process of making “farm-to-table” meals.
• Save time! Creating from scratch can be time-consuming, especially for busy clients. While TV chefs and YouTube recipe developers make it appear easy through the “magic of TV” and video time-lapse, there’s still a lot of time required for washing, rinsing, chopping, and preparing even before you assemble and cook.
In short, continue to support local farmers and “farm-to-table” philosophies, but don’t nix the can.
— Lauren O’Connor, MS, RDN, RYT, is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian, yoga enthusiast, and founder of Nutri Savvy Health. As a health writer, recipe developer, and private practice dietitian, Lauren promotes a plant-based diet, with minimal effort and maximal nutrition. She shares her love of creativity in the kitchen with her twin daughters who enjoy the art of cooking. Learn more about Lauren at Nutri Savvy Health.