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How much healthier is premium produce?

We all have our own beliefs about what we need to eat for optimal health. One idea that has become increasingly common is that we need to eat specific types of foods to be healthy. In the eyes of some wellness gurus, it’s no longer enough to skip processed foods in favor of fruits and vegetables - if those fruits and vegetables aren’t organic or specially sourced, you might as well be eating a cheeseburger. Across magazines, advertisements, and food blogs, we are told that we need to eat organic foods, fresh foods, and foods seen as “exotic” or hard to come by. But as these foods typically come with a premium price, it’s important to question if they are any healthier for us.

Organic vs. traditional

A little over half of the U.S. population believes that organically grown produce is better than conventionally grown. However, the verdict is still out on what benefit they provide. Some studies have shown that there are increases in certain antioxidants, but overall, organic foods have a nutritional content similar to traditionally grown foods. Organic foods have also been found to contain lower levels of pesticides. Still, they are not completely pesticide-free, and it is unclear if the natural pesticides used in organic farming are safer for long-term health than synthetic pesticides. If you are concerned about pesticides, you can reduce your risk of exposure by thoroughly washing your produce, removing the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, and eating a varied diet, as this will reduce your exposure to a single pesticide.

Fresh vs. canned or frozen

We are often told that fresh foods are higher in nutrients than canned or frozen varieties. However, the nutrient content of these foods is comparable, and in some cases, canned and frozen foods can have higher amounts of certain nutrients. Canned tomatoes, for example, are higher in lycopene than raw tomatoes. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables also last longer and come already prepared, making them great options for reducing food waste and helping you save on time spent in the kitchen. When choosing canned foods, make sure you look for low sodium vegetables and fruit packed in water or juice.

Cauliflower rice and zoodles

In the age of Instagram, there is also an idea that we need to consume nontraditional foods to be healthy. This may come from a new ingredient being hailed as this year’s superfood or a “healthier” way of using a traditional item. While these ingredients can add variety and excitement to mealtimes, our diet does not need to include nontraditional ingredients to be healthy and nutritious. Classic foods that account for correct portion sizes are just as healthy. Chia seeds and flaxseeds may be high in fiber but “boring” foods like apples and oatmeal. And while zucchini noodles and cauliflower rice are great options for lowering calories and increasing vegetable intake, not everybody’s nutrition goals are the same, and grains provide nutrients that vegetables cannot provide. Goji berries and acai juice may have their place, but you do not need to replace every food in your cupboard with an inventive alternative in pursuit of reaching your peak health. There is another issue: this type of food may only be available to those who can afford it. Many of these foods require going to a specialty store and often have higher price tags, take longer to make, and do not provide as many calories. Not everybody can afford the luxury of spending time spiralizing zucchini or visiting a specialty shop to purchase puffed quinoa.

With the CDC reporting that only 1 in 10 Americans gets enough fruits and vegetables, it seems like splitting hairs to talk about whether or not they are organic, fresh, or used as a pasta alternative. We should all be consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, and the healthiest types are those that are affordable, accessible, and (hopefully!) appealing to you.