As someone who makes at least some sort of effort to eat healthy, I’ve traditionally typically steered clear of the frozen food section at the grocery store. In my mind, it was a wasteland of TV dinners, frozen waffles, and bags of tater tots. Delicious? Yes. Healthy? In my mind, not-so much.
Then I learned that while I’ve been shopping the produce and alt-pasta aisles, the frozen food section has undergone a major Queer Eye-level makeover. But even after checking out the selection of cauliflower pizzas, plant-based burgers, and riced veggies, I was still a little confused. I’ve always been told that processed foods aren’t healthy (and practically every study these days seems to back that up), so how do these foods—made to literally last a year in the freezer case—fit into a healthy diet?
To find out, I asked registered dietitian Amy Shapiro, RD. I was curious how frozen foods like frozen fruits and veggies compared to their fresh counterparts—isn’t fresh always nutritionally superior? “When produce gets picked, it starts to lose nutrients. So if you grow apples in DC and ship them to California, they will lose nutrients in that journey and will be less potent when you eat it fresh,” Shapiro explains. “Frozen food, however, is flash-frozen at the point of harvest, which preserves those nutrients as is and until consumed. So if it isn’t berry season where you live, I recommend buying frozen berries as you’ll benefit from more nutrients.”
I had also always assumed that microwaving food was inherently less healthier than cooking it in the oven or stovetop. That’s also not a true story, Shapiro says. “What changes the nutritional value is usually how long you cook it, how high the temperature is that you cook it at, and how much water you use use,” she says. “Nutrients leach out into water, so boiling is the worst offender. Microwaves can be helpful in the fact that they cook [food] quickly and often not submerged in liquid.” Mind. Blown.
However, certain frozen foods can be highly processed, so Shapiro has a few suggestions to keep your frozen options super healthy: Look out for artificial sweeteners, artificial colors (like Blue 1 or Red 40), carrageenan as an emulsifier (which has been shown to cause inflammation and possibly be carcinogenic), dextrose (a heavily processed form of sugar from corn), high-fructose corn syrup (which may increase appetite) and MSG (which causes headaches in some people). She also says to keep an eye on the sodium content, as salt is a common preservative.
The TL;DR version of this is to look for a simple ingredients list with things you recognize—just like you would in other parts of the grocery store. If you’re looking for some specific product recs, check out the nine rounded up here, which all sync up with Shapiro’s advice.
Scroll down for nine of the best frozen food products that are healthy and minimally processed.
Healthy frozen food picks
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