Mythbusting: Fresh vs. Frozen

One of the reasons why I started writing this blog is because I wanted a forum to address the abundance of misinformation I see and hear regularly about food and nutrition. Last week I came across such an item in my daily newspaper – not some chump rag but the Washington Post, of all things – that was so misleading I was shocked that Post editors actually printed it. The main point – in fact, the headline – was to convince readers why fresh is better than frozen. However, the points made contained broad generalizations and half-truths, comparing the best of fresh with the worst of frozen.

The fact is, there is a place in a healthy diet for all types of food: fresh, frozen, dried, canned, squeezed, juiced, etc. Since it’s now summertime, with fresh produce in abundance at farmers markets and on sale in grocery store, it’s easy to forget certain benefits of choosing packaged or frozen foods. I regularly dig into my freezer when I make a home cooked meal, no matter the season. But I digress – let’s tackle the issues:

  • I have not come across any scientific basis to support the author’s point about freezing decreasing the nutrient value of a meal, especially since her next few sentences are about vegetables and fruits. The frozen vs. fresh argument here is totally out of place and seriously misleading. Fresh in-season produce that’s picked and harvested at its prime do tend to deliver more nutrients than if the same produce is picked before it is ripe. But fruits and vegetables destined for the freezer case have been picked at their prime then flash-frozen to seal in the nutrients. So you might actually get more nutrients in your frozen blueberries than you would eating the same berries picked in the spring (blueberries hit their peak in July, typically). Just be sure your bag of frozen berries doesn’t have added sugar, or the box of frozen veggies doesn’t have added preservatives or artificial flavors.
  • Related to this point — did you know that canned pumpkin and tomatoes deliver more nutrients than their raw versions? That’s partly because the canning process involves heating the food at high temperatures, which makes nutrients such as lycopene in tomatoes, available to be better absorbed by the body. So chalk one up in favor of processed over fresh.
  • The point about fresh fruits having higher water content and are thus more hydrating is true – but it’s also true that dried fruits deliver more iron…so there’s that. If you’re really worried about hydration, drink an extra glass or two of water.
  • And while I might be inclined to agree that in theory a home-cooked meal is perhaps a better alternative to a frozen TV dinner, I would also agree that homemade spaghetti carbonara is less healthful than a frozen, portion-controlled meal. Though its true many packaged and frozen meals may have ingredient lists as long as the box they come in, there are many nutritious frozen foods and meals with wholesome, recognizable ingredients. Read the label.

The bottom line here, folks: don’t knock it because it’s frozen (or canned, or dried, or – gasp! – processed). Just know what you’re eating, even if it means looking at ingredients on the side of a box, can or carton.

Photo credits: iStockphoto

Oh… “natural”

Yesterday I decided to treat myself to a rare manicure/pedicure and to try out a new-ish place near my home. I seriously doubt I’ll be going back. Not only do I have cuts in my cuticles, but this was the only nail salon I’d ever been to that didn’t have a wide selection of mindless magazines (yes, I love celebrity gossip but I limit my rag reading to airports, nail salons and the People magazine feed on my yahoo page). So, stuck in a vibrating massage chair that was making my pregnant belly a bit nauseous and in a dead zone of cell phone range so I couldn’t catch up on facebook or tweet away my boredom, I found myself stuck watching the television mounted on the wall almost directly in front of me. Typical of Saturday afternoon nail salon options, this TV was tuned to a station that was airing infomercial after infomercial. I was mildly amused by the SINGLE PIECE OF GYM EQUIPMENT that you need to use JUST 6-8 MINUTES A DAY (hey, if Chuck Norris, Christie Brinkley and Steve Guttenberg say it worked for them…) and the 9-CD set of the greatest love songs ever recorded – all from the 1950s that could be mine, and if I call in the next 10 minutes… But then I really started to get annoyed when the information for a pain remedy came on.

This paid advertisement was done interview-style with two jock-looking middle-aged guys. The interviewer had a mildly Boston accent, but he barely got in a word edgewise over his interviewee, a “well-known health and wellness expert” (someone I’d never heard of) who wouldn’t stop raving about this product that supposedly cured his decades-long bout with pain as a result of a childhood surgery, his stint as an American Gladiator, and so on. The story goes that one day this guy was complaining about his pain to a friend, when a woman out of nowhere came up to him and said, “you gotta try this.” After protesting that he’d already tried everything, he told the lady he’d try her pill. After 2-3 weeks of taking this pill from a stranger and feeling no different, one day he realized he was sleeping better and, gosh darn it, he had no more pain. Now, I’m not sure I’d be so trusting of a stranger handing me pills I’d never heard of before, and then taking them daily for weeks at a time, but logical arguments have no place in infomercials.

What apparently sets this particular pill apart from the others he’d had tried is that it was totally natural, did not have claims that other, gasp, DRUGS, carry with them and so forth. In fact, he harped about all-natural, bashed pharma, and spoke about God and fate and so on. He was actually somewhat convincing, which was both scary and making me angry.

