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Monday Mission: Can the Cans (Vegetables, for Starters)

Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to make a pledge not to buy canned vegetables. They’re not worth your money for the nutrition they provide. But don’t worry – there are some great alternatives that are just as convenient.

winter veg horiz web

Why Shouldn’t I Cook with Canned Vegetables?

Canning vegetables involves plenty of heat and lots of water. Most, if not all, of the nutrients in the vegetables end up denatured (like “dead” for vitamins) or leached out into the cooking water. Even though canned vegetables seem super cheap, it’s money for nothing. If you’re going to eat a vegetable, you might as well get something nutritious out of it, and you simply won’t with canned. Those peas, green beans, corn, carrots and potatoes are empty shells that used to have vitamins in them.

BPA Returns: Strike Two for Cans

I really hate to tell you this. I want you to keep eating tomatoes, especially canned ones. Bad news though: the inside lining of cans, if coated, contains the all-too-familiar chemical BPA. (Click here to read an explanation and definition of BPA.) This is another reason to avoid canned vegetables and other foods, but for tomatoes, it’s something we’re just going to have to live with if on a budget. Here’s some more information on how dangerous BPA in canned tomatoes is.

If you have lots of extra money, I would recommend seeking out BPA-free canned tomatoes. They’re difficult to find and only in organics; Eden Organics sells BPA-free cans for all but tomatoes, which contain a small amount because of the acidity. Some are sold in glass jars here or here under the brand name Bionaturae. There’s a whole discussion here on where to find BPA-free tomatoes. I have to warn you, though: they’re much more expensive than standard canned tomatoes, up to FOUR TIMES as much. Organic tomatoes must be hard to grow!

At least we can rejoice that most spaghetti sauce comes in glass jars, right?

Strike Three: Additives

Anytime you’re asking a factory to process something for you, there’s a chance – a good one! – that they’ll add in something else. Canned vegetables generally have added salt, sometimes other chemicals as preservatives. Once you get into the other canned foods like soups, you’re looking at multisyllabic words no one wants to pronounce, nevertheless eat! I’d rather be in charge of what my family is putting in their bodies.

What Should I Serve Instead?

I assure you that frozen vegetables are very healthy and a good option. They really aren’t more expensive than canned, especially when you put the price in perspective of what you’re paying for. Frozen veggies are flash frozen, usually in trucks in the field right after picking, so they are literally “at the peak of freshness”. Any other vegetable starts losing nutrients from the second it’s picked until it hits your table. That’s just how living things work when they are cut off from a source of energy and food. There’s a chance the fresh broccoli available in your produce section actually is less nutritious than a bag of frozen stuff.

So if you generally rely on a can of veggies for your side dish vegetable, switch to frozen this week and see how it goes. The taste will be different to be sure. That’s all those vitamins and minerals in there!

Added Bonus: You can use exactly the amount you want out of a bag of frozen and you don’t have store the leftovers from the can in the fridge. When I did that, they always went to waste anyway!

What About Non-Perishable Foods for Donations or Emergency Preparedness

Most food banks only accept “non-perishables”, which often translates into canned goods. I hate the idea of giving someone who needs nutrition something that is not nutritious! However, you can find non-perishables that are plenty nutritious. Read on…

If I had to go a few weeks without shopping or without power, here are the items my house would supply (many of these products would make great donation items as well):

We’d be low on animal protein, to be sure, just a few cans of tuna, and vegetables would be certainly low – beans and tomatoes. But we could survive on rice and beans with tomato sauce and tuna sandwiches! Spaghetti with pinto beans, anyone?

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That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.

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Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

20 thoughts on “Monday Mission: Can the Cans (Vegetables, for Starters)”

  1. Hey Katie, just wondering where you originally got your info on canned fruits/veggies, in terms of them having no nutrients left to speak of. I’m a big fan of fresh over canned myself, for reasons of taste, texture, additives, BPA lining, etc. but all I can find in my own research are references to this study: http://nutrican.fshn.uiuc.edu/findings.html, which claims that canned are nutritionally comparable to fresh and frozen. Is there newer information out there that I’m missing? Thanks!

    1. Beth,
      Thanks for asking – pardon my delayed response! If I didn’t cite a source in this post, I won’t know for sure from 2009…BUT for some nutrients which are heat-sensitive, particularly Vitamin C for example, it’s a no-brainer that that’s destroyed in the canning process.

