Maintaining a healthy diet is hard in mainstream America. We are lambasted with ads for fast-food restaurants and easy prep meals for the home. All of this processed food, we have since learned, is terrible for you. Now it seems this convenience has taken over our produce as well. But are pre-cut and prepackaged fruits and vegetables as good for you as their unscathed, whole, counterparts?
Eatng fruits and vegetables is certainly better than reaching for a sugar-laden snack or processed frozen chicken nuggets. However, prepackaged fruits and vegetables have a few negative effects compared to whole, fresh produce purchased locally. If you do purchase prepackaged produce, you should take precautions and wash them yourself at home even though most claim to have been prewashed. As with anything in modern society, there comes a price from convenience. Prepackaged produce, despite its healthy intentions, falls prey to this edict.
With kids and parents', busy schedules, it's hard to create a healthy family meal at the same time every night. Even single men and women, who don't have soccer practices and dance lessons, still have commutes and a 40 hour work week that is exhausting. Looking into the pantry and fridge at a whole host of ingredients can be daunting because you have to not only figure out what meal to make, but then actually execute the recipe.
Convenience meals, therefore, despite being more expensive, have been introduced to reduce the time and energy spent on making meals. It's no wonder that as we become more health conscious, the healthiest of all food groups would follow suit. In theory, prepackaged and pre-cut vegetables are meant to give you healthy, convenient options when your stomach is grumbling or you have to cook something in 20 minutes.
Think of peeled or sliced produce as ones that have been damaged and cut like a part of your body. Some of the same ill-effects that can occur with your wound can happen to fruits and veggies. When the skin of an apple or carrot is removed, it's protective outer layer is removed thus exposing it to all kind of microbes and oxidation. E. coli and salmonella are the most common bacteria associated with contaminated foods. According The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, oxidation of produce causes them to lose nutritional value. The longer it is exposed to the air, the more nutrients escape.
Slicing the whole vegetable into little bits exposes more of the core to the air which increases surfaces that can be damaged. For this reason, fruits and veggies that have been sliced into finer pieces have a higher risk of being contaminated.
Furthermore, food scientists Catherine Barry-Ryan and David O'Beirne discovered in their study that vegetables which have been handled by dull blades as opposed to sharp razors contributed to the increased risk of exposure. This is more likely to occur is mass markets where regular maintenance of instruments is less likely to occur. They also discovered that hand-tearing vegetables was the best way to limit exposure.
Buying vegetables whole and skipping the handy produce plastic bags is the best way to keep the carbon footprint at a minimum. Prepackaged vegetables require, well, extra packaging which usually consists of plastics that don't decompose. Ready-to-go salads are super easy. You just open the plastic bag of sliced lettuce, open up the plastic bag full of extras (nuts and dried fruits), open the plastic bag of croutons, then open the plastic bag full of salad dressing. This is a whole lot of waste when compared to making your salad at home: whole head of lettuce from store taken in a reusable bag, accoutrements in bigger packages get more uses without garnering more packaging, and the same goes with salad dressing in recyclable bottles.
Some grocery stores will package produce in-house which still uses unnecessary materials but don't contribute to the negative environmental effects caused by transporting mass-produced packaged vegetables and fruits. When you purchase any food that isn't grown locally, that food needs to be put on a truck and driven hundreds of miles which increases carbon dioxide emissions.
Prepackaged foods require that more humans touch them as they go through several steps to get them nice and tidy. With more handling comes more exposure. You are trusting each human is wearing sterile gloves and masks and using super sharp instruments to give the food the smallest percentage of exposure as possible. Humans also contribute to other germs than food-based bacteria. If a person is sick, they can transfer that illness to you.
Modern society gives us many convenient options for foods. Eating local and fresh produce and meats is the optimal choice. Make sure you handle the packaged produce the same way you would with non-packaged: wash properly and store in the refrigerator. Pre-packaged fruits and veggies, despite being the second best option due to increased risk of germs and loss of nutritional value, is still better than a high-fructose superficially nutritional candy bar.