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The tinned versus fresh debate.   Was Popeye right to always eat his spinach from a can?

Thank you, thank you lovely reader (you know who you are) for your brilliant comment following my Democratising Nutrition blog. You raised the question of fresh vs tinned – very pertinent, polemical, and really interesting to research. If anyone does have a topic they’d like to discuss, then please do so in the comments box below, just under this blog. I’ll happily divert form my planned powwows to confabulate (“converse informally, chat”. Gotta love that word) over something that’s on your mind…

So, fresh versus tinned. As ever, the opposing views are convincing and persuasive.

Well mostly.

It has to be said, that the time I spent perusing my first port of call, a website called “Canned Food UK” was possibly the dullest 2 minutes of my life. OMGoodness is all I can say. I had my fork poised ready for some seriously bored eye stabbing action. Thankfully, they summed up their stance in one paragraph, so I could move on quickly:

“Convenient, with nutrition locked in without the need for preservatives (except for a few cold meat products) canned foods provide us with a quick, affordable, healthy option that has a long shelf life so we can grab them from the cupboard at any time. What’s more, metal cans are a very good option for the environment – all metal cans can be recycled again and again. The long shelf life of canned foods not only saves energy used for refrigeration or freezing foods but helps reduce food waste as well.”

Surprisingly, the notion of nutrition is really only just touched on. Even when the chairman for Canned Food UK is quoted on the site, the nutritional benefit is mentioned in second place to cost factors:

“Canned food clearly presents an affordable option, with convenience and nutrition playing an important role, too.”

I left the site utterly unconvinced.

Luckily, my second stop couldn’t have been more different: the

cash-strapped, transgender, single mum Jack Monroe, who has caused a stir with her super cheap recipes enabling her to live off a £10 / week food budget. Her recipes regularly include something from a tin, but intentionally or not, Jack also seems to talk about tinned food more from a cost perspective than a nutritional one.

Whilst the cost factor is a huge plus (see Democratising Nutrition blog), there are strong nutritional arguments in favour of tins too:

  1. The healthy compounds in some vegetables increase in the canning process - which sees cans filled, then hermetically sealed and then heated to destroy bacteria. This heating causes certain raw vegetables, tomatoes are a great example, to release antioxidants and make them more available and easier for our bodies to absorb*.

  2. If fresh fruit and vegetables spend days sitting in containers or in our fridge at home, they lose a lot of their nutritional value even if they still look good. Canned fruit and vegetables are delivered to the canning factory right after they are picked. Their original vitamins and other nutrients are preserved, and locked in, while they are still at their best.

So, it’s looking good for cans right? Hang on. Just hang on a minute. Rather inevitably, with every pro comes a con, just like every silver lining has its cloud.

There have been health scares around cans – predominantly the presence of the controversial chemical bisphenol A (BPA) that has been found in food cans. A few months ago The Telegraph ran an article sensationally entitled: “Does canned food cause cancer?” **. BPA is a chemical used to line the tines, and this can apparently leach into the food and end up in the body. Dr Jenny Carwile, lead author of the latest study at the Harvard School of Public Health, said: "We've known for a while that drinking beverages that have been stored in certain hard plastics can increase the amount of BPA in your body. This study suggests that canned foods may be an even greater concern, especially given their wide use."

Food Safety UK acknowledges that “minute” amounts of BPA can leach into food from cans and packaging, but says the chemical is “rapidly absorbed, detoxified, and eliminated by the body” and therefore “not a risk” to human health at current exposure levels. However, the subject is most definitely contentious among scientists.

So are we left with a rather generic conclusion, “everything in moderation?” Tins, our storecupboard essentials, are often there to save the day, but not every day. Is that wishy-washy enough for you?! Regardless of what you think, I’m afraid I can’t end on that note. I need something a little stronger.

Ah, yes, Napeoleon. He was strong. Let’s end instead with a reference to him. He is after all the man we need to thank for tins. He realised that almost as many of his soldiers died from scurvy and malnutrition as at the hands of the enemy. So he offered a 12,000-franc prize for anyone who could come up with a method of preserving food to feed his men. A chap called Nicolas Appert invented a method of storing food in glass jars, sealing them with corks and heating them in water. He didn't know why it worked but it did and he pocketed the prize.

Rightly so, because the invention is a great one. There are, without question, some tins that won’t make it through my front door – I literally wretched when Delia suggested using tinned mince in her book ‘How to Cheat at Cooking’. Equally, there are some I simply couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be without. Predominantly BEANS. Baked beans are a firm favourite of mine, but I’m a massive fan of beans generally. One of my most used recipes is Posh Beans on Toast. Everyone has their own version of it, but Nigel Slater’s is pretty damn good:

So I’m with Hugh (Fearnley-Whittingstall):

“Just like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz, these shiny metal boxes of food turn out not just to have a long life. They also have a big heart.”

And they have a big place in mine.

*Gene Lester, Ph.D., a research plant physiologist at the USDA’s Food Quality Lab

** The Telegraph: Lifestyle food and drink April 2016, Sue Quinn


I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.

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