Not everyone loves canned food. It has a reputation for being over-processed and less flavourful than fresh food — but that's not always the case.
Canned food is convenient, budget-friendly and shelf-stable. Some canned foods even have more nutrients thanks to heat-activated preservation techniques. Unlock Food Canada pointed out that canned tomatoes have more lycopene, which can protect against serious health risks such as heart disease and cancer.
However, not all canned foods are as healthy as you think. Compared to their fresh counterparts, the following canned foods are the worst to buy.
1. Canned fruit in syrup
The Food Bank of Waterloo recommends avoiding canned fruit packaged in syrup due to its high sugar content.
According to the Canadian government, canned fruit in light syrup has 21 per cent of your daily recommended sugar intake. Anything over 15 per cent is a lot.
Fortunately, Canadian shoppers can make healthier choices regarding sugar in canned foods. Nutritional labels now include the amount and percentage of the a person's recommended daily sugar intake.
2. Canned soup
Soup is healthy, right? It has meat or beans, vegetables and broth — all healthy foods.
However, many canned soups contain way too much salt. One study from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) shows that condensed and ready-to-serve soups have some of the highest sodium levels in the Canadian packaged food industry.
The same study also found that soup is one of the biggest contributors of sodium to Canadian diets — along with canned and pickled vegetables.
That said, canned soups can be convenient and accessible ways to get nutritionally balanced meals. Fortunately, most soup companies make lower-sodium options.
3. Canned vegetables
When CIHR researchers tested the sodium content in various packaged foods, they found almost 30 per cent of canned vegetables exceeded maximum sodium levels.
That said, the sodium content in canned vegetables varies widely — between zero and 2,800mg per 100g of food. If eating canned vegetables helps you to get more produce in your diet, look for labels indicating lower sodium content.
According to Unlock Food, the following labels indicate less than 5mg of sodium per serving:
Free of sodium/salt
Contains no sodium
The second-best labels are those that indicate less than 140mg of salt per serving:
Low in sodium/salt
Low source of sodium/salt
Double-check the salt content of any packages marked with "reduced" or "lower" salt or sodium. These labels only mean the product contains less sodium than the original version.
Similarly, "no added" sodium or salt means the manufacturers didn't add salt. The original product might still be high in sodium.
4. Canned pre-cooked pasta
Pre-cooked pasta in sauce is one of the unhealthiest canned foods. It's full of sugar and salt — which, unfortunately, is part of why they taste so good.
For example, a can of Spaghetti-Os contains 1,070 mg of sodium and 20 g of sugar. That's 46 per cent of your recommended salt intake and 20 per cent of your sugar intake.
Remember, 15 per cent is a lot.
Half of a can has a whopping 23 per cent of your daily sodium intake. You're better off cooking your own pasta and using canned tomatoes to make your own sauce.
5. Canned chili
When you're tired or too busy to cook, it's tempting to grab a can of chili and heat it up for dinner.
Unfortunately, canned chili performs the same as Spaghetti Os nutritionally. In the CIHR study, more than 43 per cent of canned and other shelf-stable meals exceeded the recommended sodium maximum.
Chili is a significant culprit. The nutritional label for the Stagg Chili brand shows 1,000mg of sodium per 300g serving — 43 per cent of your recommended daily value. The same serving also contains 10 per cent of your recommended daily sugar intake.
6. Canned baked beans
Canned beans are a toss-up when it comes to nutrition. If you choose well, they're a quick and easy way to make high-protein dishes with or without meat. Dry beans require soaking and pre-cooking, but canned beans come ready to eat.
Some canned beans have high sodium content, mainly from the liquid in the can. Unlock Food recommends choosing no-sodium-added versions or draining the liquid before cooking. If you're careful about your choice of beans, they're not so bad.
Canned baked beans are harder to justify. The manufacturing process involves cooking them in a sweet syrup that you don't drain away.
7. Canned sausage and spam
These two canned meats share a category because they're not the worst of the worst, but they're not great either.
On the plus side, they're low in sugar. According to FatSecret Canada, canned Vienna sausage has no sugar in a single-can serving.
Spam Classic has just one gram of sugar per serving. Granted, a single serving is just one-sixth of a can, but the math works out in your favour. Even if you eat the whole can, you're only at 6g of sugar.
Sadly, the sodium content brings these two choices to the dark side. Vienna sausage has a whopping 1,095mg of sodium per serving, which is almost half your recommended intake. Spam does better at 560mg — 24 per cent of your daily value.
Choosing the right canned food
Did you notice a pattern? All of the "bad" canned foods on this list have high levels of sugar or sodium. It's not the food itself, but how it's prepared.
The canning process isn't the problem. There's a widespread myth that preservation strips foods of their nutrients, but as Canadian Food Focus reported, most canned foods are nutritionally intact.
Too much salt and sugar make canned foods problematic. Fortunately for consumers, you can filter out the worst options and choose lower-salt, lower-sugar options.