Canned Foods and Health

Canned foods are among the most significant ideas that have enabled humans to preserve food for extended periods. Canned foods of various types, whether meat or fruits have allowed us to access diverse foods from around the world throughout the year, regardless of their seasons.

The history of using canned foods dates back to the late 18th century when they were first employed as a method to provide a stable food source for soldiers and sailors during wars.

In 1804, a French cook named Nicolas Appert discovered that liquids like soup and small fruits like cherries could be preserved by placing them in glass containers, sealing the containers, and submerging them in boiling water, which, in turn, killed food-spoiling bacteria.

Benefits of Canned Foods

Canned foods help deliver various types of food to countries lacking safe, nutritionally rich food sources. Canned foods can also be a useful food substitute in regions without stores or cultivated areas, such as deserts or forests, or during sea travel.

Canned foods contribute to prolonging the shelf life of foods and meals, making storage for both merchants and consumers simpler.

Canned foods are considered a good choice for some people. They are easy to use, require a short preparation time, and are readily available in many markets at reasonable prices.

Nutritional Value of Canned Foods

It is often believed that canned foods have lower nutritional value compared to fresh or frozen foods. However, studies indicate that foods containing a high percentage of nutrients maintain most of their benefits after the canning process and are not significantly affected by it. On the other hand, the canning process involves high temperatures, which may lead to the degradation of water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and B-group vitamins.

Moreover, the canning process can increase the concentration of other healthy compounds. For example, tomatoes release more antioxidants when heated, making canned varieties of these foods a better source of antioxidants.

Additionally, there are good options for other foods like green beans and corn, as their canned versions are just as nutritious as their fresh and frozen counterparts.

The Health Risks of Canned Foods

Sometimes, large quantities of salt are added to canned foods to help preserve them. However, that salt can cause fluid retention, high blood pressure, and consequently, health problems for individuals with hypertension.

A significant amount of sugar is added to some types of canned foods to make them more palatable. This increases the carbohydrate and calorie content. For example, canned fruit products often contain high amounts of sugar, increasing the risk of various diseases like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Canned foods may contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in food packaging that can migrate from the can lining to the consumed food. This can increase the risk of health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

Improperly processed canned foods may contain harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

Canned foods contain acidic substances to preserve them from spoilage. This can lead to acute or chronic stomach inflammations and even gastric ulcers.

Trans fats present in canned foods are not easily digested or metabolized by the human body, which can lead to weight gain and obesity.

Canned foods can contribute to the formation of gallstones. They also contain preservatives and colourants that can cause skin rashes and allergies in some individuals.

The canning process can affect the taste of certain foods, like vegetables. Therefore, nutrition experts recommend freezing vegetables as a better alternative to preserve their delicious taste, avoiding preservatives and canning risks.

How to Reduce the Harm of Canned Foods

Replace canned foods with fresh meals, reduce the consumption of canned foods, and avoid using them long after their expiry date.

Pay attention to the storage instructions on the cans to ensure their safety. It’s advisable to store canned foods in a dry, cool place away from high temperatures, such as sunlight or near the oven, to protect them from rust, which can lead to food leakage.

Drain water or oils from the can before using canned foods to reduce the damage caused by salts, sugars, and preservatives in the food content.

Once a can is opened, it becomes susceptible to spoilage. Therefore, it’s always better to cook or refrigerate it immediately and use it within 3 or 4 days at most. Store leftovers in plastic or glass containers and avoid keeping them in the same can, then dispose of the metal can.

Do not heat canned foods directly on the stove as this can produce harmful substances. It’s better to heat them in a separate container without using the liquid from the can.

How to Choose and Buy Canned Foods

While fresh food is always preferable due to its health benefits, canned foods can be relied upon when fresh options are not available. However, there are some considerations to keep in mind when choosing canned foods:

1- Read the nutritional labels on canned foods and select those with lower sodium and added sugar content. Sometimes, excessive amounts of these elements are added to canned foods.

2- Avoid purchasing cans containing “Bisphenol A” (BPA). Canned foods may become contaminated with this chemical used in can manufacturing. Fortunately, 90% of food cans no longer contain this substance.

3- Avoid buying canned foods with multiple ingredients, such as pre-made soups and pasta dishes, as they often contain high levels of sodium and sugar. It’s better to choose canned foods with a single food item, like canned tuna.

4- Do not buy canned fruits and vegetables in brine or syrup. Some studies have shown that these products often lose their properties, such as colour, taste, and certain health benefits like antioxidants, especially if they are peeled. It’s preferable to choose canned fruits and vegetables in water or their juice.

5- Canned foods can spoil due to errors in the canning process or chemical reactions between the can and the food or the surrounding environment. Therefore, be attentive to signs of canned food spoilage, such as:

Swelling or bulging of the cans.

The presence of dents or cracks that allow air entry which creates an ideal environment for bacterial growth and food poisoning.

Changes in the colour of the can from the inside or the presence of rust on the can’s edges and inner walls.

By: Dr. Badreyya Al-Harmi, Consultant Public Health, Emirates Public Health Association

Al Jundi

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