The Fresh Food Vs Processed Food Debate Doesn’t Really Matter During Social Distancing

Photo: Getty Images / Francesco Carta fotografo
Many of us are currently on lockdown at home these days to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Health experts agree social distancing is essential to #flattenthecurve, so our health-care system isn’t suddenly overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 patients. But on a more personal level, home quarantine is also changing many aspects of our daily lives—including what and how we eat.

As we make fewer trips outside our home, many of us are buying less fresh food and more stuff that’s frozen, canned, or shelf-stable. Data compiled by Nielson found that sales of shelf-stable items skyrocketed drastically during the week of March 14 (around when the federal government declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic), particularly when it came to items like oat milk (477 percent increase in sales), chickpeas (157 percent), and tuna (147 percent). That's because when life feels uncertain, “having affordable shelf-stable foods at home makes life easier and calmer,” says Jess Cording, RD, an integrative nutrition health coach in New York City.

Yes, shelf-stable items are affordable and last longer than their fresh counterparts, filling in the gaps when you’re between grocery runs. But given that the majority of the U.S. will be sheltering in place for the foreseeable future (meaning that our grocery access might continue to be limited), the health conscious among us might wonder if there are any downsides to an extended period of eating mostly pantry staples and packaged food. After all, most experts emphasize the importance of eating whole, "real" foods and avoiding ultra-processed options for optimal health and nutrition. For many, deciding between fresh food vs processed foods (including canned and frozen options) seems like deciding between being healthy or not.

Well, fam, I have some good news: You can officially take "not eating enough fresh food" off of your worries list right now. Because in these dire times (and honestly, always), there's no good reason to be afraid of the staples in your fridge and pantry.

First things first: Frozen produce is just as healthy as fresh produce

Sure, you're eating an awful lot of frozen peas, spinach, and kale right now. But that's not a bad thing for nutrition. In fact, frozen vegetables and fruits contain just as many—if not more—nutrients as their fresh counterparts. That’s because produce is flash-frozen just after it’s harvested, locking in nutritional value at peak ripeness. Fresh produce, meanwhile, is picked, packaged, and shipped, then sits on a shelf in the grocery store and at home before you get around to eating it. All the while, a number of nutrients can decline. “[Fresh produce] is still worth eating, but you’re not doing yourself a big disservice if you’re relying on frozen for little while,” says Cording.

Although other research notes that levels of beta carotene (the veggie version of vitamin A) in some frozen foods are significantly lower than in fresh counterparts, Torey Armul, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, isn’t concerned. “As long as you’re eating vitamin A-rich foods [like] fruits, veggies, dairy, and fish, I wouldn’t worry. Vitamin A deficiency is rare as long as your diet is moderately varied,” she says. (Grains, meat, and dairy all retain most of their nutritional value in the freezer, Armul adds.)

Need more proof that frozen food is A-okay? A top dietitian sets the record straight: 

Canned food is typically pretty healthy for you too, especially on a budget

Like frozen produce, canned fruits and veggies are picked at peak ripeness. But because they’re heated before they’re packaged to prevent spoilage, they can have a different texture and are typically lower in water-soluble vitamins like B and C. “They’re still an excellent pick, especially if they’re not canned in syrup or juice,” says Armul.

A few of Cording’s favorite canned food picks include:

  • Tomatoes: a super versatile way to add flavor to many recipes
  • Beans: a great source of fiber and B-vitamins
  • Tuna, salmon, or sardines: a good source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and protein
  • Oysters: a good source of immune-boosting zinc
  • Pumpkin: the ultimate butter stand-in if you’re on a stress-baking binge

Some people worry that trace amounts of the chemical BPA can leach from cans into food. However, most experts say that regularly eating some canned food can be part of a healthy diet, especially if it helps ensure you eat more fruits, veggies, and beans. Check the label; many cans these days are BPA-free. If you’re super chemical-adverse, choose Tetra Paks or cartons, which don't use BPA at all in their manufacturing.

Shelf-stable, processed foods can be less nutritious than others—but let's not demonize the whole category

Real talk: Packaged, processed food has a bad rap in the wellness world. And some of that is justified. Shelf-stable foods—frozen, canned, and packaged—often contain more sodium as a preservative. These foods may also contain added sugar, salt, and other fillers.

But despite the battle of fresh food vs processed food, there's no reason a person should go out of their way to avoid all canned and packaged goods. Remember, the term "processed food" applies to any food that has changed from its original state. So pasta is technically processed, as are canned beans, and pre-shelled nuts—but we shouldn't treat those healthy foods as being the same for your health as an ultra-processed fast food meal. Nor should we demonize foods that make it easier for people to eat, full stop. Especially when they are often, as illustrated above, just as healthy as eating fresh.

Instead, check the label on the canned, frozen, and other packaged goods you choose, and prioritize products that have little to no added sugar and sodium when possible. If you can’t find a no-salt-added variety, rinse the food well under water, then lay off the salt shaker. If you ultimately go overboard on sodium one day, try to cut back the next. “This is not the time to get super nitpicky with yourself,” says Cording.

Here are some other smart tips for choosing the healthiest possible processed food: 

If you can get fresh food right now, that's awesome—but don't feel bad if you can't

There is, of course, nothing quite like eating a salad full of fresh spring greens or stirring in some chopped basil or parsley into your pasta. Fresh food is awesome. But it's not the end-all, be-all of nutrition. To that end, don’t worry about prioritizing any one fresh food over others either. “Eat the fresh produce that you like, because that ensures you’ll eat more of it,” says Armul, and that means you're eating more fruits and vegetables—always a good thing. You may want to pick produce right now that tends to last longer: think cabbage, carrots, beets, radishes, kale, potatoes, and winter squash.

Ultimately, Armul says you can still get all the nutrients you need even when you’re not eating fresh foods. “During temporary periods when food is scarce, don’t worry about not getting enough fresh produce. There’s no long-term damage [to your health],” she says. It’s more important to make sure you’re eating a variety of foods that are high in fiber, protein, and heart-healthy fats—think fruits, veggies, lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes. If some or most of that comes from a can or a package, that's okay.

Above all, be kind to yourself. “It’s important to be flexible and patient with ourselves and focus on the things we can do to nurture our health and wellness,” says Cording.

Now that we have that all cleared up, here are some amazing meals you can make with 11 pantry staples. And these healthy snacks are the perfect energizing bites for the health-care workers in your life. 

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