The coronavirus is changing every aspect of our daily lives. We can’t go to gyms, can’t travel, and even our eating habits are affected. We’ve gone from stocking our fridges with chicken and salmon to stockpiling our “doomsday bunkers” with toilet paper and enough cans of tuna and beans — pretty much anything that comes in an aluminum can — for Biosphere 3.
We have to adapt in these tough times, and a diet consisting of non-perishable foods is one way to move forward. “There are plenty of nutrient-rich non-perishable foods that have health benefits and pack the same or similar nutrients as their fresh counterparts,” says Molly Morgan, RD, CDN, CSSD of Fuel2Win. “For example, 1 cup of applesauce still has 3 grams of fiber, which is only about 1.5 grams less fiber compared to eating a whole apple or 3 ounces of canned tuna has 22 grams of protein compared to 25 grams of protein in 3 ounces of fresh cooked tuna.”
But, eater beware. There are several drawbacks to non-perishable foods. Lori Zanini, R.D., spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, based in Manhattan Beach, CA, points out we need to watch out for non-perishable foods with added salt to preserve them or added sugar to enhance the flavor. “Shelf stable foods are also lower in vitamins because water soluble vitamins are somewhat destroyed during processing or drying,” says Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD at NutriComm in Portland, Maine.
You will also lose some of the beneficial phytochemicals and nutrients in fresh food as it gets old in our fridge or on our counters, says Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, co-author of Plant-based Sports Nutrition. “Most people underestimate that and overestimate the loss in frozen and canned foods. Though canned does lose some B and C vitamins.”
However, Broihier says, as long as you are eating a variety of foods — working in a mix of nutrient-rich non perishable foods including sources of protein, whole grains, healthy fats, fruits — and utilizing frozen vegetables and fruits, in addition to your shelf staples, you’ll be fine.
Although, one needs to watch for added sodium. “When buying canned products look for reduced sodium options and in food preparation skip adding salt to help keep sodium levels in check,” advises Morgan. “For example: 1/2 cup of diced tomatoes has about 250 milligrams of sodium, compared to the only 5 milligrams of sodium in 1/2 cup of fresh chopped tomatoes, or 3 ounces of canned tuna has 380 milligrams of sodium versus only 40 milligrams of sodium in fresh cooked tuna.
When it comes to non-perishable foods like grains, beans and tuna fish, you don’t lose anything, says Largeman-Roth. “In the case of fruit and vegetables, you still retain a ton of nutrients, but you lose the crunch, texture and bright color of fresh or frozen varieties. And of course, you do want to look for canned fruit that isn’t in syrup as that will contribute extra calories in the form of added sugar.”
There aren’t many concerns of abiding to a long-term non-perishable diet. “They’d come if you are relying on non-perishable foods that aren’t nutrient-rich, like chips and cookies,” says Morgan. “Over time that would take a toll on your health.”
You also need to focus on getting enough fiber, for regularity and gut health, and vitamin C, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition and wellness expert and author of Eating in Color. ”Over time it would be a pretty boring diet. I know that I would miss fresh herbs and a variety of color on my plate. Let’s hope we don’t have to be fully shelf stable long term!”
Hopefully this pandemic ends soon and we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming. But, if we’re on a shelf stable diet for a long period of time, all of our experts agree: a canned fruit or vegetable is better than no fruit or vegetable at all.