Growing up on small family owned dairy farm, wasting food was not an option, both from a monetary perspective and family well-being. As a small child, my father had experienced folks stopping by his family’s farm asking for food in exchange for work during the Great Depression and that image never left him. My mother grew up on a small dairy farm with her parents and grandmother so growing and preserving food was instilled in her mind at an early age as well.
For me, planting a garden and raising chickens was not a luxury or a fad for our family, it was an essential part of our daily lives. Enjoying fresh vegetables during the late spring into early fall was part of our normal way of life; as was canning and freezing the excess for the winter months. Green beans, tomatoes, tomato juice and pears (from an old tree that is still producing) were canned, while the corn, broccoli, cauliflower and peas were frozen. Food preservation was a way of life to ensure we had the freshness of vegetables in the winter and to prevent food waste. Hence, I don’t have a negative view about canned or frozen foods that we now have readily available 24/7 without the responsibility of preparing it ourselves. Perhaps it’s appropriate during the middle of winter (for many of us) to note that February was Canned Food Month, a distinction started in 1987 by the Canned Food Information Council to clear up misconceptions about the canning process. Whether it’s February, March or September, canned foods have a place in the pantry.
Commercial canning is essentially an extension of the home canning done in our own kitchens. The product is picked at the peak of freshness and canned immediately, preserving the nutrients in the food. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to experience the process in person during a tomato harvest In California. Fields are located close to the canning operation so once tomatoes are harvested, delivery to the canning operation is immediate. Tomatoes were unloaded as they arrived, washed and processed immediately with fresh addition of basil for the Italian style variations. From the time the tomatoes were harvested in a field to the finished canned product, less than four hours had elapsed! Quicker than in our own kitchens I suspect. So why the image that canned fruits and vegetables are inferior to fresh?
Let’s look at the facts. A study conducted by the University of California-Davis found that fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables each contain important nutrients and contribute to a healthy diet. Only purchasing fresh instead of canned or frozen options ignores the benefits that each option can provide. The results of the study showed that by the time food is consumed, fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables may have similar nutritional value to fresh options. In fact, due to the heat from the cooking process, some canned foods are actually more nutritious than their fresh and frozen counterparts, such as tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, carrots, spinach and peaches. Canned tomatoes actually contain significantly higher quantities of the essential phytochemical lycopene than fresh ones.
When it comes to reducing food waste, canned food is a great solution. Fruits and vegetables have a shelf life of one to two years, while meat and poultry will keep at their optimal quality two to five years. High acid foods such as tomatoes and oranges can be stored up to 18 months. Just a reminder, these shelf life time frames apply IF the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place (under 75 degrees F). If you have containers that show possible “botulism” warnings such as leaking, bulging or badly dented cans; cracked jars or jars with loose or bulging lids; or any container that spurts liquid when opening, throw it out. However, these situations are rare.
Now back to my kitchen to prepare my favorite chicken barley soup, using the convenience of canned chicken, broth, green beans and diced tomatoes, dried herbs and barley, and fresh carrots and celery – a winning combination of taste, convenience and nutritional value. So perhaps we need to press “pause” on the thought that “fresh is best” only when fruits and vegetables are purchased in the produce aisle. As we have seen, quality depends more on the season and growing location. Factor in convenience and less food waste and it is clear that sometimes the best option may be on your pantry shelf.
My Canned Food Favorites:
- Tomatoes – diced, sauce and paste
- Green Beans
- Fruit – avoid added sugar or rinse and drain before eating
- Tuna and Salmon
- Beans – all types including black, pinto, chickpeas
- Juice – tomato and apple