The problem with this infomercial – and in general with taking things at face value – is that this story is completely one-sided and so completely distorted the facts. Let’s break down two of the most egregious points:

1. This product is all-natural, with ingredients created by God, so it’s better than pharmaceutical treatments. WRONG. There are plenty of things found in nature – even things that seem to be edible – that are in fact very poisonous. Look at Arsenic, an element found on the periodic table (doesn’t get more basic than that). Or holly berries – look luscious but are toxic. Or oleander – a beautiful flower that is completely poisonous…even burning it can cause damage to one’s lungs.

2. Pharmaceuticals have terrible side effects – just watch the commericals…it’s laughable. Some even say this drug can result in death! That’s because the pharmaceutical industry, which is heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, is REQUIRED to disclose all potential side effects uncovered after rigorous, years-long research. Supplements and herbal remedies such as this product have no such oversight. It’s truly buyer-beware.

Why did this infomercial strike such a nerve, and why am I devoting space to it on a nutrition-focused blog? Well, because I see similar waves of righteousness when it comes to food. More and more products in the marketplace are touting labels such as “all-natural” and the like. And while natural may be great, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Also, unlike “organic,” the adjective “natural” has no formal definition and is not regulated by government agencies (in comparison, in order for a product to carry an “organic” label, it must meet certain stringent requirements by the USDA, and other front-of-label claims must meet FDA labeling requirements).

I’m also sensitive to the issue given the recent discussions by an FDA advisory panel about artificial dyes in food. This will be the subject of another post, but to preview my initial feeling about this debate and last week’s outcome – I’m very concerned that we’re too quick to give health halos to “God-grown” food and disregard manufactured food. Thanks to the industrial revolution and advances in food manufacturing, we can have loaves of bread (tastier than chewing on a wheat kernel), homogenized and pasteurized milk and milk products (I for one would rather not suck directly from a cow’s teat), and other creature comforts that are actually good for you despite being milled or manufactured in a processing plant. We have also made huge public health strides by reducing instances of birth defects thanks to fortifying enriched wheat products with folic acid, and reducing preventable mental retardation due to iodide deficiency by adding iodine (another periodic table element) to salt.

While I don’t argue that a fresh picked apple is more nutritious than a vitamin-c-enriched fruit roll-up, or that we shouldn’t question current policies due to new advances in research, I do feel like we all need to take a big, deep breath, stop pointing fingers at “bad” industry/government and instead do the best you can with the information you have today. Trust the experts who make it their jobs to learn more about food, health and safety – not the stranger who hands you a miracle pill – and do your own research as well. And just because it came from the Earth doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll keep you healthy.

Learn about labels

We all want to know more about the foods we eat, right? And food marketers are quick to oblige. Pick up the closest box of something in your pantry, and you might be bombarded with information about that food — all-natural, low-fat, whole grain…the possibilities are virtually endless.

The fact of the matter is, what’s printed on the front of the box is somewhat regulated — there are certain things food manufacturers can and cannot say. For example, certain criteria need to be met for a food to be labeled a “good” or “excellent” source of a nutrient, or “low fat,” or “low in sodium.” But what about other claims that imply a benefit – like “all natural?” Even labels such as “whole grains” may contain a fraction of whole grain ingredients, with the majority made up of refined grains.

The most trusted source of information is the Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredient list, often found on the side of a package. This information looks deceptively simple to read, but in fact takes some practice to learn exactly what you should be looking for and what it means to you. Here are the most important items:

  • Serving size: Does the nutrition information listed on the panel account for the entire package, or some fraction of it? My favorite are those large single cookies, with the serving size set at 1/2 cookie. Like you’d eat just one half and put it away!
  • Calories, fat and cholesterol: Taking into account the serving size, are these numbers manageable? These are things you want to limit, with a total daily intake not to exceed 100% Daily Value (that percentage next to the grams) Is that single food item really worth a quarter or more of your daily recommendation for total fat, for example?
  • Fiber and calcium: The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans name fiber and calcium two “nutrients of concern,” meaning we need to get more of these.  Most of us need between 25-38 grams of fiber per day, and 1,000 mg calcium. You want to shoot for foods that provide at least 10% of these two nutrients per serving.
  • Ingredient list: This perhaps has the most information about what’s in the food you’re eating, but is also probably the hardest to decipher. For grain products, even those labeled with “whole grain” on the front of the package, you want the first ingredent indeed to be a whole grain – whether it’s whole wheat flour, brown rice, etc. If you’re looking to avoid trans fats – which we all should – don’t trust the trans fat line on the nutrition label. See if you can find “partially hyrdrogenated” in the ingredient list. If so, your product contains trans fats – though not enough per serving to be labeled as such on the panel above (it would need to have at least 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving to make it onto the label. If the product has 0.49 grams of trans fat, the label reads zero!).

For more information about reading food labels, the Food and Drug Administration has a good online resource for consumers that’s fairly easy to understand. There’s also a great book by a fellow dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix: Read It Before You Eat It that I recommend. And of course, if you have any questions you can always leave me a comment here.