Acharya Caraka, one of the most authoritative voices and a proponent of Ayurvedic sciences, beautifully explains the importance of ahara (food). He says, “ahara is not only the cause of the body, but also the cause of the disease that may likely manifest in the body.” He also states that wholesome food (hitahara) promotes happiness (Sukha) and unhealthy food (ahitahara) becomes the cause of misery (Dukkha).
In Ayurveda—one of the oldest sciences of well-being—in order for food to be healthy, it should be full of prana or life force. How does one know if the food we consume meets that criteria?
With advancements in cold storage and preservation technologies, frozen foods are a multi-trillion dollar industry. They are convenient, last longer, and save time if you are disinclined to cook. You can also pick up frozen dinners—even gourmet meals that may otherwise take longer to make or use ingredients that are rare to find —so, it’s a win-win. But is it?
While frozen foods may be convenient and easy to source, according to Ayurveda, they aren’t exactly the most nourishing or sattvic food you will find. So what do you lose in terms of health and nutrition, versus the convenience they provide?
Prana in Frozen Foods
When fruits, vegetables, or juices are fresh, they are also high in prana. They are sattvic, light, easy on the digestive system, and do not create ama or toxins. But frozen foods are considered paryushita (lifeless) in Ayurveda. They have very little prana, their vitality or ojas has been stripped off and they lose their sattvic quality in the process of refrigeration. They also weaken our digestive fire and are a strain on our digestive system.
Seasonality and Frozen Foods
Thanks to refrigeration, now you can find most fruits and vegetables all year round, but consuming all fruits year-round is less than ideal. There are specific fruits, berries, herbs that grow at specific times of the year. It is important to have them in fresh batches on the kitchen table. This is because this produce is high in prana, aligned with nature, and suitable for balancing the doshas that are aggravated in the season.
For example, as vata imbalance sets in during fall-autumn, we can add unctuous and warm foods to our diet for grounding. This is a good time to have more soups, broths, warm, and moist foods. This is also the time nature is abundant in foods that have a heavy quality to them including beets, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, squashes, and gourds. Just as kapha season hits at the peak of winter, it is time to shift to dried, pungent but warm foods, and enjoy sprouts and berries—the first produce of the season. Summer, when pitta is peaking, is the time to enjoy melons, juices, cucumber, mint, and other cooling foods.
Frozen Foods and Vata Dosha
Do you feel it takes longer to get up from your seat and get anything done a day after having a frozen or a store-bought meal? This has to do with increased vata dosha. The nature of vata dosha is that it is cool, dry, and light. When out of balance, like it is in specific seasons such as the fall and autumn, these qualities tend to get aggravated. So the air is drier, the skin and hair tend to be dry, lips chapped, muscle and joint pain is on the rise, among other signs of vitiation.
Having frozen foods can wreak havoc with your digestive and metabolic health by aggravating vata dosha. It may increase bloating, cause constipation or indigestion, dehydration, or loss of weight. It also creates restlessness and a feeling of not being grounded in the mind.
Frozen Foods and Agni
Agni (digestive fire) in our body is said to sustain life, to keep us alive in this body. To lead healthy, active, complete lives full of enthusiasm and vivacity, our digestive fire needs to be strong, and for that it needs the right fuel in terms of the right food—food that is warm, freshly cooked, nutritious, wholesome—cooked and consumed in accordance with time (kaal bhoji), in the right quantity, with herbs and spices that enhance the taste and benefit of the meal. Frozen foods do not meet any of those benchmarks, and the coolness or sheet quality in it numbs agni over time. Weak digestive fire weakens the overall digestibility of food matter in the body which produces more ama, the undigested toxins that accumulate in the body over time.
Loss of Nutrition in Frozen Foods
It is not just the original taste, texture, and color of food that suffers due to refrigeration. Studies have indicated that fruits and vegetables lack vitamin B and C due to the blanching process they undergo before packing. Frozen foods also have fewer antioxidants than you would find in fresh produce.
The most problematic issue is the presence of exceptionally high amounts of sodium in frozen foods. It is recommended that your diet should not have more than 2300 mg of sodium per day, yet a frozen spaghetti dinner is loaded with 600 mg sodium, and meat can have more than 800 mg sodium.
Some brands of frozen foods assure their nutritional value does not suffer since these fruits or vegetables are frozen when they are their ripest—when the nutritional content is highest. So freshly picked raw veggies or fruits are still edible even after freezing for a few days, but freezing leftover food or pre-cooked meals should be avoided.
Ayurveda, Frozen Foods, and Your State of Mind
According to Ayurveda, we are what we eat, and everything we eat influences our state of mind, emotions, our productivity, perception towards life, and general state of wellness.
It also states that our mind, digestive system, and all five senses are affected by the portion of the food we eat; the method of cooking; the aroma, appearance, and how fresh it is. This has probably been your experience as well—that having a freshly prepared salad or bowl of soup makes you feel much lighter on your stomach, and clear in your head versus a heavy frozen meal that either keeps you up due to excess vata or aggravates your kapha, making you feel lousy all day.
For the food to provide you most nourishment and sattva, it should
- Be freshly picked, ideally grown above the ground.
- Combine ingredients that suit your prakriti—your true nature. If you don’t know your prakriti, consult a trained Ayurveda physician who can enlighten you on the doshas that are naturally dominant in your body type, and doshas that are in balance, out of balance, or severely aggravated.
- Be hot and slightly unctuous. Such food has taste while it also keeps the digestive fire stimulated, reduces flatulence, strengthens body organs, and is quick to digest
- Be seasonal for your geographic location.
Food should only be consumed once your previous meal has been completely digested. Eat at a medium pace, mindfully, without talking or engaging in any other activity.
Frozen Foods and Tamasic Quality
Frozen foods are considered tamasic in quality—foods that are heavy, induce sluggishness, and require more energy to digest, making digestive fire work harder. When you consume tamasic foods on a daily basis, what you are essentially doing is overworking the digestive system, weakening the digestive fire, and slowing down metabolism. In terms of emotions and state of mind, it is said to increase lethargy, ignorance, and greed.
Contrary to that, sattvic food is light, cooked, warm, and appropriate for your dosha constitution. It can include fresh greens, rice, honey, fruits, nuts, salads—anything that balances the three doshas when consumed in appropriate quantities. Sattvic food brings clarity of thought, lightness in the body, and is easy to digest. It doesn’t consume a lot of energy to digest sattvic foods, so you are unlikely to feel heavy or dull after a sattvic meal.