Fresh vegetables have a reputation for being a little more pricey than their frozen or canned counterparts. Here’s why it’s not really deserved—but why it will probably still seem like it is anyway.
The USDA recently put together this nice little seasonal chart looking at the different price ranges you can expect some of your Thanksgiving sides to come in at, depending on which form—fresh, frozen, or canned—you choose to buy them in.
At first blush, it looks like a pretty good illustration of the truism about fresh usually being the more expensive choice. Something interesting, though, happens when you open up the field to a wider range, beyond just the seasonally-festive vegetables, like in this chart I made using the USDA’s calculator from their full data:
Suddenly, the picture is much less clear, with fresh vegetables coming in it all different price points—some of the fresh varieties are even considerably cheaper than the processed counterparts (like in the case of raw spinach vs. frozen, or canned tomatoes vs. fresh romas).
The much larger issue to be wary of though is that—although a comparison of apples-to-canned-apples may seem like the most fair of all stack-ups—it actually can be deceptive to put fresh, frozen, canned into a direct price per weight comparison. Why? Simply put (setting aside a few cases of summer overabundance) fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables are very seldom in direct competition with each other for a spot on your table.
If you’re planning to make a salad, you don’t walk over to the freezer section, looking for a block of spinach to thaw, you look for fresh greens. While you certainly could pop into the grocery store in the middle of November for a bushel of romas for sauce, chances are you want a can of San Marzanos. And, in terms of actual shopping comparisons and how people really buy, it usually makes much more sense to pit a fresh peach against an apple, than a can of peaches.
Of course, the cost of the vegetables themselves isn’t the only issue—storage and spoilage also can add quite a bit to the overall price of fresh, which neither canned nor frozen would be hit by. Also the price of fresh is much more likely to fluctuate up and down with the seasons than something you pick up in your freezer section. Still, whether fresh, frozen, or canned is really the most expensive choice is a much harder question to answer than it initially seems.
Top image: vegetables / liz west; Charts: USDA ERS