If the pandemic taught us anything, it was the importance of stocking your pantry with shelf-stable canned food you can count on to help get a meal on the table, without a trip to the grocery store. But historically, canned foods have gotten a bad rap as second-rate options that come up short in nutrition and flavor – almost to the point where most people are slightly embarrassed to roll up to the check-out counter with a cart populated by foods stuffed into tins. This is a shame, because the truth is many canned foods are still nutrient-rich.
In fact, the canning process has less impact on nutrition than you may think. A study in the journal Nutrients found that people who ate a lot of canned foods had a higher intake of 17 essential nutrients compared to people who rarely ate canned foods. And in terms of flavor, items like canned corn, peaches and tomatoes are harvested at peak ripeness and packed shortly thereafter, so they actually can taste fresher than out-of-season fresh options.
Not all canned items are processed foods. It’s time to embrace canned foods and stop shunning them. With a seemingly never-ending shelf life, canned goods can encourage creativity and flexibility in the kitchen (and survival during a zombie invasion, naturally).
Get your can opener at the ready, because these are the canned foods you always want to keep in your pantry.
1. Canned black beans
These might be the healthiest “fast food” around. With a huge swath of essential vitamins and minerals including iron, folate, magnesium and phosphorus, consider black beans akin to a multi-vitamin in a can. No wonder people who eat more legumes generally have a higher overall diet quality. Canned black beans supply about 15 grams of protein in 1-cup serving. And an analysis of data from more than 30 studies published in The BMJ linked higher protein intake overall and plant protein specifically to lower all-cause mortality risk.
Swapping canned beans for some of the grains in your daily diet could be a smart move for better heart health, too. A randomized, cross-over study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that when people consumed 1 cup of canned beans (including the black variety) daily for one month, their total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol decreased significantly more compared to when they consumed a cup of white rice instead. The extra intake of non-fermentable soluble fiber, a proven cholesterol crusher, is likely the main reason why eating more canned beans can help keep your lipid profile in the safe range. This soluble fiber can also improve blood sugar control and bowel movements. Each cup of canned black beans supplies 16 grams of total fiber, about half of your daily requirement.
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But the benefits of this canned food don’t end there. Legumes with darker coats, such as black beans, also have a higher antioxidant capacity. This makes them capable of scavenging up those pesky free radicals that can damage cells and accelerate aging.
Worried about those loathed gassy after-effects of eating beans? Draining canned black beans in a colander and rising well will send a high proportion of the gas-producing compounds down the drain. It’ll also reduce the sodium content. There are, however, now no-salt-added versions on the market you can buy if you want to keep your prep super simple.
Knowing the nutritional virtues of canned beans, it’s troubling to know that fewer than 5 percent of Americans consume legumes daily. So, get out your can opener and use canned black beans in salads, soups, grain bowls, dips and tacos more often.
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2. Canned oysters
Oysters are a delicacy you can enjoy without the hassle (and risk of landing in the emergency room) of shucking them – but only if you visit the canned seafood aisle of your local supermarket.
Though often overlooked for other tinned swimmers, oysters deliver a bevy of nutritional benefits. Each can contains more than the daily need for vitamin B12, copper and immune-boosting zinc. You also get a decent amount of selenium, a mineral linked to a lower risk of suffering from depressive symptoms.
And we bet you didn’t know that canned oysters are a richer source of iron than beef. That’s an important perk, considering a study in The Journal of Nutrition discovered that the rate of iron deficiency among Americans has been on the rise over the last couple of decades. The researchers attribute this largely to a drop in dietary iron intake as more people move away from beef to chicken and the amount of iron in the food supply dropping as a result of chemical intensive, yield-focused agricultural practices. So, knowing good sources of iron (like convenient canned oysters) is important.
Why is iron so essential? This nutrient helps make hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, including the heart and working muscles. Coming up short can lead to feelings of fatigue and weakness, along with heart health concerns.
Here’s a pro tip: Since some of the nutrients in oysters including vitamin C and B vitamins are water-soluble, they may leach out into the canning water. Don’t let them go to waste! Consume some or all of the water that the oysters canned with. You’ll get some extra sodium as well, so just be sure to cut back your salt intake elsewhere in your diet.
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You can scoop oysters straight from the can or toss them on salads and sandwiches. They can also be a stealth addition to soups, pasta dishes, and a pan of stir-fried vegetables.
