Food Forum: The value of canned foods

Not only is the can a convenient and sustainable packaging format, it maintains the freshness, nutrition and safety of food.

By Hella Gourven

When it comes to food, consumer tastes may vary but the qualities they value do not. Freshness, high-quality ingredients, convenience and environmental responsibility invariably find their way to the top of consumer demands for their food products and packaging. The can helps brands achieve all of these, but consumers may not always realize this.

Metal cans have been keeping food fresh for more than 200 years, ever since Britain’s King George III granted Peter Durand a patent for his idea of preserving food in airtight tin containers in 1810. While we continue to value canned foods for the convenience they offer, we tend to forget the benefits that drove Durand to package foods in metal—namely the health and nutritional advantages that the format affords.

As consumers increasingly understand the role that nutritious foods play in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and as they progressively value more health-conscious diets, they continue to demand brand owners provide the most nutritious food options possible.

Some consumers are of the mindset that canned foods are less nutritious than their fresh or frozen counterparts. Canned foods are nutritionally on par with fresh and frozen products and in many cases they are actually more nutritious. According to a 2012 study by Michigan State University, for example, the retort process employed during canning tomatoes actually improves their B vitamins, vitamin E and carotenoid content. Similarly, fiber, a nutrient of concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, becomes more soluble—and therefore more useful in the human body—during canning.

These benefits come about through the canning process itself, whereby foods are picked at the peak of freshness and immediately transported to the canning facilities, which are strategically located near farms to ensure that fruit and vegetables are canned within hours of being picked. The food is then cooked in the can to destroy bacteria, leaving a low-oxygen environment that inhibits degradation of the food and its nutrients during the can’s shelf life.

As a result, food is able to remain stable in a can without the need for any chemical preservatives—an important distinction between canned and fresh foods.
Additional studies show that canning increases the availability of certain antioxidants in foods and vegetables. Here are a few examples: Canned pumpkin contains a higher concentration of beta carotene than fresh pumpkin. Corn’s absorption of lutein, an antioxidant that has been linked to a reduction in the risks of cataracts and macular degeneration, is enhanced by the heat generated during the canning process.

The high-temperatures of retort cooking also effectively sterilize the food products in cans, which is critical to maintaining the safety of those foods. Metal cans protect food against any external influence during heat treatment as well as storage because of the hermetic seal formed prior to retorting.

Once the packaging process is complete, it is the metal can that most effectively continues to preserve the quality of the food it contains. Foods typically degrade through extended exposure to air or sunlight, and metal is the only container material that completely prevents light and oxygen from infiltrating the package.

In addition, the metal can speaks strongly to consumers’ preferences for environmentally friendly choices in every aspect of their lives. Metal is 100% recyclable, recycled at high levels and can be continuously reused without degradation in performance or quality.

Beyond these inherent benefits, cans are also being found to be beneficial to promoting a healthier lifestyle among consumers. Canned products remain the perfect staple foods to stock up on and have on hand at any time and are available year round 24/7, in the process providing an easy means for people to consume the recommended daily amounts and varieties of fruits, vegetables, meats and beans.

Single-serve cans, for example, allow consumers to enjoy portion-controlled meals and healthy snacks straight from the package, in the process saving time and effort associated with preparing a separate dish and cleaning up.

The result is an extremely convenient, safe and sustainable packaging format that protects the nutritional value of  food.

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