By Andrea D’Ambrosio, RD
Are canned foods like vegetables, legumes and fruit equally as healthy as fresh? This is a common question, especially at this time of year as we transition out of summer and into fall and winter when there are not as many fresh vegetables and fruit available. Soon some of our summer favourites like peaches, green beans and corn on the cob will no longer be in season. To extend the season and ensure you are still getting your fruits and vegetables, canned vegetables and legumes can be a healthy and affordable alternative to fresh.
Read More: See Andrea’s article: Are Fresh Vegetables Healthier Than Frozen?.
Today, let’s break down the canning process and discuss the nutritional considerations of consuming canned vegetables versus fresh.
Canning is a preservation method to protect food from contamination and spoiling. Fruits and vegetables are usually canned within hours of picking and follow a 3-Step Process described below:
The 3-Step Canning Process:
- Processing: To prepare fruits and vegetables for canning, they must be washed and often peeled, pitted or chopped. Blanching or submerging the food item in boiling water and then a cold water bath helps maintain flavour, colour, texture and nutritional value before canning or freezing. Once the fruit or vegetables are added they are covered with water, oil or juice to fill the cans.
- Sealing: The lid of the can is then sealed air-tight to ensure food safety and prevent contamination. Sealing the can keeps out air and any microorganisms that could potentially contaminate and/or spoil the food.
- Heating: The last phase in canning is to heat the sealed can to a specific temperature for a certain amount of time. This kills any bacteria and prevents spoiling. The cans are then quickly cooled.
Seven Perks of Canned Foods
- Super Fresh: Canned produce is picked at peak freshness and preserved soon after. Generally, the less distance food travels, the fresher it stays, since it is picked at the height of nutrition.
- Great Nutrition: The amount of minerals, fat-soluble vitamins, protein, fat and carbohydrate remain relatively unchanged in the canning process. The heating process can even increase antioxidant content such as lycopene in canned tomatoes.
- Convenient: No cooking required. Canned food can simply be rinsed before use (to decrease salt content.) What is simpler than opening up a can of chickpeas or beans, for example, and adding them to meals or snacks?
- Long-Lasting: Canned foods are also shelf-stable, which means you can stock your pantry ahead of time for quick meals when you’re short on time
- Affordable: Who doesn’t love to save money? Save money with canned alternatives and boost your vegetable and fibre intake simultaneously. Try adding canned pumpkin to your favourite chili recipe (see my Savoury Pumpkin Chili recipe) or rinse off canned artichokes to add to quinoa or pasta salad.
- Less Food Waste: Opting for canned alternatives means that you can open and use them whenever you’re ready. Opting to buy canned food takes away the stress of using food up immediately.
- Choose Local: Who doesn’t love to support our local Canadian farmers? Check the food label to see where your canned food is sourced from and buy local when possible! Buying local increases food freshness and helps to take care of our environment! When purchasing canned food, opt for local options when available.
Four Considerations of Canned Foods
- Watch The Salt: Opt for canned foods without added salt (when possible) or choose reduced salt options. Thoroughly rinse foods such as chickpeas to remove preserving salt and liquid. Check the nutrition label and look for 200mg of sodium or less per serving.
- Consider Preserving Liquid: Try to opt for foods canned in water and skip the added sugars in canning syrups or juices.
- Check for Limited Ingredient List: Take a peek at the ingredients and avoid cans with long lists. It’s normal to find preservatives like ascorbic acid (aka. Vitamin C) tocopheral (aka. Vitamin E), and acetate (used as a food antioxidant), which are all safe ingredients to consume.
- Watch The Look! Avoid cans with dents, bulges or cracks. This could indicate bacteria contamination that causes botulism, a serious illness. This is not overly common in commercially canned products but can be a concern in home canned products that are not sealed properly.
Donating canned foods to your local food bank takes minimal time and is a great way to help your community!
Concerned about BPA in Cans?
BPA (bisphenol A) is an industrial chemical used to make hard, clear plastics (also known as polycarbonate). Reusable hard water bottles and some baby bottles may contain BPA, as may the lining inside metal cans such as canned foods.
Health Canada routinely tests various canned foods for BPA. The results have found only low levels of BPA. Therefore, they state, “for most Canadians, BPA does not pose a health risk because our exposure to the chemical is very low.” To read more about BPA amounts in specific foods click here[DS2] .
It is important to stay abreast of the latest information and use personal caution and discretion. Choosing BPA-free water bottles or opting for BPA-free products is an alternative. However, fear-mongering about the link between occasional consumption of canned food and cancer is not warranted based on the current research.
You can check if the container, including baby bottles, contains BPA by looking for a 3-sided triangular arrow with a number in the centre. If the number is 7, your bottle may contain BPA as 7 is also used to identify other plastics, and most number 7 plastics do not contain BPA. Next, look to see if the product has “PC” or “polycarbonate” on its packaging. If there is no reference, the product is unlikely to contain BPA. If you’re still unsure about the type of plastic, contact the manufacturer.
Nevertheless, if you are wanting to reduce your BPA intake:
- Choose stainless steel water bottles.
- Store foods in glass containers and not plastics that contain BPA.
- Refrain from providing children with products (like bottles, cups or tins) that contain BPA.
- Buy, soak, and cook your own beans or put them in a pressure-cooker to heat and or buy frozen.
- Can or freeze your own tomatoes and vegetables in glass jars.
Canned vegetables, legumes and fruits are another healthy option to include in your diet. The nutrition is generally intact, and the produce is super fresh when canned. Also, including canned options in the diet allows for a convenient, cost-effective and versatile option to boost vegetable or legume intake. However, be mindful of salt content and added sugars and choose products that have short ingredient lists.
What’s more, the BPA amounts in canned vegetables and legumes are something to be aware of but not worried about based on the current intakes and best available research. Finally, good nutrition and eating well are all about balance. Enjoy eating a variety of foods (fresh, canned, frozen, etc), cook more at home and minimize processed foods and eating out.
Now it’s your turn! Which of your favourite foods do you choose as canned alternatives? Do you have pantry staples you like to keep on hand?
How to Store Canned Foods?
- Store Properly: Store canned foods in a cool and dry place – away from pipes, stove, furnace or direct sunlight.
- Use Within Recommended Time: Food manufacturers generally recommend storing canned goods for no longer than one year. Use canned tomatoes within 18 months, and store low-acid foods like canned vegetables for up to 1 to 2 years.
- Transfer Properly: When you open canned vegetables, transfer unused vegetables to an airtight container and store in the fridge for 3 to 4 days. Don’t continue to store opened cans in the fridge.
- Freeze: If you prefer, you can freeze leftover canned veggies for up to 2 months.
- Use FIFO (First in First Out) System: Ensure older cans get used first before recently purchased items.