Health experts often advise shoppers to cling to the outer edges of the grocery store - where they can find fresh produce and less-processed foods. But, while fresh food is typically the best option, you don't need to bypass all options in the frozen aisle.
In fact, a 2016 study found that frozen food can help dramatically decrease your household's food waste.1
We scoured our Food Scores database to find five great options in the frozen food aisle that maximize nutrition, and can save you time and money.
Looking for a frozen vegetable that packs great nutritional bang for your buck? Frozen green beans are half the cost of fresh ones2 and retain more of their vitamin A3 and C4 content than other frozen vegetables. Similarly, frozen green peas are one of the cheapest frozen vegetables5 and retain more of their vitamin C content than fresh peas that have been stored for five days.6
Tip: Opt for sustainably and organically grown frozen fruits and vegetables since they retain vitamin C and other healthful plant compounds - also known as phytochemicals - better than conventionally grown frozen produce.7
Tip: Choose whole over cut, peeled or shelled produce. Think whole green beans instead of cut, or peas in the pod instead of shelled.8 Cutting, peeling and shelling increase the surface area exposed to light, oxygen and temperatures that destroy nutrients.9,10 When the peel is removed, fiber and other nutrients go with it.11
Check EWG's Food Scores database for products like Earthbound Farm. Whole Organic Green Beans.
If you're wandering down the frozen aisle looking for a sweet dessert, stop at the frozen fruit - it is hands-down the healthiest frozen dessert on the market. Berries also make a great snack - and they're superior to dehydrated berries, which can lose up to 50 percent of their original vitamin C and 70 percent of their folate content12 after being exposed to high pressure or temperatures. Compared to frozen versions, vitamin C content was 44 percent lower in freeze-dried strawberries.13 As an added bonus, frozen blackberries are cheaper on average than fresh ones.14,15
Tip: Thaw wisely - leaving frozen fruit in the refrigerator is best way to reduce enzyme reactions that can destroy nutrients.16 The longer frozen foods are left at room temperature to thaw, the more severe nutrients losses will be.17
Tip: Have a plan - even frozen food has a shelf life. Loss of vitamin C, often used as a marker of general nutrient loss,18 is minimal for up to four weeks, but significant losses of vitamin C occur in frozen produce after 12 weeks.19
Check EWG's Food Scores database for products like Cascadian Farm Organic Premium Black Berries.
Feeding young ones but don't have time to make your own baby food? Consider looking beyond jarred food. In their frozen aisles, some stores are stocking baby food made from fresh fruits and vegetables. Freezing produce helps slow nutritional losses, and helps prevent the growth of most microbes, making preservatives less necessary. And since frozen fruits and vegetables are often harvested at the peak of the season, there's less need add flavors, or other additives or fillers to improve taste.
Tip: Many jarred foods from well-known brands like Gerber contain "flavor," or thickening ingredients like rice flour,20 which can be contaminated with cancer-risk-increasing arsenic.21 Some experts think added flavors "may be overwhelming our palates, diluting our ability to taste real food."22 Thousands of these secretive flavor chemical mixtures are added to foods without Food and Drug Administration oversight or review.23 EWG's Food Scores app can help you find baby foods without added flavors or thickeners.
Try brands like Yummy Spoonfuls, which is the first brand of flash-frozen, organic baby food in a pouch to be sold across the U.S.
Frozen seafood is typically cheaper and often of higher quality than fresh fish, which can be in transit on ice for more than a week before reaching the grocery store.24 Frozen fish also helps you add fish to your diet at a reasonable cost, while avoiding the endocrine-disrupting contaminant found in BPA-coated cans that could be used to package fish.25 This is a rare case when opting for fatty varieties is a good idea - they are higher in omega-3 fats and are more resilient to freezing.
Having frozen fish on hand at home can increase how often you eat fish - experts recommend two servings a week. Be sure to use EWG's Seafood Calculator to choose fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury.
Tip: Sustainability counts. Dwindling fish stocks mean fishing boats have to travel farther, using more fuel and increasing emissions.26 Eating abundant, sustainable fish species helps reduce overfishing and emissions. Seafood Watch offers sustainability ratings so consumers can make the best seafood choices.
