Walking through the produce section in the grocery store can be overwhelming. The good news is that pre-cut, packaged vegetables are just as healthy for you as whole vegetables – as long as they’re fresh. They’re also less time-consuming to prepare, making it more likely that you’ll include them in your home cooking.
There are some things you should keep in mind, though, when shopping for baby carrots, celery sticks, broccoli florets or other pre-cut, bagged foods. Here are seven tips from dietitian Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, LD:
- Buy raw veggies. Pre-cut vegetables are equally nutritious and contain fiber just like their whole counterparts do. Just make sure you’re buying the food raw – not pre-cooked. Also, check to see if the vegetables have lost any water. If the vegetable has a whitish outer layer on it, it’s begun to lose its moisture, and some nutrients may have escaped the food.
- Buy cold veggies. Only buy pre-cut vegetables from the grocery store’s refrigerated section. It is best if they are chilled at a temperature of 4°C/39°F.
- Choose a variety of colored vegetables. Look for bags of mixed vegetables so that you are “eating the rainbow.” They even have pre-cut mixed-color carrots now. Eating a variety of colored vegetables maximizes your intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Even cauliflower comes in different colors!
- Check the labels. Be sure to check the date on any pre-cut vegetable packet. Look for either a packaging date or a use-by date, and make your purchase based on which container is freshest. After five or six days, the vitamin C and carotenoid levels begin to drop in pre-cut vegetables. When selecting pre-cut vegetables, look for ones that are pre-washed and ready to eat. However, if you buy pre-cut leafy green vegetables in open bags, wash them before consuming.
- Eat within a few days. Because these vegetables have already been cut and exposed to the air, you can’t let them sit in your refrigerator as long as you might a whole vegetable. Pre-cut foods will begin to break down quicker, so eat them in a timely fashion – usually within the five or six days before the vitamin levels drop off. Until you eat the vegetables, store them in airtight containers.
- Watch for chemicals. Read all labels to find out the substances food companies use to store or wash pre-cut vegetables. Most companies rinse pre-cut vegetables with water containing chlorine as a safety measure. Doing so eliminates many of the bacteria or mold-causing organisms that can cling to the foods. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approves of using a chlorinated wash, and most washes have chlorine levels far below the FDA limit. Existing research has also proven it’s safe to consume pre-cut vegetables washed this way.
- Take extra precautions if you’re pregnant. If you’re pregnant, though, you should take extra precautions. Buy fresh leafy greens and avoid the bagged varieties, such as spinach or lettuce. It’s safest not to consume any pre-cut vegetables, so if you choose other bagged vegetables, select one with whole – rather than cut – vegetables. And, even if the packaging states the vegetables are pre-washed, wash them anyway.