So have you seen that new commercial, the one with the expected cascade of fresh fruits and veggies that neatly transitions to a pair of hands lovingly laying the top crust on a potpie and then ends—huh?—in a grocery freezer aisle? “Frozen. How fresh stays fresh,” the announcer, all warm and honeyed and cheerful, assures us at the end.
If you have, you’ve been caught up in the sweep of a massive campaign by big food to turn the tide on America’s fast-fading love affair with frozen food. Processed food giants such as ConAgra, Heinz, and Kellogg have teamed up to launch a three-year, $90 million marketing blitz to get you back in the frozen food aisle, according to National Journal. Ninety million dollars. That’s a lot of fish sticks.
All in all, Americans still plunked down $8.9 billion on everything from frozen pizza to peas last year, so you’d think the big food companies wouldn’t be complaining. But that’s a 3 percent decline from 2009, National Journal reports, and forecasters predict an additional 2 percent drop this year, putting sales on a decidedly downward glide.
“Within this foodie culture the last few years, I think there has been a change in how some people define healthy foods,” Rob McCutcheon, president of ConAgra’s consumer frozen-food division, told The Wall Street Journal in June. “There is definitely a push toward products that are more real, higher quality, more homemade, and closer to the source.”
That’s exactly what we eat—when we’re not, you know, snacking our asses off. That’s what’s weird about America’s collective relationship with food: As I wrote last week, big food makers are also grappling with the fact that we’re snacking more than ever, often subbing snacks for meals. The factors that industry watchers believe are responsible for that trend—more single-person households, busier family schedules—sound like they’d also be a boon for meals where all you have to do is pop them in the microwave, then peel back the plastic wrap.
Not so, apparently. According to a 2012 report by AMG Strategic Advisors, declining sales of frozen dinners was a leading factor in driving down sales of frozen food overall. Falling demand for frozen pizza and ice cream was also a prime culprit. The firm asked consumers why they were buying less frozen food, across categories ranging from frozen snacks and veggies to meat and prepared dinners. In terms of frozen dinners, 16 percent said they cut back because they were cooking more at home, while 41 percent said they’d switched to more fresh (or canned) vegetables instead of frozen.
Which brings us to the big question: Is frozen really as good as fresh? The food industry would have you think so. “Frozen. How Fresh Stays Fresh” is just a variation of many taglines frozen-food makers are pushing, including trying to get you to think of freezing as “nature’s pause button.”
“Freezing is a natural way to lock in the freshness and nutrition of your favorite foods,” the campaign’s website assures us. The No. 1 “myth” it tackles is that “frozen fruits and veggies aren’t as nutritious as fresh.” The site’s answer? “The FDA found that there is no difference in nutrition between frozen produce and fresh produce.”
The acronym “FDA” is hyperlinked, but rather than being taken to authoritative science directly from the Food and Drug Administration, you end up at some site called FitDay and an article that only glancingly references a 1998 FDA study—with no link to said study.
One big problem here is that food makers are trying to get you to conflate minimally processed frozen fruits and vegetables with, say, frozen lasagna. One bite of your average frozen entrée, though—all limp and mushy and oversalted—is probably enough for anyone to answer the question of whether frozen is as good as fresh. Unless you read the label, you could be consuming shocking amounts of sodium, fat, and various unpronounceable ingredients.
When it comes to produce, however, the answer appears far more complicated than big food is making it out to be. Yes, a number of studies have found that when you compare the nutritional value of fresh to frozen, on balance there’s really no difference. The reason that’s given most often (and that makes a star turn in the frozen-food industry’s new media blitz) is that frozen produce is picked at the peak of ripeness, when nutrients are at their best, versus “fresh” produce that is often picked before it’s ripe and shipped hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.
There’s some truth to that, although many of the studies out there are (surprise!) sponsored by the frozen-food industry. A more nuanced look at the question came from the University of California, Davis, several years ago. Researchers pored over a bevy of studies, and they found that not only does the nutritional difference between fresh and frozen appear to depend on what fruit or veggie you’re talking about, it also seems to depend on what nutrient.
Take vitamin C. Broccoli loses anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of its vitamin C content during freezing, while green beans lose 17 percent. “In general, losses due to the entire freezing process can range from 10 to 80%, with averages around 50%,” the report states.
But wait, there’s more. Produce pretty much starts to lose vitamin C the minute it’s harvested. Broccoli sitting for seven days at room temperature will lose more than 50 percent of its vitamin C.
The permutations are enough to make your head spin, but the bottom line is this: In the question of whether frozen is as good as fresh, the answer largely seems to depend on what we mean by “fresh.” If we’re talking about conventional produce—which has often been trucked in from far away—that you buy in your average grocery store, then yeah, sure, frozen probably holds its own (so long as you don’t keep it in deep-freeze for, like, a year).
But increasingly, when we talk about “fresh,” we’re talking about local—the bounty of our ever more popular farmers markets. Really, the less time it takes for you to get that broccoli from the farm to your plate, the fresher—and more nutritious—it will be.
Free Range is a biweekly column that covers the often weird and sometimes wonderful world of food industry news. From the latest hits at the drive-through to the front lines of the battle over restaurant wages, Free Range is your source for news and commentary on the latest in food. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Participant Media.