If you are a frequent consumer of health information, you have probably heard the recommendation to “eat fresh food” quite often. But what does that actually mean? The term “fresh,” when used on the label or in labeling of a food in a manner that suggests or implies that the food is unprocessed, means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation.
Are “fresh foods” always the healthiest? Not always.
Let’s compare fresh produce versus canned or frozen. Fruits and vegetables can easily lose some nutrients and flavor when subjected to time and temperature. For example, during the middle of winter berries from South America travel thousands of miles to get to your grocery store, and it takes days, if not weeks to arrive on those grocery store shelves. Vitamins and minerals are easily lost through this process. On the other hand, berries that are frozen at the time of picking are spared some of these vitamins and mineral losses. Therefore, frozen fruits and vegetables sometimes contain more nutrients, making them a healthier choice.
Fresh food may still mean it has been slightly processed. Just because a food is free of thermal processing to preserve that food doesn’t mean that it is free of all processing. Fruits and vegetables that are not frozen or canned may have the addition of approved waxes or coatings, the post-harvest use of approved pesticides, the application of a mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash on produce, or even ionizing radiation.
When discussing fresh foods over processed foods, the term fresh can be seen more as a social descriptor and not as a finite definition. To many people, fresh foods are foods that haven’t been overly processed in order to extend its shelf life. And to some, fresh food can mean a tomato and lettuce right out of the garden. Yet others, fresh can mean a home-cooked meal.
No matter if you use the label definition of "fresh" or you've come up with
your own definition of what fresh means to you, what matters is overall dietary pattern. Fruits and vegetables do not always have to be free of processing to be healthy. There are plenty of frozen, canned and dried varieties that offer a host of nutrients. Additionally, some of the healthiest foods at the grocery store, like ancient grains, do not require freshness to be healthy.
Some consumers may get too caught up in searching for the freshest foods, while missing out on the big picture when it comes to health. It's important to combine your definition of fresh with both balance and variety for optimal health.
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