The coronavirus pandemic has led to significant lifestyle changes for just about all of us, not the least of which involves the way we are eating. People who previously relied on restaurants have been learning to cobble together meals at home, while seasoned cooks have been reinventing favorite recipes using fewer fresh ingredients and more processed foods. It’s no wonder, then, that canned foods joined toilet paper and hand sanitizer as some of the most coveted and stockpiled items in America.
Watch out for sodium and sugar
Be aware–especially if you have high blood pressure–that canned foods are typically high in added salt (which is 40 percent sodium, 60 percent chloride). But low-sodium and no-salt-added options are increasingly easy to find. While salt can act as a preservative, it is not required in canned food because the canning process does the preserving. Instead, salt is added to enhance flavor, appearance, consistency, and texture (so you don’t end up with mush). If you can’t find low-sodium or no-salt-added canned beans and vegetables, you can drain the liquid from the cans and rinse the food with water to lower the sodium.
Also keep in mind that added sugar is an issue in most canned fruit. For instance, a half-cup serving of Del Monte canned sliced pears in heavy syrup has 14 grams of added sugar, in the form of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and corn syrup—equivalent to about 3.5 teaspoons of sugar. The “lite” version has less, but still about a teaspoon of added sugar per serving. Look for no-sugar added canned fruit that’s packed in water instead of syrup.
Similar to frozen fruits and vegetables, produce destined for a canning facility is typically processed at peak quality within hours of being harvested, thereby locking in many of its nutrients. In contrast, fresh produce frequently travels over long distances (often under less-than-ideal conditions) before getting to you. During this transit stage—and any storage period thereafter, whether in the supermarket or at home—nutrients are diminished, many of which are preserved in a similar canned item.
A review in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture in 2007 did report that the initial heat treatment of canned foods causes loss of some nutrients, including vitamin C and B vitamins. But the levels subsequently stabilized, meaning that there were no further nutrient losses after canning, owing to the lack of oxygen in the can (compared to fresh produce, which continues to lose nutrients over time). Moreover, the nutritional profile of certain foods actually benefits from being canned. For instance, canned pumpkin has even more nutrients and carotenoids, ounce for ounce, than fresh because the heat processing eliminates much of the water (making it more concentrated) and releases the carotenoids from the cell wall “matrix” so they are more readily available. The same is true for canned tomatoes and carrots.
Beyond the can
If your ability to shop for fresh food is limited, canned products can be one of your best go-tos for protein-rich foods, as well as for vegetables and fruits, as long as you read the nutrition labels and check the ingredients. But you should also stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables (without sauces or other ingredients that add lots of sodium, fat, or sugar). And don’t forget other shelf-stable foods, including whole grains (such as brown rice, quinoa, and whole-wheat pasta) and packaged milks (dairy or nondairy) and low-sodium broth, as well as nuts, nut butters, and seeds; these do not require refrigeration, though cold temperatures prolong freshness and slow rancidity in high-fat foods like nuts and seeds.