Are Frozen Fruits and Vegetables Healthy and Safe?

CR tested more than 300 samples of frozen produce for bacteria that commonly cause foodborne illness

Frozen blueberries Photo: Flavia Morlachetti/Getty Images

At Consumer Reports, we’ll always tell you what we find with our testing—it’s important to highlight when products and services excel and when they fall short. When we look at food through a safety lens, unfortunately we often find reasons to be concerned—whether that’s because of substances like heavy metals in supplements, baby food, or spices, or disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli in ground beef.

But sometimes, as is the case with CR’s recent tests of frozen fruits and veggies, we get good news. Our food scientists recently tested more than 300 samples of eight types of frozen produce and didn’t find any harmful bacteria.

Most frozen vegetables are blanched in hot water or steamed before freezing, which may lead many to think they are already cooked and risk free—people let their toddlers snack on frozen veggies, or might toss them into a salad without cooking them first. But though frozen produce is convenient and generally safe, it may still harbor bacteria that cause foodborne illness, such as Listeria monocytogenes or salmonella. 

More on Food Safety

In 2016, there was a recall of more than 450 frozen produce items from at least 42 brands because they were linked to a multistate outbreak of listeriosis, the disease caused by Listeria monocytogenes. Since then, frozen fruits and vegetables have been recalled at least 20 times because of possible contamination with listeria, hepatitis A, or norovirus, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration—often discovered as a result of routine testing, not because someone got sick.

“Produce can be contaminated at a farm or when it’s harvested,” says Sana Mujahid, PhD, manager of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “Any additional step—including packaging at a processing facility—can create another opportunity to introduce foodborne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes or E. coli to food.”

Listeria is of particular concern. Most healthy adults exposed to the bacteria typically don’t get very sick, though some may have fever and diarrhea, similar to other foodborne germs. But people who do develop listeriosis often need to be hospitalized, and about 20 percent die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those at highest risk are immunocompromised people, newborns, older adults, and pregnant people (an infection can lead to miscarriage). And once listeria contaminates a production facility, getting rid of it can be extremely difficult, especially because freezing doesn’t kill it and it can grow and thrive at refrigerator temperatures.

What CR's Tests Found

With that history in mind, CR’s food scientists wanted to evaluate frozen fruits and veggies to assess how high the risks are—especially because frozen food sales have increased during the pandemic, according to the American Frozen Food Institute. According to a 2021 AFFI report, sales of frozen fruit spiked almost 30 percent during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, and sales of frozen vegetables grew about 15 percent.

For our tests, we looked for E. coli, listeria, and salmonella, types of bacteria that commonly cause foodborne illness, in eight frozen categories—avocado, berries, corn, mangoes, peaches, pineapple, spinach, and smoothie mixes. In total, we included 369 items from big brands, private label, and store brands, including 365 by Whole Foods, Blendtopia, Birds Eye, Campoverde, Dole, Great Value, O Organics, and Trader Joe’s.

The results were reassuring. “We didn’t detect bacteria that could make someone ill,” Mujahid says. “We consider frozen fruits and vegetables to be low-risk in general, though people at high risk for foodborne illness may always want to take certain precautions.”

Since 2017, the frozen food industry has taken steps to try to reduce the risk for listeria, according to the AFFI. In 2019, the group published its Listeria Control Program resources, which recommended best practices for frozen food manufacturers, including sampling for listeria and ways to routinely clean and sanitize industrial freezing equipment.

Still, there’s always some risk, and our findings don’t mean that all frozen produce is pathogen-free. We didn’t test for hepatitis or norovirus, which requires a different test. And from 2017 to 2021, frozen fruits and vegetables were responsible for more recalls due to listeria, norovirus, or hepatitis A than any other frozen food category, according to CR’s food safety team. “That’s why heating frozen vegetables is important, especially for people at high risk,” Mujahid says. 

Yet it’s a common misconception that you don’t need to cook frozen vegetables, even when packaging says these products are meant to be cooked. And many people eat frozen fruit without cooking it—when making smoothies, for example—which is why the FDA has been sampling frozen berries to look for pathogens. (Berries and other frozen fruit are considered ready to eat, the AFFI says.)

The Health Benefits of Frozen vs. Fresh

Most of us need to eat more fruits and vegetables—approximately 90 percent of adults don’t meet the recommended intake, according to the CDC.

Frozen produce can make that goal easier to reach. It requires no washing or chopping, and, as anyone who has reached into a crisper drawer to find a withered head of broccoli or a package of limp carrots can attest, they’re less likely to go bad before you get a chance to use them. The average American family of four wastes about $1,500 worth of food each year, according to the Department of Agriculture—and tossing fresh fruit and vegetables accounts for a large portion of that.

Frozen also is comparable to fresh nutritionally. “Fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients—and that doesn’t change when they are frozen,” says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist. “Consumers should buy what is available, and fits their storage needs and their budget, and not worry about any variability in fresh vs. frozen.”

Nutrient levels can be affected by a number of factors, including how fruit and vegetables are grown and how long they spend in storage before being sold. Because produce is frozen close to harvest, it may in some cases maintain its nutritional profile longer than fresh fruits and veggies that can lose vitamins on the journey to the grocery aisle and then while stored in your fridge.

Research has generally found that the nutritional differences between fresh and frozen produce are small. In one 2015 study, researchers compared the level of four nutrients in eight types of fresh and frozen produce and found that in some cases, frozen versions of a food had higher vitamin levels. Another study, from 2017, that looked at a form of vitamin C, provitamin A, and total folate in eight fruits and veggies found that for the most part, vitamin levels in frozen produce were similar to those in fresh produce. And frozen versions were actually better than fresh items that had been stored in a refrigerator for five days.

None of this means that people should avoid fresh produce and seek out frozen or vice-versa, Keating says. “Choosing a variety of types and sources, including fresh and frozen produce, is your best bet.”

Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).