3. Canned pumpkin
Fall shouldn’t be the only time you have canned pumpkin in your pantry. Think of it as a reliable source of a payload of beta-carotene year-round. Our bodies are able to convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is needed to maintain eye, immune and bone health. And a study in the European Journal of Nutrition found that people with higher levels of carotenoids, including beta-carotene, tested for a younger biological age as indicated by longer telomeres – DNA sequences at the end of chromosomes that shorten as cells replicate and age.
But canned pumpkin isn’t a one-hit-wonder; it’s also a good source of vitamin K. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association discovered that people who ate more foods high in vitamin K, especially vitamin K1 found in vegetables, had a lower risk for cardiovascular diseases related to atherosclerosis, especially peripheral artery disease, compared with those who ate fewer foods rich in vitamin K.
Note: Make sure to steer clear of canned pumpkin pie mix, which is loaded with added sugar. Plain ol’ pumpkin is all you want in your canned varieties.
You can sneak canned pumpkin puree into chili, dips (pumpkin hummus is superb!), curries, pancakes and waffles, and even oatmeal. Try it in creamy sauces for pasta and cooked meats. It also makes a great substitute for a good chunk of the oil or butter in baking, including muffins and quick breads. Freeze some canned pumpkin in an ice cube tray or silicone mini muffin mould to throw into smoothies for added nutrients and cozy sweetness.
4. Canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
It’s time to turn up the heat on your cooking – and the best way to do that is a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.
If you’re not familiar with these, here’s a primer. Chipotles in adobo are smoked and dried jalapenos, which are rehydrated and canned in a sweet and tangy puree of tomato, vinegar, and garlic. The final result? Canned food that packs wicked, smoky heat with very few calories.
Eating canned chipotle peppers and other chili peppers regularly may be associated with a reduction in the risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer-related mortality, according to an analysis of four observational studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Cardiology. The benefit of chili peppers is attributed to the chemical compound capsaicin, with potential cardio-protective and anti-tumorigenic effects. It may also have a beneficial impact on our microbiome that could translate into better health.
There’s some additional research that suggests spiking your food with a chili punch can reduce appetite and desire to keep eating. This, in theory, could make it easier to keep your overall calorie intake in check. Capsaicin may also rev your metabolism, but whether or not this effect is enough to result in noticeable weight loss is still up in the air.
How can you use canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce? This is a do-it-all canned good. These peppers will liven up soups, a pot of chili, sauces, glazes, marinades, beans and then some. We’re talking top-level pantry stuff here. You can also blend the peppers with the sauce for a puree that hurts so good. Or, mix some of this chipotle puree with yogurt and say hello to your new favorite taco, burger or grilled fish topping. You can even blend it into guacamole.
Once you’ve blended the peppers and sauce, you can freeze the puree in an ice cube tray and stash the fiery cubes in a zip-top bag in the freezer for use when needed. And you should know that an opened can will keep for months in the fridge.
5. Canned crushed tomatoes
It’s a total misconception that for vegetables to be healthy, they must be fresh and live in your crisper. Just take canned crushed tomatoes as an example!
Canned tomatoes, including the deeply tomato-flavored crushed variety, are laced with the plant compound lycopene. This is a member of the carotenoid family that may help in the battle against premature cognitive decline as we age. A report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute also suggests that greater intakes of lycopene can lower the risk for developing breast cancer. Acting as a potent antioxidant, lycopene can help vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers and worsen brain functioning.
And when it comes to the lycopene found in tomatoes, it’s worth noting that the processing that goes into producing canned tomatoes can increase its bioavailability. In other words, it makes the compound more accessible so we can better reap its health rewards.
Vitamin C is another nutritional benefit of canned tomatoes; it’s a nutrient linked to improved blood pressure numbers. Plus, vitamin C enhances our absorption of iron from plant-based foods such as beans – and it’s necessary to make sure the immune system is operating properly. And who isn’t pondering immunity these days?
Perhaps most importantly, canned crushed tomatoes are full of delicious flavor all year round. This is in contrast to out-of-season fresh options, which are frequently second-rate. While some canned options contain added sugar and higher amounts of salt, it’s relatively easy to limit this problem. Just look at labels to find cans with no sugar listed in the ingredient list and with lower sodium levels displayed on the nutrition panel.
Using canned crushed tomatoes for pasta sauce is already a no-brainer, but there are plenty of other uses you might not have thought of. They’re convenient to have on hand and make an easy addition to burritos, meat or lentil stews, Indian curries, shakshuka and, yes, classic tomato soup. And don’t forget that you can blend crushed tomatoes with a canned chipotle pepper for a sauce that delivers a serious kick. Try poaching a fillet of fish in this jazzed-up red sauce.