It is no secret that vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. But with so many options at the grocery store, how can you tell which ones to buy? This can be quite the nutritional puzzle. Is it best to buy fresh, or can you get just as many nutrients when you buy frozen? Then, once you get them home, what is the best way to prepare them?

There are many benefits of both fresh and frozen vegetables. We can all appreciate the convenience of frozen produce, but do you get more bang for your buck with fresh veggies when nutrition is the deciding factor?

The recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables is nine servings, but only one in 10 Americans are eating that amount. So, when it comes down to it, any vegetable is better than no vegetable at all. So, let's dive into the benefits of both fresh and frozen veggies, and get some ideas on the best way to incorporate each into your diet.

Fresh Vegetables

fresh fruit and vegetables at a grocery store
Fresh produce is often more expensive than frozen. Wikimedia Commons

The conventional wisdom is that uncooked, fresh produce is the most nutritious, but that can actually vary from food to food. Veggies with high amounts of vitamins B and C are good eaten fresh and raw because those vitamins are water-soluble, which means that cooking them can result in the vitamins draining from the food.

Leafy green veggies like spinach are high in vitamin B, and foods high in vitamin C include chili peppers, guavas, kale, broccoli, kiwi, oranges, strawberries, and lemons.

In the fresh versus frozen debate, the type of veggie is important. Brassica vegetables -- like kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts -- are typically better fresh than frozen because the fresh variety retains more antioxidants and phytochemicals.

Other veggies that are good to grab from the produce section include carrots, beets, asparagus, artichokes, green beans, and peas. Steaming (with little amounts of water), roasting, or grilling are the best methods to get the most nutrients out of each food, but you can also pop them in the microwave because studies show that the microwave has little effect on the nutritional quality of fruits and veggies. It is best, however, to avoid stir-frying, since that method decreases key nutrients.

It is worth noting that fresh produce is not immune to nutrient loss. As soon as a fruit or vegetable is harvested, it starts to release heat and lose water, which impacts the foods' nutritional quality. They are usually picked before they are ripe, and that means less time to develop a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals.

After going through pest-control treatment, transportation, handling, and time, fresh produce can end up losing half of its original amount of nutrients by the time it hits store shelves. So, when it comes down to it, the best time to buy fresh vegetables is when they are in season (preferably at a farmer's market), and only if you can buy them ripe. Otherwise, it is better to go with a frozen option.

Frozen Vegetables

frozen vegetable stir-fry
Vegetable stir-fry is one of the most popular options in the frozen vegetable section. Nitr/Shutterstock

If you must rely on frozen veggies because of their convenience or lower price, you are in luck because studies show that frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts, if not more so. Just after harvest, fresh fruits and vegetables start producing enzymes which can cause a loss of color, flavor, and nutrients. But, if you freeze them at peak ripeness, you can deactivate the enzyme and leave the food packed with more nutrients.

Frozen fruits and veggies are also much more flexible than the fresh variety. You can use them for a much more extended period of time, so you can avoid having to go to the store every few days to pick up fresh produce. People who buy frozen fruits and veggies tend to consume more produce than those who don't because it is so easy to eat when you stock your freezer with pre-washed and pre-cut items and then throw them in the microwave.

Foods high in vitamin A, vitamin E, and carotenoids can be better frozen because they are more stable during processing and storage. Foods high in vitamin A and E include sweet potatoes, squash, and collards.

But, be sure to be careful when you are prepping frozen vegetables. If you thaw frozen veggies before cooking, it can speed up vitamin C losses in foods like spinach, peas, okra, and green beans.

As with fresh veggies, steaming, grilling, or roasting are the best cooking options, and you want to use as little water as possible. Also, go easy on the temperature and let your veggies cook for a longer time.

fresh fruit at a grocery store
Whether fresh or frozen, try and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables on a daily basis. Flickr / davidburn

As for frozen fruit, they are not blanched because it could affect texture, but they can be filled with sugar or treated with ascorbic acid to prevent spoiling. So, it is quite common for frozen fruits to have even more sugar than their fresh counterparts. However, frozen fruits and berries are a great filler for protein shakes, and once you thaw them out, they are great to add to oatmeal and yogurt.

And, if you are wondering about canned fruits and veggies, they tend to lose a ton of nutrients during the preservation process, plus they are loaded with salt.

What have we learned? The highest quality fresh fruits and vegetables are from your own garden or farmer's market. If you opt for a supermarket, though, the fresh produce may have fewer nutrients than the frozen fruits and veggies.

In addition to having more nutrients, the frozen variety is also cheaper and more convenient, allowing you to skip the chopping step.

However, to get the best range of nutrients, it is best to mix both frozen produce with fresh. And remember, you can cook both kinds the exact same way, just don't allow the frozen veggies to thaw first.

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