When I was growing up canned foods were a staple in our kitchen pantry and our meals. From canned green beans and corn as a dinner side dish to salads with canned peach or pear halves topped with a scoop of cottage cheese or canned asparagus and tomato aspic on a lettuce leaf topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip, canned foods were an essential part of my life. And the can-filled meals continued with my mom’s Friday dinner rotation featuring tuna noodle casserole created with canned tuna, cream of mushroom soup and peas and her spaghetti and lasagna with canned tomatoes as a key ingredient. Back then, canned foods were normal, not berated or relegated to second-class status as they are frequently characterized today. It’s sad because canned foods boast an array of benefits that often go unrecognized. So what better time to extol the virtues of canned foods than February, National Canned Food Month.
Canned foods can…
Boost nutrition: Packed within five hours of harvest, canned fruits and vegetables are at their peak of ripeness, flavor and nutrient content. Without any oxygen in the can, their abundant supply of vitamins and minerals are locked in at their original amounts until they are opened and eaten. Studies actually show that canned foods provide as much – and sometimes even more - nutritional value as fresh ones do. This makes sense when you consider that it often takes over three weeks for fresh produce to get from the farm to the supermarket while canned and frozen ones are packed within hours of picking. Research further documents that people who eat more canned food consume more nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy and other protein foods compared to infrequent canned food users. They also have a higher intake of 17 essential nutrients including the shortfall nutrients identified in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — potassium, calcium and fiber.
Save money: Canned foods are a bargain both nutritionally and for your wallet! According to a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, USDA Economic Research Service data revealed that canned vegetables may provide a cost savings of up to 20% over fresh and have a longer shelf life.
Make meals in minutes: Already cooked, canned foods help you create meals in a flash. Canned fruits, veggies, beans and meat can serve as an ingredient in salads, sandwiches, soups, stews and casseroles. Canned vegetables are a great side, canned beans a savory main dish and canned fruit an easy dessert alone or added to yogurt or ice cream. The Cans Get You Cooking website boasts an assortment of recipes and videos to get you started. In addition, the Canned Food Alliance has recipes and an Essential Kitchen Toolkit to help you organize and stock your kitchen and plan and prepare meals.
Reduce food waste: Half of all fresh produce in the U.S. is thrown away. Produce is lost in fields, warehouses, packaging, supermarkets, restaurants and at home. In fact, most Americans throw away about 15 - 20% of the fresh fruits and vegetables they purchase every year. Foods in landfills produce methane, a greenhouse gas associated with climate change. On the other hand, the peels, cores and other inedible parts of fruits and vegetables removed during the canning process are re-used as feed for farm animals or composted. Very little is wasted. Canned foods are non-perishable and have a long shelf-life, at least two years from the date of purchase when stored in moderate temperatures of 75° F. or less. That further decreases food waste. And the cans themselves can be recycled, also lessening environmental impact.
Canned foods are not….
Highly processed: Canned foods are actually very minimally processed. After food is packed into sealed, airtight cans, heat is applied to kill microorganisms. Then the cans are heated under steam pressure at 240-250° F. for the minimum time it takes to ensure they are sterile but still retain optimum flavor and nutrition. No preservatives are added or necessary. So canned foods frequently sport some of the “cleanest” labels around. A quick look in my pantry reveals salsa style canned tomatoes with tomatoes, tomato puree, jalapeno peppers, Anaheim peppers, salt, dehydrated onion, citric acid, spices, acetic acid (vinegar), dehydrated garlic, calcium chloride; and canned pears with pears, water, pear juice from concentrate and canned Alaskan salmon with pink salmon and salt.
High in salt and sugar: Only 11% of sodium in the diet comes from vegetables, including canned forms. And just 2% of added sugar in the diet comes from fruits and vegetables, including canned ones. For those who need to reduce salt, low sodium and salt-free canned foods are readily available. Research has demonstrated that simply draining and rinsing regular canned vegetables can reduce sodium by 41% while draining alone lowers it by 36%. Less canned fruit is now packed in heavy syrup as compared to light syrup, 100% juice and no-added sugar varieties.
Lower quality than fresh: Some have the mistaken belief that canned foods are the “seconds” or lower grade than those that are sent to the fresh market. I was on a canned fruit and vegetable harvest tour in September 2017 and learned this is not true at all. The peach orchard and tomato farm we visited were grown exclusively for the cannery down the road. We literally followed the freshly-harvested produce down the road to the canning facility and watched as it was unloaded and transported through the canning process. As I mentioned earlier, these canned fruits and veggies go from field to can in less than five hours.
Unsafe due to protective linings: Can linings actually ensure the safety, quality and nutritional value of the food inside. Years of testing is conducted prior to approval of any coatings used in can linings. One coating, bisphenol A (BPA) has come under fire in recent years as a result of preliminary studies written about in the popular media. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration along with safety agencies around the globe continue to affirm its safety based on a vast body of research. FDA states on its website, “People are exposed to low levels of BPA because, like many packaging components, very small amounts of BPA may migrate from the food packaging into foods or beverages. Studies pursued by FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research have found no effects of BPA from low-dose exposure.” But due to consumer concerns about BPA many companies are using or transitioning to new can coatings without BPA.
Putting it all together
Canned foods can go back in your shopping cart and pantry and on your menu and plate. They’re nutritious, delicious, safe, convenient, non-perishable and economical. So next time you’re in the supermarket, take a stroll down the canned food aisles and stock up on some of the 1500 varieties of always-in-season, canned foods available year-round.
MS, RDN, LD, FAND
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