Whether it’s bought from a big box grocery store in the suburbs or a bodega in the city, most people believe that fresh food is better than frozen, right? Not necessarily. The answer is complex and depends on a variety of factors. To make educated decisions about the food you purchase, you must first know about how food is shipped and stored.
Producing and Shipping Food
One of the most significant changes in human history was a population boom from 1900 to 2011, where the global population increased from 1.6 billion to 7 billion. In this time, farmers were able to produce enough food to feed this population because of improvements in farming and shipping technology. Modernizations in farming, food production, and distribution not only feed more people, but allows locally grown perishable foods to be shipped around the globe. For example, matsutake mushrooms found in the Pacific Northwest or Japan can easily ship to Florida with little to no deterioration through innovations like freezing. (01)
Fresh Frozen Food
There’s a misconception that frozen food means frozen processed food, but that’s not quite the case. In the past, a majority of the frozen food on the market may have been limited to frozen “TV dinners.” While these dishes were — and some still are — heavily processed and lacking in nutrients, many frozen foods today are healthy. Sometimes, they’re even healthier than fresh food at the grocery store.
A Healthy Choice: Frozen Fruit and Vegetables
Fresh frozen foods are typically harvested at peak ripeness. It’s at this time when nutrients are the most abundant. Immediately after harvest, fresh frozen food is washed, then sometimes chopped for the buyer’s convenience. Within a few hours of picking they are frozen. Most fresh frozen food do not require additional preservatives. However, producers may blanch produce or add vitamin C (ascorbic acid) to help deter spoiling. Some fruits and vegetables are quickly blanched in hot water or steam prior to freezing. Blanching preserves the quality of frozen produce and kills any microorganisms on the surface of the food. In addition, blanching makes vegetables like spinach and kale more compact, which helps with shipping and packaging. Most fruit can’t be blanched prior to freezing. In these cases, vitamin C is added to prevent browning and keep food fresh. Freezing produce, when done properly, can preserve more nutrients than canned produce or even fresh grocery store produce. (02)
Is Fresh Frozen Fish a Healthy Choice?
If you’re like most consumers, you’ve probably been told that fresh fish is better than frozen. And it is – if you’re getting your fish fresh from the ocean or lake! Most people, however, get their fish from the grocers, not straight from a stream or river. Unfortunately, the fresh fish found on ice in the grocery store is less likely to be as fresh as fresh frozen fish sent to your home. Once a fish is caught and removed from water, the clock starts on its deterioration. Fish and other seafood degrade quickly. Even when placed on ice and shipped properly, the fish in your grocery is probably more than a few days old. (03)On the other hand, fresh frozen fish and seafood is flash frozen immediately after being caught. By flash freezing fresh fish (say that 10 times fast!), the temperature creates a protective layer of ice. This layer prevents the cellular breakdown that grocery store sold fish endure during shipping and storage. In this way, fresh frozen fish is typically of higher quality than the fish sold at your local supermarket.
Grocery Store Fresh
The dazzling display of colors in grocery stores are meant to invoke feelings of hunger and fresh food. Shiny tomatoes, juicy berries, and sparkling fish on ice tempt you to look, touch, and feel. The reality is that the food is not as fresh as they would have you believe. Very often, produce is kept as long as possible until they are ready to be sold. Sitting in a controlled atmosphere storage that regulates gasses in the environment and temperature levels, some produce wait until a year to be sold as “fresh.” In an interview with USA today, Ken Nye from the Michigan Farm Bureau stated that controlled atmosphere storage significantly slows down decay. For example, in the U.S. most apples are harvested only once a year. Yet, apples kept in controlled atmospheric storage are sold year-round making it likely that you’ve eaten an 8 month-old apple in your lifetime! (03)Grocery store fresh food has its place and, for the most part, isn't a terrible choice. Sometimes, these are the only options available for many people. If you have a choice, however, do your research. You might find yourself opting for other alternatives.
Frozen Food May Be the New Fresh
The iconic James Beard Foundation promotes fresh frozen food as the better choice to grocery fresh, especially when it comes to seafood. Advances in freezing technology allows for the capture of peak flavor and freshness. Freezing also preserves texture and nutritive value in most foods. (04) When it comes to sustainability, fresh frozen food comes out on top. With frozen food, there’s less worry about degradation and controlled atmosphere storage. Therefore, more sustainable transport choices are possible for fresh frozen foods, without having to compromise quality on the consumer’s end. For example, frozen food can be shipped using container ships or land transport rather than flying. Flying creates a much higher carbon footprint. (03)
Cooking with Fresh Frozen Food
One of the perks of fresh frozen food is storage. Once you purchase frozen food, you’re not under the gun to cook it as soon as possible. Frozen foods are a lifesaver on busy weekdays, where a run to the grocery isn’t a possibility. Just throw them in an air fryer or thaw quickly for a stir fry. Fresh frozen fruit are delicious thrown into cold smoothies. At Northwest Wild Foods, you have the choice of fresh, dried, or fresh frozen berries and seafood. Try our frozen Wild Alaskan salmon sampler to keep in your freezer for a quick weekday dinner. Our sampler consists of the 3 greats of the salmon kingdom: King salmon, silver salmon and sockeye salmon. All of our salmon is cleaned and frozen at sea within 25 minutes to help lock in the nutritional value. Or try our fresh frozen cranberries or huckleberries, all frozen at the peak of freshness for flavor and optimal nutritive value! Resources: (01) https://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/history-of-agriculture/(02) https://extension.umn.edu/preserving-and-preparing/science-freezing-foods(03) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/voraciously/wp/2018/06/26/buying-frozen-fish-isnt-what-it-used-to-be-heres-what-you-need-to-know/(04) https://www.jamesbeard.org/blog/take-another-look-at-the-freezer-case