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food for thought

Canned foods get a bad rap for being too salty, too sugary and/or nutritionally substandard.

Some products live up to this reputation. Canned fruit in heavy syrup (typically a blend of high fructose corn syrup and sugar), canned corned beef and canned precooked pasta come to mind.

Many canned soups serve up half a day’s worth of sodium (or more) in a one-cup serving. (Depending on age, adults need 1,200 to 1,500 mg of sodium each day.)

This isn’t the case for all canned foods, though. There are plenty of options with little or no added salt and sugar.

What’s more, canned fruits and vegetables generally provide similar amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to their frozen and fresh counterparts.

Advantages of canned foods

Fruits and vegetables for canning are picked at their peak ripeness and then packed and heated quickly after harvest, locking in nutrients.

And the canning process can actually increase the content of certain antioxidants.

Canned produce, however, will have less vitamin C and B vitamins than fresh; heat processing causes some to be depleted.

Beyond nutrition, canned foods have other benefits.

They are more affordable than their fresh equivalents. Plus, they’re convenient and have a long shelf life, usually at least two years.

I always keep the following six nutritious canned foods on hand. Consider adding them to your pantry to build healthy meals.

Canned pumpkin purée

This canned winter squash is an outstanding source of the antioxidant beta-carotene, supplying 8.5 mg per one-half cup. It’s recommended that adults consume 8 to 15 mg per day.

Pumpkin releases more of its beta-carotene when heated during the canning process. Ditto for carrots, peaches, apricots and mango.

Canned pumpkin purée, which contains no added sugar, is also a decent source fibre, potassium and bone-building vitamin K.

Blend pumpkin purée into smoothies, mix into oatmeal, stir into soups, chilis, curries and pasta sauces and fold into muffin and pancake batters. Freeze it in ice cube trays for convenient single servings.

Canned albacore tuna

This popular canned fish delivers, per three ounces, 20 g of protein and a full day’s worth of immune-supportive selenium. It’s also a good source of vitamins B12 and D and blood-pressure-regulating potassium.

Unlike light tuna (e.g., skipjack, yellowfin, tongol species), albacore tuna serves up a decent amount of omega-3 fatty acids, 733 mg per three ounces. International health authorities advise adults to consume 250 to 500 mg of omega-3s daily to support heart health.

Look for canned albacore tuna that states “product of/processed in Canada” on the label. It’s been fished from the waters of the Pacific Northwest and is low in mercury. Raincoast Trading and Scout are two brands.

Toss canned albacore tuna into green and pasta salads and use it for a sandwich filling (swap plain yogurt for mayonnaise). Add albacore tuna to avocado toast or make a tuna niçoise salad.

Choose tuna packed in water or olive oil. No-added salt options are available.

Canned artichoke hearts

Globe artichokes provide a good amount of fibre, magnesium, potassium and brain-friendly choline. Their claim to fame, though, is folate, a B vitamin that’s used to make and repair DNA in cells.

Artichokes are also an excellent source of inulin, a prebiotic fibre that nourishes beneficial gut microbes.

Add canned artichoke hearts to homemade pizzas, pastas and frittatas. Or roast them with olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon zest for a side dish.

Canned baby clams

If you’re looking for extra iron, canned baby clams provide 11.5 mg of highly absorbable iron per one-quarter cup. That’s along with plenty of protein, vitamin B12, potassium, selenium and choline.

Add drained and rinsed baby clams to spaghetti sauce, paella, stuffed tomatoes and, of course, clam chowder.

Canned tomatoes

A pantry staple, canned tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, potassium and lycopene, an antioxidant thought to help protect against prostate cancer, heart disease and bone loss. The lycopene content of tomatoes increases during heating.

Add canned tomatoes to pasta sauces, chilis (I love fire-roasted canned tomatoes for their flavour), soups, baked egg dishes and curries. No-added salt options are available.

Canned pineapple

This juicy, sweet-tasting fruit delivers fibre, folate and potassium. While canned pineapple has less vitamin C than fresh, it’s still a good source providing 40 mg per one cup.

Add canned pineapple tidbits to Greek yogurt or cottage cheese (I like it sprinkled with toasted unsweetened shredded coconut) or blended into a fruit smoothie. Or add canned pineapple to stir-fries or a pizza.

Choose fruit canned in water or its own juice. (Canned fruit labelled “no sugar added” is sweetened with stevia or the artificial sweetener sucralose.)

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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