Check EWG's Food Scores database for brands like Orca Bay, which provides information on catch method and fish origin, and has some products certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.27
In the middle of a hectic week, it's hard to beat the convenience of a frozen entree. Most options in this part of the frozen aisle are loaded with additives and are unnecessarily high in sodium, but there are some good finds for that last-minute lunch or dinner.
About a quarter of the frozen burritos in EWG's Food Scores score in the green. But some burritos rose to the top because they highlight beans, a health-promoting and environmentally friendly protein, and have fewer ingredient and processing concerns.
Tip: Be wary of burritos and other frozen entrees with hidden sugars and excessive amounts of sodium. [In a 2016 analysis] EWG found that 64 percent28 of frozen burritos on the market contain added sugars. And, even among the best scoring burritos, sodium clocked in at about 500 milligrams - a third of the Institute of Medicine's recommended daily intake - on average.
Tip: Steer clear of Bob Evans, El Monterey and Don Miguel brand burritos, as they still contain partially hydrogenated oils.
Check EWG's Food Scores database for burritos from brands like Amy's, whose options are rated better in Food Scores than the average frozen burrito.
Many frozen foods come with instructions for microwaving them directly in the package, maximizing convenience.
If you're cooking frozen food, steaming is the most nutritious option.1 But cooking in the microwave retains nutrients better than boiling on the stovetop does,2 making it an OK choice - especially if this convenience helps you add more vegetables to your diet.
But most frozen foods come packaged in plastic - is it okay to heat them up in that packaging?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises not letting plastic wrap touch foods in the microwave.3 But does that only apply to plastic wrap?
The short answer: We advise against microwaving food in any type of plastic.
Plastics contain unknown mixtures of chemical additives - one study found up to 30 chemicals in a single plastic container.4 These chemicals routinely migrate, or leach, into the food or water they contain - especially when they are heated.5 While the amount that leaches into food may be small, scientists are learning that these chemicals can be harmful at even very low concentrations.6 Hormone disruptors are especially risky for babies in utero and growing children.
Even though microwaving can increase the amount of chemicals migrating into food, the Food and Drug Administration has no regulations that are specific to containers often used in microwaves.7 EWG will continue to advocate for better safety testing, but in the meantime, if you’re going to microwave food, heat it in microwave-safe ceramic or glass food containers - like Pyrex - and cover it with a paper towel instead of plastic wrap.
1 N. Turkmen et al., The Effect of Cooking Methods on Total Phenolics and Antioxidant Activity of Selected Green Vegetables. Food Chemistry, 2005; 93:713-718.
3 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooking Safely in the Microwave Oven. 2013. Available at www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/appliances-and- thermometers/cooking-safely-in-the-microwave/cooking-safely-in-the-microwave-oven
4 Chun Z. Yang et al., Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011; 119(7): 989-996.
7 Ruoyin Cai, Effect of Microwave Heating on the Migration of Additives From PS, PP and PET Container Into Food Simulants. Rochester Institute of Technology, 2013. Available at scholarworks.rit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1841&context=theses
1 W. Martindale, The Potential of Food Preservation to Reduce Food Waste. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2016.
2 Hayden Stewart et al., How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost? In Economic Information Bulletin. USDA: Economic Research Service, 2011.
3 J.C. Rickman et al., Nutritional Comparison of Fresh, Frozen and Canned Fruits and Vegetables. Part II. Vitamins A and Carotenoids, Vitamin E, Minerals and Fiber. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2007; 87:1185-1196.
4 Ronald Pegg, Potential Nutritional Effects of Replacing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables in the Diets of Americans with Frozen Counterparts. University of Georgia, 2013.
5 Hayden Stewart et al., How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost? In Economic Information Bulletin. USDA: Economic Research Service, 2011.
6 Ronald Pegg, Potential Nutritional Effects of Replacing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables in the Diets of Americans with Frozen Counterparts. University of Georgia, 2013.
7 Danny K. Asami et al., Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003; 51:1237-1241.
8 William M. Breene, Healthfulness and Nutritional Quality of Fresh Versus Processed Fruits and Vegetables: A Review. Journal of Foodservice, 1994.
