By: Austin Perlmutter, MD, Medical Student, Miller School of Medicine
When it comes to mealtime, most of us prefer a meal made from fresh produce to its frozen equivalent. But in today’s whirlwind of obligations and timetables, that’s not always a viable option. Luckily, frozen food has come a long way in taste and practicality, contributing to the 224.74 billion dollar annual global market for the products. Supermarkets highlight rows and rows of attractive ready-to-heat appetizers, side dishes, entrees and desserts, and for many of us, this can be an excellent way to stock up on healthful foods. However, the frozen food department may also be a dangerous place for the health-conscious. Here are the 5 things you need to know to navigate frozen foods successfully:
- Buy real foods: The easiest way to successfully buy healthy frozen food is to ensure that you know what you’re buying. For example, if you’re buying strawberries, read the label to make sure the only ingredient is strawberry. The healthiest options in the frozen food section, like the fresh food section, will always be whole, unadulterated foods.
- Get the most bang for your buck: Vegetables and fruits can be frozen at the peak of their season, and some data shows that these frozen versions can have higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin C and other important nutrients than their fresh counterparts. Because these foods can be effectively stored when they are most abundant, you can buy larger quantities for less. In addition, opened frozen food won’t spoil as quickly as fresh food, leading to less waste at home, and more savings.
- Read the labels: Marketing and food science have enabled frozen food to approach fresh meals in palatability. But this taste comes at a cost. While freshly cooked entrees can rely on the naturally occurring tastes of the foods, frozen entrees are usually heavily modified to achieve the same level of consumer enjoyment. This means tons of added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. For example, FDA data showed that 80 percent of frozen breakfast products contain trans fat. Ingredients you can understand are always better than scientific jargon.
- Serving size control: Frozen food plays a clever trick on us with its packaging. We heat a meal knowing it’s designed for one person’s consumption, and therefore consume the entire thing. Dishes that emphasize carbohydrates and cheeses are among the highest in calories, and are worthwhile to avoid. On the other side of the spectrum, meals that promote low calorie content are probably not giving you much in the way of nutrition, and instead you’re paying for empty space.
- The rules haven’t changed: Frozen food is great because it’s so convenient. When we get home late, or need a quick meal on the go, it’s readily on hand. But the same rules that apply to any meal are still valid here. Eating a frozen pizza, whether it’s “all natural” or “deep dish extra cheese” is still eating a pizza. Likewise, don’t think that because your frozen meal includes a small dessert that it’s somehow different from any other apple pie. Frozen snacks may be easy to thaw, but if they’re chicken nuggets and fried mozzarella sticks, they’re not doing you any health favors.