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Buying fresh, local, and nutritious foods is definitely a lifestyle goal, but might not always be a reality, especially since getting to the farmer's market isn't always practical. If you're finding yourself grocery shopping online, or stockpiling food to make your provisions last a while, you're definitely going to consider canned foods. And why not? Canned foods are a pantry staple with a long shelf life. They're usually affordable and an easy go-to option when you're planning meals or cooking in bulk. But, serious question, are canned foods bad for you? The answer will surprise you.
Ahead, a nutritionist and two chefs offer sound advice on how to make canned foods work for a conscious eater. Plus, find shopping tips and recipe ideas to stay safe and healthy when eating canned foods.
Meet the Expert
- Chef Lynnette Astaire is the founder of Superfood School and a plant-based chef with over 10 years of experience. Superfood School helps people of all diets to get more plants on their plates with at-home superfood kits and online content.
- Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN is a chef, nutritionist, and reiki master, and founder of the method of Culinary Alchemy®, which is a combination of education, integrative and functional nutrition, and healing energy.
- Lisa Richards, CNC is a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet, with expertise in gut health and inflammation.
Is Canned Food Nutritious?
The short answer to whether or not canned food holds nutritional value is generally, yes (if you are discerning). "The idea that canned food is less nutritious than fresh or frozen versions is inaccurate," says Richards . "The canning process is actually able to retain the product's minerals, fat-soluble vitamins, and macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, and protein)." However, she adds that "the high temperatures used in the process decreases many water soluble vitamins including B vitamins and vitamin C," which can be problematic if you're relying on a particular canned food product for its presumed vitamin B or C content to help with immune support.
Perhaps it's not the contents that scares you, but the actual can itself. Is consuming food packaged in metal safe? Poon explains, "The concerns around canned foods come from the cans. Even though we’re well aware of the presence and dangers of BPA, a chemical that has been linked to diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart disease, you can still find cans lined with BPA readily on the grocery store shelf."
BPA, or Bisphenol-A, is a chemical that is used in packaging and will not be listed as an ingredient, but can enter the food post-canning. Richards points out "several studies have been conducted to determine what foods are more likely to have BPA present due to leaching from the can itself. The percentage of BPA found in canned goods ranges from 48% to 90%." She adds that human studies have also been conducted "to investigate the potential for BPA to enter and cause damaging effects," including a 2011 study published by the National Institutes of Health which found a 1000% increase of BPA in the urine of individuals who ate a can of soup for five days.
Poon suggests you look for canned foods that explicitly say, "BPA-free lining" on the label, citing a report released by the Center for Environmental Health, indicating that 38% of cans tested from large retail chains contained BPA.
Discerning the Good from the Bad
When it comes to making healthy choices about types of canned foods, both Richards and Poon agree that you should opt for low-sugar (under 4 grams) and low-sodium offerings. If you can't find a low-sodium option, Richards suggests you rinse the item under water to reduce salt intake. "Some other less common, but certainly present and concerning ingredients, include artificial colors and dyes, sodium benzoate, and high fructose corn syrup along with other artificial sweeteners," says Richards. Another ingredient to avoid is sodium nitrate, which "may be added to some canned foods as natural flavor, but is known to possibly lead to various cancers, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome," she warns. "Artificial colors and dyes are linked to cancer, as well as thyroid and kidney disorders," says Richards.
Poon says she avoids any canned food that "contains any type of preservative other than salt or a natural acid like lemon juice or vinegar." She also steers clear of canned fruits as they "tend to be high in sugar and syrups."
Another tip to get the most nutrition out of canned foods is to looks for items packed in water rather than oil or syrup. "Oil adds extra calories as well as total and saturated fat that typically aren't essential to the food's quality or taste," says Richards. "Even in cases where it is common to find specific foods packed in oil, like tuna and other fish, it is still best to choose water. This is because these oils don't match the healthy oils naturally occurring in the fish. This oil is almost always saturated or trans fat which negates many of the health properties of consuming fish. As an example; tuna packed in water has less than 2 grams of fat per one cup serving while tuna packed in oil has 12 grams of fat for just one cup."
When perusing the can, don't rely on buzz words like "healthy" or "natural," which may be misleading. Instead, always read ingredient labels. "Some manufacturers use marketing techniques and labeling to coerce consumers into believing certain health qualities about their food instead of reading the nutrient panel and ingredients," says Richards. "Oftentimes, the label and the contents are quite different." Poon adds, "If you don’t recognize the words on the label, put down the can."
Finally, never purchase dented cans, "especially those that have been dented around the lip of the can," says Richards. "Dents can create small microscopic holes that allow just enough oxygen in to allow clostridium botulinum (botulism) to grow rampant. This bacteria is deadly and cannot be killed through the cooking process."
Poon recommends wiping down all of your cans. She uses a homemade cleaner with 70% alcohol or a 3% hydrogen peroxide cleaner.
Best Canned Foods to Stockpile
Some of the best canned foods on the market can help you create healthy, delicious comfort food. "Canned foods can be a great way to store vegetables, proteins, and soups in your pantry for a long time," says Poon. Some of her favorite canned foods include:
- Canned beans/legumes like black beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas
- Vegetables without preservatives
- Wild caught fish
- Coconut milk
- Pre-made, low-sodium and preservative-free vegan organic soups and chilis
She also encourages you to find organic varieties.
Chef Lynnette Astaire suggests you avoid "pre-combined canned foods like a heat-and-eat chili which usually has tons of sodium and preservatives." Instead, she urges you to focus on single ingredients, "like beans to make your own chili."
Never cook food inside the can. Poon says when you "reheat food within a can, you run the risk of chemicals, such as aluminum or BPA leaching into your food."
Healthy Canned Food Recipe Ideas
When it comes to healthy canned foods recipes, Astaire suggests minimal-to-no-heat options. "One of the ways I like to think about canned foods is cold," she says. "Since it's already been cooked, keeping it cold is a great way to maximize remaining nutrients. Think salads, dips, and spreads. A popular recipe of ours combines two of the most unlikely canned foods (hearts of palm and artichoke) into a seriously convincing fish-free ceviche."
Poon also suggests the following dishes, which all use canned foods as a base:
- Roasted chickpeas
- Organic black bean chili
- Pumpkin pie
- Canned salmon burgers
Alternatives to Canned Foods
If you're looking for foods with a long shelf life but want to avoid canned goods, Poon likes fermented foods. Not only do these make great pantry staples, "they also deliver probiotics, which support a healthy digestive system." Think pickled foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, and tempeh.
Astaire suggests dry goods as an alternative to canned. "If you're looking for max nutrients and shelf life, you can buy dry," she says. "In the case of beans, cooking them completely from scratch allows you to create different textures for things like burgers, spreads, and even brownies."
You can also try simply freezing and drying your fruits and vegetables to preserve them, or try canning them yourself. "Prepare your ingredients, boil, seal and store," says Poon. For more info on DIY preserving (including canning) she recommends the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.