With a mantra of “fresh is best” in modern food thinking, tinned food is often seen as a second choice, and for some an embarrassment in a country of fresh food riches. But what place should tinned food, especially vegetables take in our pantries?
“I grew up on a farm, so we always, kind of, shopped for the flood,” says Lucy Tweed, food stylist and author of Every Night Of The Week. “We had a cupboard full of tinned things but also a garden.”
Tweed says she feels tinned food went through a period of being a step away from nutritious but, “with all of the processes now in place to preserve nutrition, not just colour and taste, tinned vegetables are not an offensive option, not an embarrassing option”.
There are those, says Tweed, that “reign supreme” in that form: canned tomatoes are her staple, as are harder-to-find-fresh bits and pieces like water chestnuts and bamboo shoots that she may need at short notice, and then “obviously all the legumes”.
The planning foresight required to soak legumes ahead of time isn’t something many of us have when what we cook is a last-minute decision. Tweed says that in her household it all depends on “who’s actually eating, how hungry are they and what do I feel like cooking”.
There are a number of ongoing debates around tinned goods hinging on food science, from nutritional issues to the presence of BPA – an industrial chemical – in packaging. BPA-free packaging is becoming more readily used and is an option for those with concerns.
Dr Megan Rossi, a registered dietitian and author of Eat Yourself Healthy, gives a practical and measured view across a spectrum of nutritional concerns. Heat-sensitive vitamins like vitamin C can be lost during the canning process, as is also the case when using cooking methods such as boiling. “This nutrient loss is pretty minimal in the context of your overall diet,” she says. “So it’s not something to get hung up on, especially if your diet includes plenty of fresh foods too.”
Research around polyphenols, or “health-promoting plant chemicals”, suggests that a reduction depends on the product. “A study on canned peanuts found the polyphenols decreased when stored in brine,” says Rossi. “On the other hand, one study found the polyphenol content of canned apricots increased by 48% versus fresh apricots.”
As to preservatives, it’s really a case of anything we buy fresh or processed: knowing what has been added or how it’s grown. Added salt, sugar and other preservatives are common; many of us consume too much of the first two. Rossi’s advice is to “opt for canned foods with no added salt or other unnecessary additives. Some are also canned in brine or syrup, which can increase the added sugar, so look for products canned in water. Simply draining and rinsing can remove much of the excess salt and sugar too.”
Ultimately, it’s all about balance, says Rossi. “There’s no need to shun canned foods, especially if it’s the easiest way for you to up your plant diversity.”
Beyond convenience and plant diversity, there is a case for nostalgia. Many of us would remember practical yet aspirational cookbooks of the 70s and 80s that leaned on tinned goods. Whether those recipes stand up is another question, but nostalgia is a strong force in food.
“I for one am completely partial to champignons because we always had them in the cupboard when I was little,” says Tweed. “Not the buttery ones, the ones in brine. They kind of have the same salty briny flavour of a Spanish black olive, and it’s quite satisfying.”
But would anyone, I ask, feel nostalgia for those tiny turned carrots of many a childhood? Tweed thinks so. “With all the chaos that we’re subjected to these days, there’s definitely someone who would associate tinned carrots with some kind of peace and happiness.”