Fresh is fresh… or is it?
Packaged fruit and vegetables have a long journey from the farmer’s field to the consumer’s trolley. They are picked, refrigerated, washed, decontaminated with chlorine or irradiated, packaged and transported thousands of miles - and all the while the vitamin content is diminishing.
Some producers compensate for this nutrient loss by coating their produce in a vitamin and mineral dip. One such dip for apples and pears - patented in 1999 and marketed as NatureSeal - was hailed by its creators as a way to boost shelf-life and tackle the obesity crisis.
But many consumers are unaware that their bag of ‘fresh-cut’ apple slices could be several weeks old and that its vitamin content is artificially added.
So are manufacturers misleading consumers about the naturalness of their food - or is this a reasonable compromise to ensure consumers get the vitamins they want?
Opinions are mixed. Journalist and author Joanna Blytheman believes that consumers are being fooled.
“The minute that you involve refrigeration, use modified atmosphere packaging, or do things that involve cutting and breaking down cell structures [of fruit and vegetables], you are … manipulating the very idea of freshness,” she said.
“It is not about being genuinely fresh; it’s about creating this ‘fresh-like’ quality.”
Yet Priya Tew from the British Dietetic Association sees it as a necessary concession.
“There has to be a compromise sometimes and I would say that if this system [of vitamin-coating fresh cut produce] helps people to eat more vegetables and is a safe practise then it is good.”
Fresh vs frozen
A 2013 study found that frozen fruits and vegetables often outperform fresh for vitamins – but not minerals - as nutrients are degraded by enzymatic and oxidative mechanisms.
The study compared the nutrients in fresh and frozen blueberries, strawberries, broccoli, green beans, corn, spinach, cauliflower, and green peas. Frozen came out top for vitamin A, folate and vitamin C levels even when compared with fresh produce tested on the day of purchase.
Lead researcher Ronald Pegg said “If you put fresh produce into the refrigerator, this vegetable or fruit is a living material—it respires, there’s oxidation and enzymes operating. It degrades over time and loses nutrients. That’s normal and to be expected.
“Freezing in essence is nature’s pause button. It maintains freshness in what we call fresh foods, slows down enzymatic reactions, increases the time it takes for anything to degrade.”
‘Better than nothing’
In the meantime, Priya Tew said that fresh-cut produce is still better than nothing.
“The optimal way to get the best out of your fruit and vegetables is to grow your own or get it from a local farm/greengrocer. However this is not always possible or convenient.
“Buying packaged fruit and vegetables is much better than not eating them at all; they are still packed with nutrition and full of fibre.”