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As farmers market season heads into full swing, you may find yourself dreaming about freshly picked ears of corn and peas in their pods. So why would anyone want to hear about frozen veggies now?
For starters, it’s not always easy to find — or afford — what you want in the supermarket produce aisle. And how many of us have gleefully scooped up a basket’s worth of goodies only to find that we didn’t have time to prepare a meal before the bounty wilted in the crisper drawer?
No matter how you get your veggies, we all need to get more: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only about 1 in 10 Americans consumes his or her daily recommended amounts of veggies (3½ and 2½ cups, respectively). Frozen produce, of course, also cuts down the prep and cook time.
That’s why veggie lovers will be cheered to learn about the greater number of inventive new frozen offerings. You’ll find veggies that are mashed, riced, roasted and spiralized, as well as mixed with grains and beans. There’s also a cost advantage: Data from the Agriculture Department shows typically higher average prices for fresh produce, with some items significantly cheaper in frozen form.
Consumer Reports’ food testers sampled a variety of frozen vegetable products, rating them for nutrition, flavor and texture. Some innovations missed the mark in terms of taste and others lost points for excess sodium or other concerns. But overall, our testing team found plenty of products to be both healthy and tasty. Here are some highlights.
It’s a long-held belief that anything not fresh can’t possibly be good for you. But when it comes to frozen vegetables, recent research shows that’s not the case. Culinary scientist Ali Bouzari led a study at the University of California at Davis in which his team tested eight hand-harvested items: blueberries, broccoli, carrots, corn, green beans, peas, spinach and strawberries. They flash-froze half of the bounty and stored the other half in typical industry conditions for fresh produce. The researchers periodically tested the content of 11 nutrients in both the fresh and frozen produce.
The conclusion: In some cases, fresh items were slightly better; in others, frozen items had a slight edge. Nutritionally speaking, in other words, “good frozen produce is essentially a head-to-head toss-up with good fresh produce,” Bouzari says.
If you’re browsing the frozen-veggie aisle in the supermarket, you may be surprised by the wealth of cauliflower in the cases. What’s up with that?
According to Kara Nielsen, culinary trends analyst at the marketing firm CCD Innovation, cauliflower has become de rigueur at trendy restaurants. “It’s the next kale,” she says. Cauliflower mania has spread to home cooks, with sales of products containing the cruciferous vegetable rising 71 percent in the past year, according to market research firm Nielsen.
The cauliflower craze, Nielsen says, took hold when paleo dieters and other carb-averse eaters discovered that processing it into small, rice-shaped pieces could create a substitute for carb-heavy items such as potatoes and rice. The new diet star — bagged, riced cauliflower — became a supermarket fixture, in both the produce and the freezer aisles. Broccoli, sweet potatoes and other vegetables in “riced” form soon followed suit.
Riced cauliflower fared particularly well in our tests. The four products that were rated “excellent” overall each contain riced cauliflower. “It’s a fairly versatile ingredient,” says Maxine Siegel, who heads Consumer Reports’ food-testing lab. “It has enough flavor that you could eat it on its own, but riced cauliflower can also replace some of the rice in recipes.” Mashed cauliflower also got high marks.
Though your healthiest option will always be to buy plain veggies and season them yourself, one of our recommended products was pre-seasoned. Green Giant Riced Veggies Cauliflower with Lemon & Garlic got a high nutrition score in part because it contained no added salt, but our tasters also rated it highly for its fresh lemony flavor. “It goes to show that it is possible to have a low-sodium packaged product that tastes good,” Siegel says.
Spiralized veggies — low-calorie, low-carb substitutions for pasta — are also big news in the frozen-food aisle. It’s not surprising: Spiralizing from scratch takes time and specialized kitchen equipment. For fans of these foods, we found that the frozen packaged Carrot Spirals from Trader Joe’s received one of our highest nutrition and sensory scores. (Green Giant recently released a spiralized frozen-veggie line, but the items were not available in time for our tests.)
Also popping up in the freezer section are veggie “tots” — similar to kids’ fried potato tots but with other vegetables inside. Of the three in our tests, the Green Giant Veggie Tots Broccoli got the highest overall score, with good flavor making up for somewhat mushy texture.
Consumers looking to bump up their plant protein intake will also find frozen blends of vegetables, grains and beans. We found these to be of varying quality. Sodium was a problem, but Birds Eye Steamfresh Protein Blends California Style still received “very good” nutrition and taste scores.
The most disappointing innovation: Roasted vegetables from Green Giant. Siegel says her team had high hopes because roasting brings out vegetables’ sweetness, and having a frozen option means that you can skip the time-consuming process of roasting them yourself. But most of these frozen roasted veggies were barely edible, with a smoky, ashy flavor, according to our tasters.
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