Food Security That Comes in a Can

by Zachary J Ferguson, Regional Sales Manager

Every year, farmers grow far more produce than the public could possibly consume fresh from the field.

In 2018, for example, U.S. farmers harvested more than 14 million tons of tomatoes, but only about 980,000 tons were sold fresh. The rest went to processors, who canned them whole or turned them into sauce, juice, paste, puree and a wide range of other products.

The canning process that preserves fresh produce — as well as many meat products — has been an essential food security technology for more than 200 years. It enables society to provide access to health-sustaining nutrition on a large scale long after the growing season has ended.

Yet despite the vital role of canning in the global food system, canning technology is often underappreciated by the public. Not only is the availability of canned foods taken for granted — who could imagine a supermarket without multiple aisles of canned vegetables and fruits? — many consumers fail to recognize the high nutritive value of canned foods.

Nutrient Preservation

The truth is that canning preserves most of a food’s nutrients and even enhances nutrition in some cases. Most vitamins and minerals are not diminished by the canning process, nor are proteins or carbohydrates. In fact, studies conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, the University of California at Davis and Oregon State University have concluded that the nutritional profiles of canned foods are similar or even better than those of fresh or frozen products. Canned tomatoes, for example, have more lycopene and B vitamins, while some other canned vegetables, such as beans, offer higher levels of soluble fiber that is more useful to the human body.

Beyond preserving nutrition, canning also keeps food safe by protecting against foodborne illness, and it preserves flavor and freshness by being processed almost immediately after harvest. Canning allows fruits and vegetables to be picked at peak ripeness, quickly cleaned, trimmed or chopped, and then air sealed inside the can — all within four hours in most cases. Fresh produce is great, but it can take days to travel to store shelves and even longer before being prepared and eaten.

An American Success Story

The tomato harvesting and canning process is one of the industry’s most-impressive feats. In California, where more than 90 percent of U.S. processing tomatoes are grown, a steady flow of trucks travel from farms to processing plants during the summer harvest season. The height of the harvest lasts about two months, during which a huge volume of tin-plated steel cans is required to keep production flowing.

Tomato canning — and the U.S. canning industry overall — is truly an all-American success story. U.S.-based can manufacturers work year-round to produce enough cans for harvest season, using tin plate produced by American companies, led by U.S. Steel, the largest tin plate provider in the nation.

So-called “tin cans” are actually 99 percent steel, which is coated with a thin layer of tin. The steel used by the packaging industry is produced using raw materials mined in the United States, as well as recycled steel that American consumers and communities return to the production stream. More than 70 percent of steel cans used in the United States are recycled, by far the largest percentage of any other packaging material, making them a sustainable choice for environmentally conscious consumers.

A Healthy Choice

By all measures, steel cans are good for the health of American consumers and the American economy — a fact that deserves greater public recognition. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that only 24 percent of Americans meet government recommendations for fruit in their diet, and only 13 percent eat enough vegetables. Canned foods represent a cost-effective way to increase those percentages. Consumers can save as much as 50 percent of the cost of frozen produce when they buy canned, and 20 percent of the cost of fresh.

Plus, canned foods are faster and easier to use in preparing meals, making them a better choice over less-nutritious fast food purchases for families pressed for time. They also reduce food waste, as about 15 to 20 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables are thrown away every year, according to academic research.

U. S. Steel is proud to be important contributor to the American canned food industry, which continues to strengthen the nation’s food system through safe, nutritious, flavorful and economical products.

About the author

Zach Ferguson is a Regional Sales Manager for North American Flatroll and Big River Steel