When it comes to eating canned foods, common sense is in order. Plenty of myths abound about the impact canning and preserving have on foods, much in the same way they exist about frozen produce (a lot of which is actually healthier than fresh produce).
The general argument is that vitamins diminish over time when produce is tinned, but this is actually just as (if not more) likely to occur with fresh produce, which often sits around in packing plants for lengthy periods before hitting the shelves at your local grocery store.
Fruits and vegetables picked for canning are usually processed quickly. A study at the University of Illinois found that a great deal of canned fruit and vegetables contains the same amount of dietary fiber and vitamins as their fresh equivalents.
Now that we’ve established canned foods ain’t all that bad, we ask: What are the best canned foods out there? And what can we do with them?
The first heavyweight on our best canned foods list is the mighty salmon. It’s a worthy inclusion, as not only is this fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, it's actually better for you when canned because it’s packed with the bones intact, meaning more calcium for your bones and teeth. Also, some of the fat is removed, making it a healthier option.
Try making a salmon Nicoise: Mix the salmon with cooked potatoes, quartered tomatoes, pitted (stoned) black olives, cooked green beans, and soft-boiled eggs. Dress with a vinaigrette made from olive oil, lemon juice and Dijon.
Canned pinto beans
There is virtually no difference between the nutritional value of canned and fresh pinto beans; both require cooking for similar amounts of time. The canned beans are much more convenient and can easily be added to soups or stews. They’re a good source of folate and manganese, relatively high in protein, and rich in vitamin B1 as well as a slew of other minerals.
Make a traditional tortilla soup (but lose the tortillas if you’re dieting) with chilies, tomatoes, chicken broth, avocados (a good source of healthy fats), cilantro, lime juice — the usual suspects — but add a can of pinto beans to warm through near the end of the cooking time. The soup will go much farther, and you’ll reap the health benefits from the beans.
Scientists have been talking about ketchup being a healthy part of your diet for a while now, and this is mainly because lycopene, the antioxidant component of the tomato, becomes more potent when heated. Thus, canned tomatoes are a high source of lycopene and are also rich in vitamins A and C while containing no fat or salt.
Make a flavorful sauce to go with roast or grilled chicken. Gently soften sliced onions with garlic. Add torn olives and canned tomatoes, and let cook for a short while. Just before serving, throw in some torn-up basil, then serve alongside your meat.
Canned smoked mackerel
Although cooked mackerel is generally healthier for you than smoked (as it doesn't contain any of the nitrates associated with this method of cooking), we’ve gone for the smoked because it is infinitely more versatile and delicious. Canned smoked mackerel is high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids and is very inexpensive.
Make a smoked mackerel paste by blitzing the mackerel with cottage cheese, low-fat natural yogurt, cracked black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Eat with crackers or on whole wheat toast.
Like salmon and mackerel, sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They are often packed in a tomato sauce, which is great for its lycopene content, but often this sauce has high levels of sodium as well. Instead, go for a low-sodium option packed in water. Sardines are a good choice of fish because they are sustainable and inexpensive, and they contain high amounts of vitamin B12 (second only to calf liver), which promotes heart health.
Make a healthy potato salad with cooked, cooled, cubed potatoes; a chopped-up hard-boiled egg; diced chives and scallions; and a dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice and whole grain mustard. Serve alongside the drained sardines.
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Canned kidney beans
Like pinto beans, kidney beans require long cooking times. Thus, there is little difference between those cooked for long periods of time for canning and the dried ones you cook at home. They are high in fiber, iron and memory-boosting B1, release their energy slowly (meaning no sugar spikes), and contain a relatively good amount of protein.
Bulk up your lunch box with a bean salad made of kidney beans, diced bell peppers, jalapeños, cilantro, and cooked green beans. Mash a garlic clove on a chopping board with some salt to create a paste, mix with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then stir the mixture through your beans. Scatter more balsamic vinegar over the top, and serve.
Avoid the canned pumpkin pie filling that is packed with sugar and other ingredients. Go for natural canned pumpkin flesh, which is low in calories, high in fiber and fat-free. It contains over 500 percent of your RDA of vitamin A, 8 percent of magnesium, 10 percent of vitamin C, and 10 percent of iron (among others, including beta-carotene). As canned pumpkin has less water than the fresh variety, some of these vitamins and nutrients are actually more concentrated.
Make a risotto as you usually would, softening a shallot and garlic, then adding rice, wine and stock. Next, add and stir through canned pumpkin. Continue to cook, then serve with cubes of roasted pumpkin, a scattering of toasted flaked almonds and grated low-sodium Parmesan.
These shellfish are high in protein and zinc — critical for the well-being of your immune system — and rich in iron (containing far greater quantities than found in red meat) and selenium. They are also high in omega-3 fatty acids and are a good source of phosphorous, manganese and potassium. They do contain a bit of cholesterol, but nowhere near the quantities found in prawns.
Cook whole wheat or regular linguine till tender. Drain and set aside, keeping a little of the cooking water. Toss garlic and chili into a pan with hot olive oil until they begin to sizzle. Add the clams and spaghetti, then toss to combine. Add a splash of the cooking liquor, then stir through some flat leaf parsley before serving.
It might not sound massively appealing, but a can of cooked chicken is a versatile ingredient that is packed with protein and incredibly low in fat for a relatively low calorie count. Chicken is high in selenium as well as cancer-preventing B-vitamin niacin. It also contains B6, which is important for energy metabolism.
Dice canned chicken and stir-fry with onions, garlic and chili in a wok. Add Chinese greens, bok choy or just regular spinach, and allow to wilt with a splash of soy and a drizzle of oyster sauce. Serve over brown rice with a squeeze of lime.