Vegetable-seeking organic and natural consumers are probably going to reach for fresh first, but if the produce aisles are looking a little scant or soggy, customers will be quick to check the freezers and shelves for frozen and canned versions of their favorites. Many shoppers don't have time for a daily trip to the store or farmers' market, so they'll be stocking up on spinach, asparagus, pumpkin and artichoke hearts during their weekly grocery foray, and even looking for fast and easy-to-prepare options.
While novelty always makes for good marketing and merchandising, the frozen and canned vegetables segment hasn't changed too much recently. Heck, the first canned vegetables date back to the early 1800s in England and New York. Later that century, Louis Pasteur came up with the heat-first-then-package system to prevent contamination, and customers have been stocking their pantries with canned cranberries and beans ever since.
What is new, or renewed, in the canned market is the concern about Bisphenol-A. BPA is an epoxy resin used to line the inside of cans and other food containers, such as milk and juice cartons, to keep the contents from sticking to the sides. It is also a main component of polycarbonate plastics, labeled with a 7.
Since the '80s and '90s, BPA has been in and out of the consumer safety spotlight. In the late 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency set safety limits, but when BPA was found leaching out of plastic baby bottles in the mid '90s, new investigations began uncovering potential harms, such as lowering body weight and affecting the prostate, even at very low levels.
Last year the debate between industry experts asserting toxicity at low doses and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's hard stance escalated to the point of a congressional investigation of the FDA including a demand for proof of basis on its BPA safety claim.
This past spring, the National Toxicology Program, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, released concerns about BPA's effect on early puberty, breast cancer, prostate effects and behavioral problems. While the FDA still maintains that the intake of low levels of BPA is safe, manufacturers, especially natural and organic, have been looking for packaging options to meet the expectations of the sophisticated, health-conscious consumer.
"While the FDA is saying [BPA] is not harmful, there are a lot of consumers who think it will do harm," says Alison Cox, vice president of marketing at Edward & Sons Trading Co., purveyors of Native Forest brand canned vegetables. "We are reviewing the research, several of our cans are already BPA-free, and we are switching over as much as possible."
The latest trend is steamer packs of veggies. Green Giant has favorite varieties such as sweet peas, mixed vegetables, green beans and broccoli as well as ready-to-eat dishes or sides including roasted red potatoes, green beans and rosemary butter sauce. Birds Eye and Cascadian Farms carry similar veggie combos in small and large pouches.
The steamer packs go from freezer to microwave, offering the option of a super-quick veggie preparation. The steamer-pack trend is still largely a mainstream phenomenon, although the convenience factor is likely to bring the packs to the naturals marketplace soon.
"We don't offer steamer packs under our label yet but are starting to do them under private label," says Peter Gengler, president of SNO PAC Foods Inc. of Caledonia, Minn. "I get mixed reviews on the packs. Some customers say they don't want to microwave, but our private labels say they are popular."
The big question is: What's more nutritious, frozen or canned?
"It really depends on what vegetable we are talking about and when the product was canned or frozen," said Beth Jauquet, R.D., spokeswoman for Colorado Dietetic Association. "For example, research has found that the antioxidant lycopene is much more bioavailable in tomato products that have been thermally processed, so you might get more benefit from canned tomatoes. On the other hand, a canned potato might lose some of its vitamin C and so a frozen one might be a better source of nutrients."
Jauquet said vegetables that sit exposed before being canned or frozen are probably lower in nutrients than those that are packaged ripe and fresh. The CDA is also concerned about salt in the balance of nutrition.
"As a dietician I would say that, overall, both canned and frozen vegetables are very good options for nutrition through produce, especially in the off season," Jauquet says.
"There are studies showing that when vegetables such as asparagus are canned directly from the field, canned can be more nutritious," Cox says. "And if you need something now, you are always better off buying an organic canned variety than a conventional fresh one."
It's good to keep the shelves and coolers stocked with quality organic and natural frozen and canned vegetables, especially when seasonal fresh produce is scarce or pricey. Staying up to date and educated on primary consumer concerns such as BPA or contamination will also help you merchandise the healthiest options for your concerned shoppers.
Chris O'Brien is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 12/p. 21