Is Canned Food Healthy?
We have the army and navy to thank for canned food. Canning started as a way to preserve food and extend the shelf life for troops–it's cooked and treated to prevent spoiling. In the United States and around the world, people used to rely on this processed food as a cheap and convenient way to keep their pantries full year-round, but it's gotten a bad reputation in the last century or so. What people might not know is that not only is canned food safe to eat, cheap and convenient, but some of it is also quite healthy.
"While some vegetables and legumes lose nutrients in the canning process, others actually see their healthy compounds increase," says Gene Lester, Ph.D., a research plant physiologist at the USDA's Food Quality Lab in Beltsville, MD. That's because commercially canned food calls for heating, which causes certain raw vegetables, such as corn and tomatoes, to release antioxidants and make them more available. Plus, a few years ago, the journal Nutrition & Food Sciences reported that canned often is better than fresh in terms of price, prep time and food waste. But a more recent study showed people who eat a lot of canned food have healthier eating habits and have higher nutrient intakes. Read on for what makes some canned food healthier than others.
Black, kidney and pinto beans are great ways to add flavor, fiber and protein to soups and casseroles. "Nutritionally, beans do lose folate in the canning process, but the calcium and iron content of canned beans is similar to those you soak and cook at home," says Lester. Since sodium levels spike in canning, Lester suggests simply forgoing adding salt to your dish. The EatingWell Test Kitchen recommends rinsing all canned beans, which can remove up to 35 percent of the sodium.
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When researchers analyzed the nutrients and prep time of canned corn, they found that it delivers the same amount of dietary fiber as fresh at a 25 percent cost savings. The downside: canned corn does lose vitamin C during canning. "To help counteract that, I like to squeeze fresh lemon juice on my canned corn. It brightens flavor and brings some of the vitamin C back," says Lester. Despite the C loss, extended heating during canning actually boosts corn's antioxidant activity, according to a report in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.
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Don't have an hour to turn a whole pumpkin into pie filling? If not, here's a reason to opt for canned: pumpkin is a rich source of carotenoids, which are made more available through cooking and canning, according to Lester. Also, when pumpkin is concentrated, the canning process pumps up its calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamin K.
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Thick-walled plum tomatoes hold up the best during the preservation process and can provide surprising health benefits that even fresh don't offer. Tomatoes are preserved using heat, which releases lycopene-a carotenoid that may help prevent prostate and breast cancer. And you can't beat their convenience. They come whole, diced and crushed (to name just a few renditions), so you can skip all the chopping and pureeing you do when using fresh.
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Think Outside the Can
Bisphenol A (BPA), an ingredient that's often used to coat food cans, is a known endocrine disruptor. While the Environmental Protection Agency still deems cans "safe," it is encouraging other options. Look for "BPA-free" packaging when possible-or use aseptic pouches and glass jars.