11 processed foods that are just as good for you as fresh, if not better

Frozen, canned and pickled vegetables can be just as good, and occasionally even better for you, than the fresh stuff.
Frozen, canned and pickled vegetables can be just as good, and occasionally even better for you, than the fresh stuff. Photo: William Meppem

Chances are you've noticed your grocery bills rising over the past month or two as the impact of COVID and extreme weather push up the price of fresh foods.

While the phrase "fresh is best" usually holds true, unless you are growing your own produce, or shopping at local farmers' markets, the fresh foods you are buying aren't always as fresh as you might hope.

Nutritionally this means that the vitamin and mineral content of the produce will be affected, as once fresh vegetables and fruits are exposed to heat, light and air, sensitive nutrients diminish.

As surprising as it may sound, produce that has been snap frozen or canned within hours of harvest may actually be higher in nutrients than the fresh stuff.

So, if you are worried about getting the key nutrients you need while keeping your budget on track, here are some of the fresh foods that may be even better for you in a processed yet far more convenient form.

Meatball sandwich with hummus and beetroot.

Jill Dupleix's meatball sandwich with hummus and beetroot. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Beetroot

The bright colour of beetroot is a clue to its high nutrient content. Beets provide a rich source of the B group vitamin folate, along with dietary fibre, potassium, and a number of cancer-fighting molecules.

Beetroot is extremely rich in nitrate, which the body converts into nitric oxide. It's been associated with reduced blood pressure and inflammation.

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Buying beetroot in cans or jars provides a ready-to-eat source of the vegetable, and as the beets were processed relatively quickly after harvest, they retain their nutrient levels.

Cucumber

One of the salad vegetables hit heavily by price increases, cucumber offers plenty of dietary fibre and water bulk to the diet, although they lack the span of nutrients other brightly coloured vegetables contain.

On the other hand, pickled cucumbers or gherkins sell for as little as half the price of fresh cucumbers. They're fibre-rich, low in calories, and varieties that are fermented rather than pickled in vinegar also offer various good bacteria thought to support digestive health

Jill Dupleix's kale colcannon mashed potato recipe. Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Substitute fresh kale for frozen to make a cosy serve of colcannon. Photo: William Meppem

Kale

Exceptionally high in vitamin C, vitamin K and beta carotene, kale often tops the superfood list. 

While extremely nutrient-dense, the vitamins found in kale are also especially vulnerable to heat and light, meaning kale that has been snap frozen can be a smart way to regularly enjoy this standout green vegie while retaining as much of the natural nutrient content as possible.

Hetty McKinnon's Spinach and walnut pesto pasta.
For Good Food story about eating well on a $15 a meal budget
Photography by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Hetty McKinnon's spinach and walnut pesto pasta. Photo: William Meppem

Spinach

Dull, wilted spinach leaves offer far less nutritionally than frozen varieties, which are packed soon after they're picked. 

Frozen spinach is a handy way to add greens to smoothies, soups and stir-fries.

As with fresh spinach and its close friend kale, the key to retaining as much of the nutrition as possible is to minimise cooking time.

Neil Perry Chicken Cacciatore by William Meppem. Archive image rotated and reuploaded for Good Food online recipe.

Neil Perry's chicken cacciatore uses a 400g can of whole tomatoes. Photo: William Meppem

Tomatoes

Tomato prices vary significantly throughout the year, as does the quality and flavour of the toms we find at the supermarket.

While tinned tomatoes are not helpful for salads, they're great for any dish that requires cooked tomatoes.  Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant lycopene, which has powerful anti-cancer properties.

When heat has been applied to the fruit, the lycopene content actually increases, making canned tomatoes a lycopene-rich addition to pastas, soups and casseroles.

Jamie Oliver's hungover noodles with crunchy veg, egg noodles and a runny egg
Single use online for Good Food
Photographer: David Loftus

Jamie Oliver's hungover noodles uses frozen broc. Photo: David Loftus

Broccoli

Another green superfood prone to significant price fluctuations. Opting for frozen broccoli not only saves money, it also give you mainly florets, so you're not paying for the heavy, fibrous stalk many toss in the bin.

Like all green vegies, the key to maximising nutrient quality is to enjoy broccoli raw or lightly blanched.

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Adam Liaw recipe : Wok-fried mince and green beans
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions) 

Adam Liaw's wok-fried pork mince and green beans. Photo: William Meppem

Green beans

When fresh, green beans are a delicious, crunchy vegetable offering plenty of vitamin C, vitamin K and dietary fibre.

But it's hard to justify adding soggy, expensive green beans to the weekly shop.

That's when frozen green beans come into their own. They've already been topped and tailed, and as long as they are not overcooked, they are likely to have a higher nutrient content than their fresh counterparts.

Silken tofu with onion and garlic.

Have a stash of garlic and onion on hand to make Adam Liaw's silken tofu. Photo: William Meppem

Garlic and onions

How many times have you gone to make a dish at home only to find you are missing onion and garlic for the base?

Alliums, as well as frozen herbs and spices, retain their nutritional properties in the freezer while minimising food waste. 

So it makes sense nutritionally, as well as from a budget perspective, to keep a supply of recipe basics on ice. The best way to freeze these meal staples is to chop and store in an airtight bag, or use the pre-cut varieties available in the freezer section of supermarket

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Jill Dupleix recipe: The ultimate chile con carne.
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Jill Dupleix's ultimate chilli con carne. Photo: William Meppem

Legumes

Whether you reach for chickpeas, kidney beans, baked beans or lentils, canned legumes are a cost-effective and convenient way to add more legumes to the weekly meal plan.

Few Aussies eat nutrient-rich legumes, yet regular consumption is associated with a number of positive health outcomes, including a reduced risk of heart disease and developing some types of cancer.

A simple swap of legumes into your favourite mince dish, or adding a serve to soups or salads is an easy way to boost your weekly intake for just a dollar or two.

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Adam Liaw recipe : Loaded cauliflower
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Adam Liaw's loaded cauliflower. Photo: William Meppem

Cauliflower

Rich in vitamin C and dietary fibre, cauliflower is a member of the brassica group of vegetables, which appear to be protective against some types of cancer thanks to their glucosinolate content.

Aside from florets, there is a growing range of frozen vegetable "rice" options available in the supermarket freezer, making it a cost-effective way to add cauli to your favourite stir-fry or alongside a curry.

New potatoes are basically immature potatoes.

Neil Perry's crushed green peas. Photo: William Meppem

Peas 

Peas are the poster children for vegetables that are better frozen than fresh. And they can be scattered last minute into most dinner dishes for extra nutrition.

They are a good source of vitamins C and E, zinc, and other antioxidants that strengthen our immune system.

Other nutrients, such as vitamins A and B, are associated with reduced risk of chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

Susie Burrell is an accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist and holds a master in coaching psychology.