9 Katherine M. Phillips et al., Stability of Vitamin C in Frozen Raw Fruit and Vegetable Homogenates. Journal of Food Compositions and Analysis, 2010; 23:253-259.
10 William M. Breene, Healthfulness and Nutritional Quality of Fresh Versus Processed Fruits and Vegetables: A Review. Journal of Foodservice, 1994.
13 Danny K. Asami et al., Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003; 51:1237-1241.
14 Jane Reed et al., How Much Do Americans Pay for Fruits and Vegetables? Vol. 790, Economic Information Bulletin. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2004.
15 U.S. Department of Agriculture, CNPP Food Prices Database, 2003-04. 2009. Available at www.cnpp.usda.gov/USDAFoodPlansCostof- Food.htm
16 Delia B. Rodriguez-Amaya and Mieko Kimura, HarvestPlus Handbook for Carotenoid Analysis. HarvestPlus Technical Monograph 2, International Food Policy Research Institute, 2004.
17 Young W. Park, Effect of Freezing, Thawing, Drying, and Cooking on Carotene Retention in Carrots, Broccoli, and Spinach. Journal of Food Science, 1987; 52:1022-1025.
18 Vitamin C is degraded by heat, light, oxygen and enzymes, and can be irreversibly converted to a compound with no vitamin C activity. Maceration of cells releases oxidizing enzymes. Due to its sensitivity it is often used “as an index of nutrient degradation.” Diane M. Barrett, Maximizing the Nutritional Value of Fruits and Vegetables. Food Technology, 2007; 61(4):40-44. Available at www.fruitandvegetable.ucdavis.edu/files/197179.pdf
19 Katherine M. Phillips et al., Stability of Vitamin C in Frozen Raw Fruit and Vegetable Homogenates. Journal of Food Compositions and Analysis, 2010; 23:253-259.
20 Ann-Charlotte Eliasson, Starch in Food: Structure, Function and Applications. Technology & Engineering. CRC Press, 2004. Available at books.google.com/books?id=6IO3eV7KfDIC&pg=PA260&lpg=PA260&dq=rice+flour+thickening+agent+baby+food&source=bl&ots=IbxrZF9zod&sig=G_7MJkPAqDm8i6RJtSlMmYorf2A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjTiJnml7vRAhVF6oMKHa9CBAcQ6AEIJTAC#v=onepage&q=rice%20flour%20thickening%20agent%20baby%20food&f=false
21 EWG Food Scores, Arsenic is in Rice - Should You Worry? Available at www.ewg.org/foodscores/content/arsenic-contamination-in-rice
22 Karen Baar, Do Artificial Flavors Spoil Us for the Taste of Real Food? New York Times, 1996. Available at www.nytimes.com/1996/01/03/garden/do-artificial-flavors-spoil-us-for-the-taste-of-real-food.html
23 David Andrews, Synthetic Ingredients in Natural Flavors and Natural Flavors in Artificial Flavors. EWG, 2014. Available at www.ewg.org/foodscores/content/natural-vs-artificial-flavors
24 Margot L. Stiles et al., Seafood Sticker Shock: Why You May Be Paying Too Much for Your Fish. Oceana, 2013. Available at oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/Oceana_Price_Report.pdf
25 Samara Geller, BPA in Canned Food: Behind the Brand Curtain. EWG, 2015. Available at www.ewg.org/research/bpa-canned-food
26 Jeong-A Park et al., Fuel Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Offshore Fisheries of the Republic of Korea. PLoS ONE, 2015; 10(8):1-12.
27 FishChoice Inc., Orca Bay Seafoods, Inc. Available at www.fishchoice.com/seafood-supplier/orca-bay-seafoods-inc
28 EWG calculation generated through search of Label Insight product data on Oct. 13, 2016 in two categories: Frozen Dinners - Burritos, and Breakfast & Biscuits - Breakfast Burritos & Wraps.
The Eat Well Guide helps consumers find locally grown and sustainably produced food. Listings include farms, restaurants, stores, farmers' markets, and CSAs throughout the United States.Visit the Eat Well Guide
Sign up to receive email updates, action alerts, healthy eating tips, promotions to support our work and more from EWG! You can opt out at any time.