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What's better for you — fresh or frozen food?

Reporter Dr Andrew Rochford set out to see if fresh or frozen vegetables are better for you. While he was at it, he thought he'd find out whether cooking the three-year-old steak in his freezer would put him at risk of food poisoning. The test

At a fresh food market, Andrew bought carrots, corn and cauliflower. He then purchased some frozen vegetables from the supermarket freezer.

Andrew took the lot, as well as his frozen steak, to the University of Western Sydney where Dr Geoff Skurry and his team tested them.

With the vegies, the lab compared levels of calcium, which is good for our bones, potassium, which helps keep our blood pressure down by counteracting the sodium in all the salt we eat, and our old friend vitamin C, which is good for everything.

In the meat, they compared levels of protein, magnesium and iron.

The results

"The results for the frozen vegetables showed that there was very little difference between fresh and frozen vegetables in the vitamins and mineral content," concluded Dr Skurry.

They were almost the same! Specifically, the fresh vegies had marginally higher levels of calcium and potassium, and in our third test for vitamin C, the frozen vegies proved to have almost twice as much as the fresh produce.

"When frozen foods are made, they snap freeze product after blanching and this preserves the vitamins, so you don't get any loss," says Dr Skurry.

Vegetables lose goodness the longer they're out of the ground. Frozen vegies are picked at the peak of their season and quickly packed, while fresh vegies can be a lottery.

"If you have had things that were fresh sitting around on supermarket shelves for a while, they can start to lose some of their nutritional value just from exposure to air and light," says Aloysa Hourigan from Nutrition Australia.

In fairness to Andrew's mates at the fresh food market, their produce did travel all the way to Sydney for testing, which won't have helped their results.

Conclusion

While it was neck-and-neck in our vegies test, with frozen winning out when it came to Vitamin C, overall fresh produce had the more nutrients. When it comes to fresh vegies, your best bet is consuming them as soon as possible after they're harvested. If you can't eat them that quickly, frozen becomes a good option.

In regards to Andrew's frozen steak, the fresh meat it was compared to had similar levels of protein and magnesium, but the three-year-old frozen steak had 20 percent more iron.

"It could be because it came from a different cut of meat; different cuts of meat have different iron contents," says Dr Skurry. "Freezing preserves the iron — there's nothing that can really happen during freezing with the iron content, and that goes for all the minerals."

That said, Dr Skurry would not eat the three year old steak. After that long, the fat can break down and become toxic.

"You definitely wouldn't want to be eating anything that's been in the freezer for more than 12 months," he says.

A quick guide to how long you can freeze food:

Beef and lamb — 12 months
Chicken and pork — six months
Vegetables — six months
Seafood — three months

Make sure your freezer is cold enough — to preserve food properly it should be minus 18 degrees. A lot of people set their freezers too warm, so their ice cream stays soft. Check yours with a thermometer.

The main thing to remember is that unless you grow your own, it doesn't really matter how you eat your vegies — you'll get great health benefits from eating fresh or frozen.

Fast facts

The longer fresh vegies are left on the supermarket shelves, the more nutrients they lose. You can put some of the goodness back by putting vegetables straight in to the fridge when you get your shopping home. It keeps them fresher longer and it also raises their level of Vitamin C, which has probably dropped during transit.

Some of the best cooking methods to preserve the nutrients of vegies — fresh or frozen — are steaming, microwaving, stir frying or baking. A lot of nutrients like Vitamin C are water soluble and will leach away in a process like boiling.

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