End the stigma against canned and frozen vegetables

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Stigma against canned and frozen produce is reflective of systemic discrimination toward communities that do not have access, physically or financially, to fresh fruits and vegetables  — and it’s coming at a cost to many individuals’ health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults eat at least 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit per day and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day. But in 2015, the CDC found that only 12% of adult Americans consume the recommended amount of fruit and only 9% consume the recommended serving of vegetables. These numbers decrease even further for men, young adults and adults living in poverty.

The shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables varies, but frozen and canned foods tend to last longer. For many, buying canned and frozen fruits and vegetables is the most affordable, sustainable and healthy option. And yet grocery stores seem to propagate an organic lifestyle that steers the rhetoric of healthy eating in favor of fresh, and often more expensive, options.

Let’s look at Whole Foods, which seems to promote the idea that everything has to be organic, natural and fresh for it to be healthy. Looking at their website’s Mission and Values page, the colors are bright, the flowers are lively and images of huge fields with friendly farmers are plastered across the screen. Cans and frozen packages of food seem nonexistent, along with the factories where most food must be packaged, leaving out any sort of processing the food may undergo.

This marketing approach does not intentionally discriminate against communities who cannot consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and some would even say it promotes better eating habits. It suggests, however, that eating freshly picked and organic produce is the only way to eat healthy, excluding a multitude of options for people to obtain produce of equal nutritional value and reach their recommended daily intakes at a lower cost. This might discourage communities without access to fresh produce from purchasing canned food, as those options often aren’t presented as healthy and nutritious.

Studies have found that while canning fruits and vegetables can lower the amount of water-soluble and thermally labile nutrients, cooking fresh and frozen food can also lower nutritional content. In fact, canned foods often have higher fiber availability, or more useful fiber, while properly packaged or processed fruit and vegetables can be just as healthy, or even healthier, than fresh ones. 

Perhaps more importantly, consumer costs for canned vegetables can total as little as 50% of the costs of frozen alternatives and 20% of the cost of fresh alternatives, all without compromising nutrition.

The stigma around canned and frozen food is subliminally presented by some companies through the use of sin-talk, focusing fault on individuals who consume canned or frozen food instead of the larger system that determines the accessibility or cost of fresh food. 

One of Whole Foods’ missions is to set a standard of excellence for food retailers, stating that quality is “a state of mind.” Having access to supermarkets that sell fresh produce at prices a community can afford, however, isn’t a state of mind: It’s a privilege.

Beyond brand messaging is the problem of equity. Access to healthy food is not equitable, which is reflected by the positive correlation between socioeconomic status and the quantity of fruits and vegetables an individual consumes. Areas dominated by white, class-privileged populations are linked to better access to healthier food while residents of low-income, minority and rural neighborhoods are most often affected by a lack of access to supermarkets.

This disparity may be attributed to food deserts. Food deserts refer to places that have no supermarkets nearby, in turn making access to healthy food difficult and more expensive — particularly if reaching supermarkets requires transportation. Instead, options such as fast food and liquor stores become more accessible.

While supermarkets tend to offer produce and other nutritious items at lower costs, convenience stores often markup fresh produce and sell prepared, high-calorie packaged foods for less. All of these factors impede those living in food deserts — now about 23.5 million Americans — from consuming fresh fruits and vegetables.

Yet the default when talking about frozen, canned and fresh food often seems to moralize food choices rather than address systemic barriers that make access to healthy food difficult for many communities. 

Until every county and state across the nation can make access to fresh fruits and vegetables equitable, it is unfair to judge consumers of the alternatives. We must ask legislators to ensure access to supermarkets regardless of what city or neighborhood an individual resides in. We must also educate communities about food deserts: Everyone should know they exist, the factors that created them and the reasons why they persist today. 

We need to change the rhetoric and programs of stores, schools and medical offices so that they promote the consumption of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables as a staple to healthy eating.

Kelsey Guevara is a UC Berkeley senior studying molecular environmental biology and is pursuing a future in the health care industry.

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