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What's Better: Canned Food or Frozen Food?

Processing fruits and vegetables wastes less food but uses more energy than using them fresh. It turns out that frozen food takes a lot more energy than canned food. The nutrition depends on a number of factors, including harvesting, processing, storage method, and age, as this study from UC Davis shows.

As the chart below shows, growing a pound of corn kernels takes about 450 calories. (The corn itself contains just 375 calories, so it takes 120 calories of energy to produce 100 calories of corn.) Canning it takes a total of 2031 calories, largely from the energy needed to make the can. Frozen corn takes less packaging but more processing, with 2985 calories needed for a pound of corn, nearly 8 times the energy contained in the corn itself. (Source: Food, Energy, and Society, third edition, by David Pimentel and Marcia H. Pimentel.)

Chart - energy to process fresh corn, canned corn, and frozen corn

Should You Buy Frozen, Canned, or Fresh Vegetables and Fruit?

Buy fresh, local produce in season whenever you possible. If food has to travel a long way or is out of season, consider canned food first and then frozen food. You'll waste less food while still getting good nutrition. Canned tomatoes and beans have good texture and flavor. Frozen greens are a great convenience and work well in sauces and stews. Experiment to find out what works best for your family.


10 Ways to Waste Less Food and Energy

You probably know that we waste a lot of food: about 25% globally and about 40% in the United States. Wasted food represents a huge amount of wasted energy as well as a missed opportunity to feed all the hungry people in the world.

Food takes fuel to produce, process, package, transport, and store. Some food takes a lot more energy to produce than other food, so wasting it wastes more energy. But 100% of the energy in food you don't eat is wasted.

  1. Use what you already have first
  2. Make menus and shopping lists to help you buy only the food you will actually eat
  3. Bring home "ugly" tomatoes, "weird" carrots, and the like that may otherwise go to waste
  4. Eat plenty of local, in-season fruit and vegetables
  5. Enjoy other plant-based foods that store well, such as dried beans, whole grains, seeds, and nuts
  6. Choose canned or frozen versions of out-of-season vegetables and fruit rather than buying fresh food from far away
  7. Avoid lamb, beef, cheese, pork, salmon, and other foods with a high Food Wasted Effect
  8. Serve healthy amounts but not too much
  9. When you eat out, bring home any extra food to replace food you otherwise would have bought
  10. Tuck any extra fresh vegetables into stews or soups before they go bad 

Reducing Food Waste Where It Counts: The Food Waste Effect

The most effective way to reduce food waste is to focus on the types of food that are wasted the most and that take the most energy to produce. Most efforts look at one or the other of these factors. Some even downplay the amount of animal products wasted by splitting up the categories and printing the labels upside down or sideways. (NRDC, I'm looking at you.)  My Food Waste Effect multiplies two factors together:

  • How much of a certain category of food is typically wasted as show in chart 1 below
  • The full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for a food, including production, processing, transportation, cooking, and disposal

I hope combining these concepts will help you and other engaged cooks select ingredients that take less energy to produce and to be careful with types of food that are often wasted. By a beautiful coincidence, doing this will be good for your health and budget and good for the planet.

Chart 1: Wasted Food by Category

This chart shows total food losses in households, retail, and food service, from eggs at 2% to fresh fruits and vegetables at 22%. (Source: Journal of Consumer Affairs.) Plant products make up 44% of the food wasted, animal products 39%, and sweeteners, fats, and oils make up the rest. You might be tempted by this chart to switch from fresh produce to canned or frozen. Please don't until you check the next chart.

Food Waste by Category: Pie Chart shows percent meat, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables wasted

Chart 2: the Food Waste Effect

The Food Waste Effect chart shows the percentage of food wasted

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Eat Vegetables and other Plants to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint

Eating plants instead of animals is a powerful way to slow climate change that's open to everyone.  We don't need to wait for the government or big business to change. We don't need to buy a Prius or even a light bulb to start healing the Earth. More people are asking how to stop climate change, but going vegetarian or vegan even part of the time is rarely mentioned at events like the 2017 Climate March. Ironically, advocating for animals would help many organizations succeed in their core missions.

Only You Can Eat Plants Not Animals sign at climate march 2017

Impact of Raising Animals for Food

Animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of the greenhouse gases produced every year. Only transportation has more impact. Avoiding beef and dairy products is particularly important because ...

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Why Cook Organic Food?

Why cook organic food? It's better for your health and the health of the planet. This makes it a better value than “conventional” or industrial food, even though it often costs a little more. Fortunately, cooking at home is much cheaper than eating out, even if you cook with organic ingredients.

Why cook organic food - butterflies, babies, healthy vegetables, safe farmer, children and planet

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