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Is a Canned Vegetable a Phony Vegetable?

Do these green beans from six years ago pack any kind of nutritional punch whatsoever?

I received a peek behind the nutritional curtain early in life. As a member of my elementary school’s safety squad assigned to kitchen duty while wearing the fluorescent orange sash, I was directly involved with the heating of school lunches, including the rectangular slabs of that pathetic cheesy dough we called “pizza,” and the towering (at least to my elementary school eyes) cans of corn, green beans, peas and mixed vegetables that were strained, heated and spooned into the side-dish segments of every cafeteria tray. Even then, I recall thinking that none of it looked particularly appetizing, and in the steamy confines of the MacArthur Elementary School kitchen, none of it smelled particularly appetizing either.

The taste? As far as I was concerned, all vegetables were created equal, which is to say I’d been inculcated to accept them as a necessary evil. If a food item didn’t cause a sugary party to erupt in my mouth in a manner similar to chocolate milk, I wasn’t interested. At the same time, I could imagine my mother’s Bahamian accent echoing in my mind, chiding me for wasting her hard-earned money by not eating the lunches she paid to provide me with, so I’d consume every single kernel of corn on the tray — even after watching the cover of the can be removed to reveal the opaque, milky water the corn had been resting in for months, possibly years.

What is the deal with canned vegetables? Are they healthy?

Let’s clarify some terms: Are you asking if the vegetables are healthy in an absolute sense, or are you willing to accept that they’re “healthy” with an asterisk or two?

We can begin with the most obvious detriment in the canning process — the practice of storing vegetables in water. There are nine water-soluble vitamins, including all eight of the B vitamins and vitamin C. Boiling vegetables in water will cause a sizable portion of the water-soluble vitamins contained within them to leach out into the surrounding water, but the initial storage of canned vegetables in water is already likely to cause the instantaneous loss of around 10 to 15 percent of those water-soluble nutrients

However, the canning of vegetables in water is an immediate prelude to them being heated in order to kill lingering bacteria — in a process called “appertization” — which absolutely furthers the leaching of nutrients. Moreover, vegetables stored in water are frequently heated in that same water prior to serving, leading to a total water-soluble nutrient loss of between 30 and 40 percent. This is far from tragic, but is also a characteristic of certain vegetables you should be aware of if you’re doing your level best to account for all of your essential micronutrients through food intake.

Aren’t there preservatives in those cans as well?

Surprisingly, the answer to that question is “almost never.” If you look at most cans of vegetables, like green beans, carrots, corn and so forth, the ingredients typically list the name of the primary product on the label, followed by “water” and nothing else.

This is because the appertization process is usually sufficient to preserve the vegetables up until their listed expiration date, so there’s rarely anything riding shotgun alongside your canned veggies that’s difficult to pronounce, or that your body might have some sort of bizarre reaction to.

So, that’s it? Canned vegetables are healthy?

They may not be as inherently healthy as fresh vegetables at the height of their ready-to-eat freshness, but even that belief doesn’t always comport with reality. Most canned vegetables are selected at the peak of ripeness before they’re canned, which can spare you the embarrassment and misfortune of selecting a “fresh” vegetable that hasn’t fully ripened yet, or is hiding its inner spoilage between an ostensibly ripe exterior.

Interestingly, a study comparing the behaviors of frequent canned food eaters with infrequent canned food eaters definitively demonstrated that frequent canned food eaters were far more likely to achieve the recommended daily nutrient requirements as dictated by the Food and Drug Administration. Frequent canned food eaters were also more likely to prepare fresh foods as well. 

In other words, there is little need to fret over the person who enjoys canned corn, because they’re also likely to regularly consume fresh fruits and vegetables as well, even if they don’t stick to a 100-percent-fresh-food nutrition plan. The type of person who purchases the value pack of Del Monte green beans is the sort of person who is veggie conscious, and who is also likely to keep green peppers and onions on hand to dice and distribute within each morning’s western omelet

Cut to the chase! Are canned vegetables healthy or not?

When rated against everything you’re likely to substitute for them — like Lay’s Potato Chips, Doritos or Kraft Macaroni and Cheeseyes, canned vegetables are undeniably healthier. If you’re the type of person who would look at a canned vegetable, dismiss it as unhealthy solely because it’s canned, and then eat Five Guys French Fries instead, you haven’t done yourself any favors whatsoever. The only way the canned vegetable could be worse for you than the fries would be if you ate the literal can, which is something even a goat is reluctant to do.

If you’ve been avoiding canned vegetables because a friend of yours convinced you years ago that they’re unhealthy, I want you to invite that friend over, serve them a delicious six-vegetable chicken stew you cooked in a crockpot, and make sure you use only canned vegetables. When it’s over, tell them you decided to take the high road by serving them a nutritious meal of all-canned veggies to indicate that you harbor no ill will over all of the bullshit they’ve been feeding you for years.