What to Look for When Buying Canned Foods
Updated: Feb 10
Written by: Julie Tang, MS, RDN, CNSC
Many of us have heard the reputation of canned foods as being less healthy compared to fresh or frozen produce. This is often coupled with descriptions of them as “cheap food”, “high in sodium”, “full of preservatives”, “not nutritious”.
While some canned foods are truly unhealthy because of the high sodium, concentration of BPA, and preservatives, this is not true for all canned foods. In fact, with today’s increasing demand for healthier options and manufacturing capability to meet consumer demands, we have more options than ever to finding healthier canned foods that can be added staples to a balanced diet.
How it works
Canning is a method of preserving foods by applying very high heat to kill harmful bacteria such as Clostridium Botulinum that may spoil the food or cause illness. The foods are then vacuum sealed for shelf stability. It’s hard to overlook the convenience and cost-efficiency of buying canned foods.
They’re readily available at most stores and a large variety of fruits and vegetables are accessible year-round since the produce are selected at peak ripeness during their seasonal harvest before they are canned.
From a nutritional standpoint, a common concern with canned foods is their reduced nutrient content. While heating foods to a very high temperature can involve some loss of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin B or C, which are sensitive to heat and air even during regular preparing, cooking and storing, there are studies that have looked more closely at the nutrient retention of fresh fruits versus canned foods.
They have found that protein, carbohydrates, and fat are generally unaffected by the process and most minerals and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K are also maintained. In fact, a study by Durst and Weave (2013) published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture showed that a fruit high in certain nutrients retained their high nutrient levels after being canned.
When it comes to grocery shopping, buying fresh is the best. When that is not an option, buying them frozen is a second good option. When fresh or frozen is not available or feasible, buying certain canned foods can still provide beneficial nutrients and be a part of a healthy diet. Most dietitians recommend including canned staple foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, chicken or fish in our diet than to completely exclude these foods.
The key to shopping for the best-canned foods
Follow these tips when buying canned foods for the best selection:
Always read the nutrition label and review the ingredients. FDA states that the order of ingredients listed is by predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first.
Look for low sodium, low sugar, sodium-free, or sugar-free options. According to FDA, a general guide when shopping is: 5% Daily Value (DV) or less of sodium per serving is considered low, and 20% DV or more of sodium per serving is considered high. The same guide can be used for other nutrients such as added sugar, protein, fiber, fats, and vitamins. You can also drain and rinse the food canned to get rid of some of the salt and sugar content.
When shopping for canned soups, aim for options that offer no more than 300 milligrams per serving. Canned soups are convenient and can be a powerhouse of nutrients, but do watch out for the sodium content of the soups. Some soups can contain 800 milligrams or more of sodium per serving! An average adult is recommended to have 2,300 milligrams or less in total per day, with some medical conditions requiring less.
Avoid canned fruits and vegetables in syrup or brine. Instead, look for canned fruits and vegetables packed in water or their own juice.
Always check the expiration date on canned foods. They are generally shelf stable for 1 year. To reduce food waste, practice the first in, first out method: the first goods purchased are also the first goods used.
Look for BPA-free canned foods. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, there is an increasing trend from food companies to move away from using lining with the controversial chemical bisphenol-A (BPA). If you’re unsure, you can refer to Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s website to read more about which brands are using BPA lining and which brands are BPA-free.
Avoid canned foods with dents or bulging ends. These are signs that might indicate leakage and be a source of bacteria to enter food.
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