      At this time, I was reading Nourishing Traditions a lot, so I’m fairly certain you can find something on canned veggies and fruits there. I hope that gives you a little something to go on!
      Thanks, Katie

    1. Megan,
      Home-canned food is typically (always?) in glass jars, so the only BPA to worry about, and it’s minor, is on the inside of the canning lid. Tattler is a brand with BPA-free lids. Now the info about damaging nutrients/vitamins in the fruits and veggies is still true for home-canned stuff. The only veggies that increase in nutrients when cooked are tomatoes, so I can salsa and tomatoes, but nothing else.
      Good question! 🙂 Katie

  2. I love you website and this post is wonderful just as all your articles are:-) I do have one thing Im concern over though. Which is preparedness. I like to keep about 1 month worth of food around just in case things happen. Rather that be a natural disaster or something else. Canned foods give me a easy way to store food for the family. Iv even canned many a fruit my self. What are your thoughts on this? I of coarse also freeze veggies, but this does no good in the case of a power failure.
    .-= Tina´s last blog ..Great Giveaway! =-.

    1. Tina,

      You can see a bit of my thinking on this in my reply to Lenetta above, but also see this post answering the same question: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/05/01/are-canned-foods-necessary-for-emergencies-food-banks/

      I’ll edit this mission to make it link to that post!
      Thanks!
      Katie

  3. Lenetta,
    That is acctually really helpful – I bet I let my beans get too old! I wonder how long it takes to get old beans tender… I should just start using my beans faster… Thanks for “intruding!” –Katie

  4. I realize this is a VERY old post, but my conundrum in this category is crushed tomatoes. I use them to make a quick, frugal tomato sauce. I do not see myself cooking and crushing all my own tomatoes ..? But I try to stay away from all aluminum cans except for this. (I have had trouble with soaking/boiling beans, though. Multiple times, they are still hard and grainy after hours of soaking and boiling …). Any thoughts?

    1. Carolyn,
      Both tomatoes and beans are still very nutritious (more so, in the case of toms) canned, so you don’t have to worry about health here. The cans are lined with plastic, so it’s not aluminum, it’s BPA to consider. Can’t win, right? The only choices you’re left with are to can your own (whoa), accept the BPA for less than what most people are exposed to (what we do), or spend boku bucks on organic tomatoes in jars (sold by about one brand out there). Have to offer this one up!

      I hear you on the beans. There is nothing more frustrating than crunchy beans (that have cooked all day!) when it’s dinner time, right? Kills me. I cannot figure out how that happens. I would be mushy if I cooked all day! My recent fix is to boil them VIGorously for 10 minutes at the start of the cooking. That seems to help. I have to say though, I ended up with slightly crunchy brown rice tonight. 🙁 Luckily I had a few extra minutes to cook it.

      Sorry I don’t have any better answers on the tomato sauce. We’re in the same boat on that one! (And welcome back to town! Hope to see you soon –)
      Katie

      1. Lenetta @ Nettacow

        If I may intrude in the conversation for just a bit, there have been a couple of things I’ve read about crunchy dried beans. First, your beans might be too old. The longer they sit, the more difficult it is for them to get tender. Also, I’ve read that you should wait until the beans are tender before adding salt or tomato products (I’d think ketchup and BBQ sauce might both qualify?) as either can cause beans to not become any more tender.
        .-= Lenetta @ Nettacow´s last blog ..Motion Sickness Helps =-.

      2. Great info! I actually started buying fresh tomatoes and just freezing them. I throw them in the freezer, in a bag, whole. I also cooked some down in to sauce and froze that. The problem is when I want a quick marinara or pizza sauce…! And I find my tomato sauce is thinner than the canned stuff so it tends to disappear in dishes. I was thinking I’d make some and can it, but it looks like that process kills the “good stuff”. Thanks for the thoughts.

        1. Camille,
          On the contrary – tomatoes are one of the few vegs that actually increase healthy content when cooked. Cooking releases lycopene. Can away with your tomatoes! 🙂 Katie

          1. Woo hoo! Thanks, Katie!!
            .-= Camille´s last blog ..How to (Easily) Wash Plastic Storage Bags =-.

  5. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    As a new reader, I appreciate all the links back to previous posts! So what about home-canned fruits and veggies? I’ve been trying to can more this year because I just don’t have the room in my freezer to put up everything I would like to put up . . . not to mention the electricity to keep it preserved through the year . . . sometimes I feel like I’m darned if I do and darned if I don’t. :>) But, I have salsa to can today, so I’m just going to concentrate on that!

