If you need to restock your vegetables and fruit, the gleaming fresh produce section of your local grocery store might seem like the obvious next step. But research implies that if you’re skipping the frozen food aisle, you’re doing a disservice to your health, the environment, and your wallet. Read on to learn more about the benefits and caveats of purchasing, preparing, and eating frozen food.
Frozen food often gets a bad rap due to misconceptions about it not tasting as good or being as nutritious, but in many cases, frozen food is the better choice for both taste and nutritional value. A study by the Austrian Consumer Society found that the nutritional content of some frozen domestic produce was higher than that of imported produce, due to premature harvesting and transportation.1 Premature harvesting forces the product to ripen in subpar conditions, such as during transport or in cold storage, which depletes its nutritional value and flavor.1 This adds to the problem of food waste as 40% of all food in the U.S. is left uneaten or discarded, costing the United States $162 billion a year.2
In the food industry, food is frozen most often through flash-freezing, a process that involves washing and then freezing food at extremely cold temperatures. Flash-freezing solves both the problem of food waste and nutrient retention by harvesting at the peak of ripeness and quickly freezing it individually, rather than in clusters or chunks. This way, the foods retain their cellular integrity, preserving nutrients and flavor.3 This preservation technique helps the produce stay fresher for longer and allows for better portion control.1 Consumers can then buy more of the product and store it for longer periods of time without having to worry about it going bad, and can use only what they need.
Vegetables differ slightly in that they need to be blanched before they’re flash-frozen. Blanching means the food is submerged in boiling water to kill off bacteria, remove impurities, and preserve its nutritional content.4 However, not all products will state whether the product has been flash-frozen.3 Check for signs that the food has thawed and refrozen by feeling through the packaging for small pieces of ice and whether the produce is whole and unbroken. The less ice, the more likely the produce has retained its flavor, freshness, and nutritional value.5
Frozen meals are another convenient option for those who lack the time and energy to cook regular meals. With the popularity of frozen food increasing, there is a wide variety of different meals and cuisines, such as Indian, Caribbean, Thai, and Mexican. The most important thing to consider when buying frozen meals is their nutritional content. Look for meals that contain the following:
Be wary of frozen meals labeled as “family-sized,” which can potentially lead to overeating if you’re buying only for yourself.6 Another way to make frozen meals work for you is to supplement them with the food you already have at home. Instead of preparing an entire meal from scratch, take advantage of healthy frozen options, such as creamed spinach or broccoli, and pair it with a home-cooked protein, like grilled chicken.6
A University of Georgia study, done in partnership with the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI), found that frozen produce was either equally or more nutritious than fresh, never-frozen produce. Folate, vitamin A, and vitamin C levels were higher in frozen food than in their nonfrozen counterparts.7 A similar University of California, Davis study, also partnered with AFFI, analyzed four vitamins, riboflavin, beta-carotene, ascorbic acid, and a-tocopherol, in a select group of frozen and nonfrozen fruit and vegetables. Results were similar to the University of Georgia study; vitamin levels in the frozen group were either equal to or higher than in the nonfrozen group, except beta-carotene, which decreased significantly in the frozen group.8
While there might be bias in these studies due to the relationship between the universities and AFFI, a lobbyist group, similar results were found in other studies on the benefits of frozen food. A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study found that fresh spinach begins to degrade quickly, losing much of its nutritional value the longer it spends in storage. Folate, a vitamin abundant in spinach and essential for pregnant women, can decrease by as much as 53% within eight days in a 39-degree Fahrenheit refrigerator. If kept in warmer conditions, it loses its nutritional value much faster. The colder the spinach was kept, the longer its nutritional value lasted.9
Frozen foods can also reduce exposure to artificial preservatives, particularly in frozen organic produce. However, this may not be the case for frozen meals, which can still contain both artificial preservatives and additives. The smaller the list of ingredients, the more likely you are to be getting whole foods in your frozen meal.6
Before being frozen, produce is thoroughly washed and agitated to remove impurities and pesticides. Therefore, pesticide exposure through frozen food is lower than through nonfrozen food.10 However, some research suggests that the differences in pre-freeze processing contribute to inconsistent levels of ice formation, vitamin retention, and pesticide residue across different brands. More research needs to be done on the most effective way to reduce pesticides and preserve vitamins in frozen produce.11
Frozen food varies in price, but on average, it’s up to 50% cheaper than nonfrozen food. This doesn’t mean you should switch to completely frozen produce, but simply buy what you regularly use. If certain produce is in season, buy it fresh and local. Otherwise, go for an available frozen option. The following frozen foods are just as nutritious, if not more so, than their nonfrozen counterparts and will last longer in your freezer:10
Understanding how to prepare frozen food is critical in ensuring your health and safety. Many foodborne illnesses, such as listeriosis (listeria), are caused by improper handling and consumption of frozen foods. Just because pre-freeze processing of vegetables often includes blanching them, it does not mean they are safe to consume out of the bag.12 Vegetables must be cooked to a safe internal temperature, usually between 165 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, before they’re safe to consume.
