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Fresh versus frozen: A guide to veggies

You may be surprised to learn that some

You may be surprised to learn that some vegetables are best purchased frozen and best prepared in the microwave. (Credit: iStock)

You don’t need a PhD to know that substituting vegetables into your diet is a healthy choice. But if you’re trying to optimize the nutritional content of the vegetables you consume, you’ll likely encounter enough conflicting research to make rocket science seem like a cinch.

For the uninitiated, the two main variables are found in the packaging and preparation of the produce. You may be surprised to learn that some vegetables are best purchased frozen and best prepared in the microwave.

Here’s the deal:

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The fresh vegetables that appear on your supermarket’s shelves today were likely picked a week ago – or earlier -- well before they reached peak ripeness. As a result, the product’s vitamins and minerals were not allowed to fully develop, numerous studies have shown. Sure, the vegetable may appear ripe, but, according to Livestrong, that appearance is actually the combined result of the activation of enzymes and the respiration process, which both contribute to the loss of some nutritional value.

By contrast, frozen vegetables are typically harvested at their peak ripeness when nutritional content is highest. Once picked, the produce is blanched, thereby deactivating the various decaying mechanisms, and immediately frozen. Packaged in air tight bags, the frosted foodstuffs undergo a far less arduous journey from ground to grocery store.

Think the verdict is in? Think again.

Frozen vegetables’ nutritional content can be compromised by the blanching process. Submerging the produce in boiling water is critical to deactivating enzymes but it also results in the loss of water-soluble nutrients, most notably the important B and C vitamin groups and many antioxidants. You’re also required to cook frozen vegetables, inevitably leading to the loss of more water-soluble nutrients or the introduction of more fat via cooking oils. Many vegetables are said to be best consumed raw and unaffected by heat.

Further muddling the picture is the cooking method you ultimately choose. If your gut is protruding a bit, it might be telling you to cut down on the calories found in cooking oils by steaming or boiling your vegetables. But boiling would reduce the content of water-soluble vitamins, and neither option does a particularly good job of unlocking the fat-soluble nutrients in the produce. By the same token, with the oil needed to absorb fat-soluble nutrients comes extra calories … and round and round we go …

Surprisingly, the microwave might be your best bet, according to a Cornell University study cited by The New York Times. Vegetables endure shorter cooking times and less heat by that process and so more nutrients are retained. But beware, most frozen vegetable cooking instructions call for the introduction of some water and the whole water-soluble nutrient issue resurfaces. So you’re better off nuking fresh vegetables. You know, the ones that were picked too early. (And we haven’t even touched on the potentially harmful radiation from microwaves.)

Needless to say, this is pretty frustrating for health-obsessed eaters like myself. We strive to eat as many vegetables as possible, but can’t even find the best method for doing so. For the most determined, the best bet is probably to read up on the individual vegetable you’re planning to cook and figure out what’s to be gained or lost with each variable.

But I’ve come to accept a different conclusion from my extensive health-obsessed readings. For the most part, every decision we make when striving for health comes with a lot of positives, but also some drawbacks. Going overboard chasing the absolute healthiest option is typically a futile exercise. Moderation and compromise is key.

Even when it comes to eating vegetables.

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