    1. Lenetta,
      I was thinking of you as an old friend already! 🙂
      Home-canned veggies are definitely a conundrum. You make a good point about all the electricity to keep things frozen! Here’s my pro-con thinking on the subject:
      *canned tomatoes are always healthy – home-canning is a great idea (so go ahead with that salsa – it’s on my list this week, too. Got a good recipe?)
      *canning other veggies is less nutritious than freezing, so you have to either (a) like the taste a bunch, like my grandparents or (b) know for certain that your veggies were grown for less $ than you could buy frozen in the store. I was surprised my first year gardening how much $ I put into it, so it’s worth doing some math and making sure that taking a hit on nutrition is saving you money (or allowing you to have organic vegs or something) for real. Find out how much your stove might cost to actually process your jars here: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/03/05/appliance-cost/
      *If you’d buy canned veggies anyway, especially in the case of tomatoes, home-canned is helping you avoid the BPA lining in cans. Hooray for that!
      *As far as fruits go, if canning is the only way to have fruit through the winter, then Yum. I grew up on my Busia’s home-canned fruits every Sunday morning for brunch. She had a real root cellar that was always FULL. I canned some applesauce, figuring I cook that stuff anyway. I left the peels in this batch for the fiber and just whizzed them well in the blender. Almost not noticeable.
      Enjoy your canning!! 🙂 Katie

      1. Oh – and maybe dehydrating is an option? I know you’re in the market for a dehydrator, so hopefully that will help you balance your freezer/canned goods.

      2. Lenetta @ Nettacow

        Thanks, Katie! Your thoroughness is so impressive – and as a math geek, I loved your cost breakdowns on the appliance page. (Wouldn’t it have been nice to have been interested in these things pre-children, when we had all the time in the world but didn’t know it???) One thing that is impossible to put a number on – increased air conditioning when you’re putting out all that heat and humidity. Ugh.

        (PS – how sweet of you to call me “an old friend” – so funny how the blog world works. I’ve seen you pop up at Laura’s (Heavenly Homemakers), Amy’s (Finer Things), Sarah’s (Sarah’s Musings), and I read Frugal Granola, too. So I felt like I “knew” you before I even finally took the jump and subscribed!)

        As for my salsa, I used a recipe from my dad’s Ball Home Preserving book. :>) I’m having a hard time getting all that figured out, as my only canning experience is via him and he doesn’t even water bath his salsa!

        Since we have cattle – one of the blessings of marrying a COW FARMER! – much of my freezer is occupied by beef. I also try to do a lot of freezer cooking and that requires available space. Luckily our lifestyle comes in handy when, say, we need fertilizer on the garden so we just call the guy on the edge of town that has sheep. :>)

        I do hope to someday have an honest to goodness root cellar not unlike the one you remember! I love where we live, but our food options are rather limited in a lot of ways. I would like a two-freezer system, not unlike Laura’s. Her built-in pantry isn’t too bad, either!

        Oops, I hear a toddler up from her nap. Thanks for helping us all do the best we can!!

  6. Hi Katie, I am a relatively new reader, and am really enjoying your site. I would definitely buy a book if you wrote one! Your multiple posts on the reasoning behind why you do what you do have helped me so much – I have been a student of “real food” for most of a year, but you are helping me to find the balance now!
    But anyway, back to the topic at hand: What about fruit? Do you know how much nutritional value various fruits loose when they are canned? It can be hard to keep fresh fruits stocked in the home, and most of them do not freeze quite as well as veggies! (I love to bake with fruits for sure, and smoothies are good too, but it’s hard to eat fruit plain that has been in the freezer, you know?) We love dried fruits, but they seem so expensive, especially considering how they don’t fill you up quite as nicely for a light snack, etc. So anyway, my point is, I depend on a few canned fruits to get us by sometimes. What do you think about that?

    1. Welcome! It’s great to have like-minded folks around me.

      Here’s what I THINK: balance is key, and canned fruits (esp. in juice) have to be better than candy or cookies. We can’t always have fresh produce on hand, especially if we have little ones to keep us at home.

      Here’s what the research says: almost no nutrients left in canned fruit. The Vitamin C in particular is very heat sensitive. I’m not sure about any antioxidant benefits. I definitely use canned pineapple in fruit salads and such; it’s just not practical to buy a whole pineapple when they’re not on sale!

      Here’s what I do with summer bounty: Freeze whole strawberries, mostly for smoothies, freeze sliced strawberries (on a cookie sheet so they’re separate) and blueberries (whole) for yogurt, freeze sugared strawberries and peaches. The whole blueberries are fabulous frozen – they’re like little popsicles! I LOVE partly thawed, sugared strawberries and peaches. You could, I’m sure, also use a more natural sweetener, but I’m not quite there yet on my fruit. If you put a ziploc bag of sweetened fruit in the fridge one evening, they’re just about right the next morning for slightly icy, totally delicious bowls of fruit! Bananas and apples are good year-round fruits that aren’t too expensive or hard to find in the grocery store.

      I hope that helps! What a great question!! Thank you – Katie

  7. Shelly Gapczynski-Forde

    Hey Katie:
    I liked your blog about the canned veggies..I too have switched to frozen instead of can. I didn’t know about the BPA in canned tomatoes. I will keep a look out for BPA free canned tomatoes:) I usually find many of the good organic products at Trader Joes and Whole Foods in Ann Arbor. Take care

    Shelly

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