The AFFI claims that frozen fruits may prevent the growth of bacteria due to their acidity and sugar content; however, this is not always the case.13 Between 1997 and 2016, there were four outbreaks of norovirus and hepatitis A linked to frozen berries in the United States. Frozen berries were also the cause of a massive hepatitis A outbreak in Europe between 2013 and 2014, which affected more than 1,500 people.14
To ensure safe consumption, cook your frozen fruit to 200 degrees Fahrenheit before using it in smoothies or other recipes. Though the risk of foodborne illness through frozen fruit is low, it’s not impossible and certainly not worth the risk.14 Frozen meals must always be cooked according to the instructions on the packaging; anything less may risk your health. Here’s a guide on frozen food safety practices from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The frozen food aisle has a lot to offer, from fruits and vegetables picked at the peak of ripeness to fully prepared meals simply needing to be baked or reheated to enjoy. At the very least, good quality frozen meals are a convenient solution when time is short. At best, frozen foods provide more nutrition with fewer pesticides than fresh, never-frozen foods and are both more affordable and eco-friendly. Although there is room for improvement, research is constantly evolving, and new methods are currently in development that will make freezing food more efficient, healthier, and safer.
Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Beloveshkin, A. Expert Talks Nutritional Value of Frozen Fruits and Vegetables. (2019, September 27). Verv. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://verv.com/doctor-talks-nutritional-value-of-frozen-fruits-and-vegetables/.
The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI). (n.d.). Frozen: A Food Waste Solution. The Frozen Advantage. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://frozenadvantage.org/frozen-a-food-waste-solution/.
Williams, V. (2019, November 20). Mayo Clinic Minute: Benefits of flash-frozen produce. Mayo Clinic News Network. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-benefits-of-flash-frozen-produce/.
Andress, E., & Harrison, J. (2014). How Do I? Freeze. National Center for Home Food Preservation. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/blanching.html.
Drayer, L. (2019, May 30). Why frozen fruit and veggies may be better for you than fresh. CNN. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/30/health/frozen-fruit-vegetables-drayer-food/index.html.
8 Ways to Find the Best Frozen Meals (2021, December 20). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/8-ways-to-find-the-best-and-avoid-the-worst-frozen-meals/.
Lishan, L., Pegg, R., Eitenmiller, R., Chun, J., & Kerrihard, A. (2017, June). Selected nutrient analyses of fresh, fresh-stored, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, 59, 8-17. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0889157517300418.
Bouzari, A., Holstege, D., & Barrett, D. (2015, January 13). Vitamin Retention in Eight Fruits and Vegetables: A Comparison of Refrigerated and Frozen Storage. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 63(3), 957–962. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jf5058793.
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Food Science. (2005, March 18). Storage time and temperature effects nutrients in spinach. The Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://www.psu.edu/news/research/story/storage-time-and-temperature-effects-nutrients-spinach/.
Warnert, J. (2013, September 30). Don't shun frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. University of California - Agriculture and Natural Resources. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://ucanr.edu/NEWS/?routeName=newsstory&postnum=11618.
Samsel, K., & Meghani, A. (2021, July 23). The Effects of Commercial Freezing on Vitamin Concentrations in Spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Journal of Undergraduate Life Sciences, 15(1), 9. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/juls/article/view/37032.
Loria, K. (2022, March 28). Staying safe with frozen fruits and veggies. The Washington Post. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/28/frozen-fruits-veggies-nutrition/.
The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI). (n.d.). How to Safely Enjoy Frozen Fruits and Vegetables. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from, https://frozenadvantage.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Difference-Fruits-Veg-V5.pdf.
Squires, S. (2019, July 31). As the FDA examines food safety in frozen produce, here’s how to take extra precautions at home. The Washington Post. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/voraciously/wp/2019/07/31/frozen-fruits-and-vegetables-can-carry-foodborne-illnesses-heres-how-to-avoid-them/.