There have been countless occasions when I’ve reached for a strawberry, only to realize that the fresh berries have gone bad before I’ve had a chance to eat them—even though I stored the fruit correctly. It’s times like those when I’m compelled to give up on fresh fruit altogether, in favor of the frozen stuff. But I’ve also always been a little wary of frozen produce and wondered about the merits of frozen produce vs. fresh produce. After all, frozen fruit and vegetables seem more processed than their fresh counterparts since they’re all packed up in plastic bags or cardboard cartons. And what about the nutritional value of fresh produce vs. frozen produce? Is frozen fruit is healthier than fresh fruit, even though it’s kept in the freezer alongside that pint of ice cream and liter of vodka?
Well, according to research from the University of Georgia and the Frozen Food Foundation (which is, it should be noted, funded by an industry organization of frozen food producers), frozen produce might actually have more nutrients than grocery store-bought fresh produce. As the study’s lead author Dr. Ronald Pegg explained in a press release sent to Extra Crispy, “Our research shows that frozen fruits and vegetables are nutritionally equal to—and in some cases better than—their fresh-stored counterparts,” noting that, “In particular, Vitamin A was greater in frozen fruits and vegetables than select fresh-stored fruits and vegetables.”
Though there wasn't a significant difference between the initial nutritional content of the fresh and frozen produce that was tested in this study—including spinach, blueberries, corn, and strawberries—frozen produce held onto its nutritional value better over the course of five days than fresh produce stored in the fridge. "When accounting for a storage period that mimics that employed by consumers," write the researchers, "our findings do not support the common perception that fresh produce is nutritionally superior to frozen produce."
As Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University, explained to the New York Times, if you want frozen produce that's highest quality, look for a label that says it was, “individually quick frozen,” or IQF. This means that each piece of produce, no matter how small, was frozen as an individual unit rather than as a block. As Danilo Alfaro writes for The Spruce, "a bag of IQF peas doesn't simply contain a solid block of frozen peas, but rather, each of the individually frozen peas is loose inside the bag." Basically, the freshly picked produce is carted along a conveyer belt and then blasted with either "cryogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) gas or liquid nitrogen," according to Linde Food, a manufacturer of this technology; it "locks in the moisture, shape and freshness of small food items," as well as nutritional content.
So when it comes to straight nutritional value of frozen produce compared to fresh produce, you could do worse. Frozen produce lasts longer, which is dope if you're trying to get your fix of vitamins and minerals—and it's generally less expensive than fresh fruit.
But frozen fruits and vegetables can come with other complications. In recent years, there have been a slew of frozen produce recalls in the United States. In 2016, three individuals even died because they had contracted foodborne illnesses linked to consumption of frozen produce. In other words, eating frozen produce made them very sick.
But this outbreak of foodborne illnesses doesn’t mean that frozen produce is all bad. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, you can get the same type of foodborne illness from fresh produce if you don’t store and prepare your produce correctly. Bacteria, which is what caused all of these sicknesses, can grow really quickly on thawing food; that's why you should never thaw food at room temperature, according to the FDA. Instead, thaw it in the fridge, in a bowl of room temperature water, or in the microwave.
There's also the textural consideration of frozen produce. If you're making a smoothie or some kind of baked good—like a berry scone or a fruit danish or even berry-filled pancakes—frozen fruit is a great option. But eating a frozen strawberry straight out of the bag is basically like biting into an ice cube, and nobody really wants that.
So frozen fruit might not be perfect for every recipe, and you have to handle it correctly so as to minimize your risk of getting sick. But there's no reason to believe that frozen fruit is "worse" than fresh fruit because it's stored in the freezer. If anything, frozen produce is just as healthy as fresh fruit, if not more so, so go ahead and stock up that freezer and never deal with a moldy strawberry again.