We've all been told to shop the perimeter of the grocery store before venturing into the middle aisles, home to all the processed foods, only for limited products. Our busy lifestyles, though, sometimes make canned foods with their long life spans, inexpensive price tags, and convenient cooking, enticing. Can you maintain a healthy diet and still eat canned food?
The short answer is maybe. Canned food isn't necessarily unhealthy just because it comes in a can. Before you buy canned food again, know the five simple rules for keeping it healthy and safe.
- What vitamins are you looking for? Unlike fresh produce, canned food is processed before it's sealed into airtight containers designed to maximize its life span, which can be up to five years or more. Some canned foods retain minerals and vitamins despite the processing and remain just as nutritious as unprocessed fresh foods. Vitamins A and C, for example, are destroyed during the canning process, according to studies done by the University of Minnesota. Before you pick up a canned food, ask yourself what vitamins you're striving for in your diet. If it's vitamins C and B, opt for the fresh produce instead.
- What's in the can? It's not just about vitamins, either. Certain types of cans are lined with the chemical Bisphenol-A, commonly known as BPA. The BPA from the can seeps into the food. BPA is an "estrogen-like, endocrine-disrupting chemical" and research suggests that at certain levels BPA may cause cancer in people. Cathy Leman, MA, RD, LD, NSCA-certified personal trainer, and breast cancer health advocate, suggests that if there's an alternative to cans lined with BPA (i.e. glass or box containers, or frozen vegetables and fruits), always choose the alternative. To be on the safe side, check the can before you put it in your grocery cart and make sure it has a BPA-free designation.
- What's in the food? To give food a longer life span, processing may involve adding preservatives, sugar, and sodium. If you're goal is to eat clean or if you have any health conditions that require you to limit excess sugar and sodium, some canned foods will be off limits. Check the ingredient list before you commit and make sure that you can pronounce every ingredient on the list. If there are words on the ingredient you can't pronounce, it's a preservative and you may want to consider avoiding that can. Be sure to check the sodium and sugar content, too, to make sure that you're not doing more harm than good by adding canned fruit or vegetables to your diet.
- How is the fruit stored? If you're looking for canned fruit, look for fruit stored in water or natural juices instead of syrup. Syrup is a code word for "sugar." Draining and rinsing the fruit helps, but avoiding canned fruit in syrup is best. Opt for the fresh fruit when in doubt.
- How can you get the antioxidants? Antioxidants are an important part of a healthy lifestyle and canned produce like corn and tomatoes may actually give you a higher antioxidant burst than the fresh variety. According to Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., CSSD, and co-author of 101 Fat Habits & Slim Solutions, canned tomatoes may actually be better "disease-fighters" than fresh tomatoes. "Tomato products reduce risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis, infertility, dementia, and even several types of cancer," due to the lycopene content. The antioxidant lycopene is actually released as the foods are are heated and cooked, which occurs during the processing of canned tomatoes.
The key to adding canned foods to a healthy diet is to know before you buy. Check the can, read the ingredient list, and know what it is you're trying to add to your diet. It's ultimately what you put in your body that counts, so take the time to process the information before you pick up the processed can.