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Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service, Published October 31 2013

Prairie Fare: Canned foods get thumbs-up for nutrition

Lately, I have been exploring some books written about the pioneers in the Upper Midwest. I am inspired by the courage of taking a trip across the ocean to reach a land of opportunity.

Of course, being in nutrition, I’m also curious about what they ate as they labored long hours to clear the land to create the early farms. Staying nourished required a lot more energy back then. They certainly couldn’t open a can of soup and heat it in the microwave for a quick meal.

Our distant ancestors had no refrigerators or freezers, except in the winter when the outdoors became a giant walk-in freezer. They ground wheat and used starter cultures to make bread and hunted wild game or fished for their protein. Many raised a few chickens and had a cow or two to provide eggs, milk and butter.

They cured, pickled, dried or smoked food to make it last longer. Later, as general stores were established, the pioneers were able to buy and trade food products and household goods.

Today, when we pick up a can of food at the grocery store, we are holding a bit of fairly recent food history. Shelf-stable canned food dates back to the 1790s in France. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte needed a way to keep his army nourished, so he offered a prize for innovative ways to keep food safe for a long time.

Nicholas Appert stepped up to the plate, so to speak. He experimented with heating food and sealing it in glass bottles similar to what was done with wine. By 1806, the French navy was being nourished with “bottled food.” In 1810, Peter Durand patented the process of sealing food in tin cans. Later, food scientists and microbiologists refined the process.

Now, commercially canned food is an everyday convenience that provides nutritious and affordable food. Although fresh fruits and vegetables often are promoted, all forms (canned, fresh, frozen and dried) count toward the daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are preserved when they are at their peak of freshness and quality.

As we move toward colder weather and many of our favorite fresh fruits and vegetables become more expensive, you might stretch your budget by visiting the frozen foods aisle and the canned foods aisle more often.

In a University of Massachusetts study, taste testers rated recipes made with canned ingredients comparably with the same recipes made with fresh or frozen ingredients. As for nutrients, the recipes prepared with canned, fresh or frozen were very similar, too.

Other studies have shown that the heating process may enhance the nutrition in some of the canned foods. For example, lycopene in tomatoes is better absorbed from canned tomatoes than from fresh tomatoes. Lycopene is linked with reducing the risk for certain types of cancer. Canned pumpkin is a more concentrated source of beta-carotene than fresh pumpkin. Beta carotene is converted to vitamin A by our bodies and helps with vision and skin health.

Canned, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables also contain similar amounts of fiber.

However, canned foods may be higher in sodium than their fresh or frozen counterparts. Read and compare labels on canned goods. Opt for reduced-sodium versions. If you buy canned beans such as kidney or pinto beans, be sure to rinse and drain them to reduce about 40 percent of the sodium.

At home, label your canned food with the date of purchase and store them in a cool, dry place. Arrange your shelves using the “FIFO” rule, which is first in, first out. Canned food has a long shelf life safetywise, but for best quality, use it within two years.

At this time of year, community food pantries often need our help keeping their shelves stocked. Recently, I worked with the managers of several food pantries to address their needs for healthful foods to add to their shelves. If you are looking for ideas, check out the “Food Pantry Wish List” available at www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn1651.pdf.

Here’s a nutrient-rich recipe for a cool-weather favorite meal that will draw the family into the kitchen to see what is cooking. This recipe is courtesy of the Canned Food Alliance at www.mealtime.org.

Secret Recipe Beef Stew

1½ pounds lean beef, cut into 1-inch pieces

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 (28-ounce) can Italian-style stewed tomatoes, undrained

1 (14.5-ounce) can beef broth

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves

3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 cups baby carrots or 2 cups sliced carrots, 1 inch thick

Toss the beef with flour in a medium bowl. Heat oil in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the beef and cook for 5 minutes, until browned, turning occasionally. Add tomatoes, broth, onion, pepper and thyme; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 45 minutes or until the beef is just tender. Add the potatoes and carrots; return to a boil. Reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 45 minutes or until the beef and vegetables are tender.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 280 calories, 9 grams of fat, 28 grams of carbohydrate, 23 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 510 milligrams of sodium. (To reduce the sodium, choose reduced-sodium broth and tomatoes.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.