An orange might have more health benefits for you when it’s in the form of juice than as piece of fruit. Surprised?
A recent study found that when orange juice and oranges were thrown into a test tube model that mimics digestion, more carotenoids and flavonoids were released from the juice than the fruit. Carotenoids and flavonoids are associated with reduced risk of cancer, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and other benefits. There are limitations to nutrient studies done outside the body, but this can give us some important information about potential benefits of processing.
So can a “processed” food deliver just as many – or even more – nutritional benefits as a “whole” food?
Absolutely. Frozen, canned, or packaged forms food are not nutritionally inferior just because they aren’t in a “whole” form. Studies have shown that when comparing fresh foods vs. the same frozen food, for example, they are often nutritionally equivalent. In fact, sometimes the frozen option contains more nutrients than the fresh option. Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at their peak and are quickly frozen, so the nutrient content remains high.
In contrast, a fresh pineapple from the grocery store may have had to travel for a few a days before it gets to your plate and may not be as full of “fresh” nutrients as you would expect.
The study cites the example of fresh oranges vs. orange juice, but this isn’t the only example of a food containing higher nutrient value after it is processed. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that improves prostate health and may reduce the risk of cancer. Studies have shown that processed tomato products like tomato paste actually contain a higher amount of bioavailable lycopene than their fresh siblings.
Beyond just fruits and vegetables, there can be huge nutritional advantages to processed foods. According to a study that looked at processed foods’ contribution to nutrition, fortified foods such as cereal greatly contribute to Americans meeting their nutrient needs.
That same conclusion was echoed again in a recent statement by the American Society for Nutrition. While the statement did note positive contributions processed foods have made to nutrition, the authors also pointed out that some processed foods have contributed nutrients to limit (according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines) such as fat, sugar, and sodium, so it’s important to be judicious.
There are also other major advantages to packaged and processed foods. For example, canned or dried foods can be more affordable than fresh. Additionally, using innovative packaging and freezing techniques can extend the life of perishable foods, reducing food waste—and grocery budget waste!