February 22, 2009

Canned food industry stressing nutrition argument to win back consumers

Come on, 'fess up. There are times when you have cranked open a can of peaches to satisfy a craving for fruit.

In so doing, you might have drawn a sneer from certain people who think that fresh is best when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

It's a belief that the canned food industry -- including Modesto-area processors of tomatoes, peaches and a few other crops -- has been trying to counteract.

Industry people say canning seals in the flavor and nutrients within hours of harvest. They also note that the products are affordable, easy to use and available all year.

Some consumers need no persuading.

"I think that quality-wise, for the money we spend, it's a very good choice," said Peggy Wild of Modesto.

"I enjoy the fresh fruit also," said Carol Cesena, another Modestan, "but there are just certain times when (canned) is easier."

The topic is timely these days, with the recession squeezing food budgets and health experts urging people to eat more fruit and vegetables.

It's especially important to the economy of the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where a good part of the nation's tomatoes, peaches and apricots are grown and processed. Several thousand people work at the region's canneries, mostly during the summer.

The north valley produces a smaller amount of vegetables for the frozen market, many of them processed at Patterson Vegetable Co. The region has its share of fresh produce, as well, notably cherries around Stockton and apricots and vegetables on the West Side.

The fresh and frozen produce industries have seen strong growth in demand nationwide over recent decades.

Not so with canned fruit, where per capita consumption has fallen by more than a third since 1970. Peaches dropped even more.

Canned vegetable demand has been fairly steady, including the tomatoes that make up more than half the nation's consumption.

Canning industry leaders are stressing the nutrition argument as they try to keep pace in the highly competitive business of feeding people.

They point to a 2007 study from the University of California at Davis on how nutrients are affected by the canning process.

The nutrients include vitamin A, found in abundance in apricots and in lesser amounts in peaches and tomatoes. The researchers said the canning process, which includes cooking, makes it easier for the body to absorb the vitamin.

The same appears to happen with lycopene, a substance in tomatoes that might help prevent cancer.

Vitamin C can be lost when harvested crops are exposed to water or heat, the Davis team said. This happens initially in canning, but the containers keep the vitamin level stable from then on, they said.

Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C, and it often is added to canned fruit in the form of ascorbic acid.

The researchers found that fiber and potassium levels were about the same for canned, frozen and fresh products.

"You don't have to have it fresh for it to be good for you," said Roberta Larson Duyff, a St. Louis-based dietitian and spokeswoman for the Canned Food Alliance. "You can have a pantry that is well-stocked, so you can just reach for those canned tomatoes or peaches or pumpkin."

The alliance includes food processors and the steel industry, both of which have a stake in keeping kitchen can openers in frequent use.

The American Dietetic Association endorses canned fruits and vegetables. They have virtually no fat and come in low-sugar and low-salt versions.

"Anything to increase fruit and vegetable intake this time of year -- fresh, frozen or canned -- is a positive thing," said Terri Spezzano, a nutrition adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus County.

Still, the fresh-is-best idea persists. Turn on the Food Network and you might hear a celebrity chef make this claim. Note as well the effort by local food advocates to reduce the distance from farm to plate and the energy use it entails.

Canned food backers agree that fresh is good, but they also say produce can lose nutrients if it is not handled properly.

The canners note that they harvest at the peak of ripeness -- unlike the green tomatoes and hard peaches picked for much of the fresh market.

"You can't find more mature, ripe fruit or tomatoes than canned," said Scott McRitchie of Riverbank, who spent 35 years in fruit and vegetable processing. "If Tri Valley or Stanislaus Food Products tomatoes weren't in the can within five hours of harvest, we needed to know why."

Escalon Premier Brands, another tomato cannery, is getting Mexican restaurants to shift from raw to processed products for salsa, brand manager Jeff Jarchow said.

"It's like it's 100 percent fresh, right off the vine," he said.

So is all this causing a food fight of sorts between the canned and fresh industries? Not really.

"The produce industry's attitude is that we're happy that consumers are eating fruits and vegetables in any form," said Julia Stewart, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association in Newark, Del. "More consumption is better."

She said proper handling ensures that fresh produce maintains its quality. It is packed quickly after harvest and kept at proper temperatures during storing and shipping. The industry advises supermarkets on how to display the foods and consumers on how to store and cook them.

"You'll always have the best experience if you eat fresh fruits and vegetables sooner rather than later," Stewart said.

The canners aim to boost sales in part by borrowing the fresh image. Del Monte Foods, which produces fruit in Modesto, advertises "same nutrients as fresh" on some of its cans.

Canners also are trying to boost sales with unusual products, such as raspberry-flavored peach chunks from Del Monte. It and other processors have expanded to glass jars, flip-top plastic cups and other alternative packaging.

"The old days of buying a 29-ounce can and feeding an entire family at one sitting have given way to snacking on the go," said Rich Hudgins, president and chief executive officer of the California Canning Peach Association in Sacramento.

He said canned products are much easier to handle than perishables at school cafeterias and other large meal sites.

It seems that many people are happy to have a choice of fresh and canned foods, along with frozen and dried. They know that fresh corn tastes best at a summer picnic but that canned will do in winter. They slice raw tomatoes for salads and sandwiches but likely make pasta sauce from the can.

"I can't live without canned tomatoes," said Jane Fenton of Modesto, who uses them in chicken cacciatore and other dishes.

Canned and fresh can even go together in the same dish. Geraldine Parker of Modesto makes fruit salad with bananas, apples and other fresh pieces, then binds it all together with peaches canned in syrup.

"I prefer the fresh but always have a store of canned food," she said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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