Can the Canned Food

From the WebMD Archives

By Alia Hoyt

I loved Popeye cartoons when I was a little kid. Heck, I still do, and I’m not ashamed to shout it from the rooftops. This is why, when my mom popped open a can of spinach as a “healthy” side for dinner, I’d wolf it down and dance around flexing my bicep muscles like the Sailor Man himself. Something about that delicious, salty flavor just spoke to me, and the not-so-subtle advertising certainly worked magic on my impressionable little brain. Later on down the road, when presented with actual, fresh spinach, I was flummoxed. What happened to the salty goodness (not to mention slimy appearance) I’d always treasured? My world was rocked when I found out that vegetables, when done properly, don’t taste like they’ve been hosed down with concentrated sodium. Before you get too down on my parents, remember that this was back in the 1980s when people were still allowed to smoke on airplanes. Research simply hadn’t caught up with the times on many fronts.

Unfortunately, most of us struggle with what food companies want us to believe regarding nutrition, versus what’s actually true. Even if you (like me) adore canned food, there’s really no good reason to keep up the habit because there are so many better and equally easy alternatives. Do these excuses sound familiar?

But... canned veggies have to be healthy because they’re vegetables: Even canned veggies do retain some nutritional benefit, but it pays to read labels, especially when sodium is involved. “We hear a lot about calories, fat and sugar, but sodium is a major problem in the American diet,” says Wendy Palmer, MS, RD, LD, CHES, Program Manager, Child Wellness, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “This is primarily because the American diet is very high in sodium, especially our abundance of ready to eat, fast food and restaurant foods.” Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports that too much sodium causes hypertension, which affects a startling one in three adults in the United States. Pretty much all experts agree that something has to change regarding sodium intake because hypertension is no joke.

But... I don’t have time to make fresh food: I have three little boys, one large dog, a part-time job and a high-maintenance husband. Believe me, no one understands the need to make dinnertime easy better than I do. Unfortunately for the excuse-making portion of my brain, it only takes a couple extra minutes to wash fresh veggies and steam them, versus microwaving or cooking canned food on the stovetop. Same goes for canned meats.

But... fresh food is more expensive than canned food: Sure, fresh foods can be pricier, but not all the time. “When fresh foods are in season they are certainly a great nutritional option and often a cost-efficient choice,” says Palmer. Case in point: corn is dirt cheap in the summer, but winter squash is not. So, pay attention to what’s in-season to keep your menu wallet-friendly.

But... frozen food isn’t as tasty as canned food. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Frozen foods are just as cost-effective as canned foods and often look and taste better,” says Palmer. Plus, veggies are frozen at their peak, often giving them better nutritional value than even the fresh variety. If the lower-preservative flavor is still bugging you, try drizzling your veggies with olive oil or another healthy seasoning option.

But... everyone needs salt, so sodium can’t be that bad for you: It’s true that a certain amount of sodium/salt per day is totally fine. The problem is that most people far exceed the recommended daily amount, without even realizing it. CDC is cool with normal, healthy adults having around 2,300 mg per day, but the average actual intake is in the neighborhood of 3,400 mg daily. Not all of this comes from canned foods (restaurant and other packaged foods are major culprits), but they definitely contribute. Remember the spinach I find so irresistible? A paltry half-cup contains 360 mg of sodium. And let’s face it -- I can eat way more than a half-cup in one sitting.

But... canned food is the only thing my kid will eat: Picky eating is often less about the food itself and more of a power struggle. It’s actually surprisingly easy to open your kids up to a whole new world of fresh foods. “I encourage parents to engage children in the whole process of shopping for vibrant colors of fruits and veggies, chopping them, cooking them and tasting them,” says Palmer. “They are much more likely to try them if they feel they had a choice in the process. Of course, they must see you eating them, too.”

The fact is that hypertension numbers are likely to keep skyrocketing unless we make serious dietary changes. So the next time you reach for a can, consider trotting on over to the produce or freezer section instead. You know even Popeye would want it that way.