Feature: Food facts

BY JEREMY CLARK

Is fresh always best? It may seem obvious but dig deeper and a little investigation seems to suggest there are a few unexpected foodie facts to take into account before making your conclusion.

When you receive your inflight meal, how much thought do you give to its origins? Obviously, most readers of Onboard Hospitality have more than a passing interest in the meal service and tend to over-analyse everything put before us – it’s our world. But the average passenger probably barely gives it a second thought.

They may however have an opinion on whether what they are eating should be a frozen meal or fresh/chilled, but in all honesty could they really taste or feel the difference? My recent research says they couldn’t, and in fact reveals some highly surprising facts.

When Clarence Birdseye developed his fish-freezing method for the General Seafood Corp in Gloucester Massachusetts back in 1925, he surely couldn’t have known he was initiating a huge change to the way food would be preserved and distributed. His invention spurred the massive growth in the use of freezers in retail and in industrial food production, and with that a growth in consumer use of frozen foods at home.

And, since the freezing technology arrived a great debate has raged over which is best – fresh or frozen? The technology for fast-freezing food has now improved way beyond Clarence’s day and we now have technology that is not just extremely efficient but reveals something far more important.

Frozen food has become a completely accepted part of daily life in many parts of the world, but it is still looked upon with some suspicion elsewhere. There are reasons for this, not least in hotter climates where the storage and distribution of frozen product is more challenging and where cooking freshly-procured food is more prevalent.

Also, wellbeing and nutritional factors are becoming increasingly prominent in onboard catering and generally people seem to instinctively think fresh must be better. But is it?

The number one issue of this debate is nutrition so I looked at some of the research. A study from Dr Burch at the British Frozen Food Federation** demonstrated distinct nutritional differences in vegetables. The food tested had been quick frozen at the point of picking and defrosted, against fresh produce that was three days in the chiller, which is the shortest average time achievable between picking and the consumer. Only spinach showed a negligible deterioration whereas broccoli lost more than 75% of its original nutritional value in fresh compared to frozen.

U.S. studies* found almost 80% of fresh fruit fails to meet dietary nutritional recommendations when stored chilled. Frozen and even canned fruit had more nutrition.

Studies also found that freezing had a positive effect on the vitamin E content of fruit and vegetables as compared with fresh and that fibre and total phenolics (health-promoting plant compounds) were well-conserved in frozen produce as compared to fresh.

But what happens when cooked food is frozen? It’s a good question. Freezing food, whether at the point of harvest or the point of cooking puts it into a kind of suspended animation. Most, if not all the nutritional values are captured and released upon thawing. So if you freeze a meal that is made from products with nutrition that has already deteriorated, you won’t gain much, so the trick is to utilise product that is at its peak during production. There are some catering companies out there who make a point of achieving this fine balance.

But there’s more to the fresh vs frozen debate than just health. What about quality? Some products just do not freeze and thaw well – soft fruits, caviar, charcuterie and salad items for example – but modern quick-freeze methodology is able to capture cooked food at optimum quality and preserve it until required for service.

For the best examples of this, tests show that passengers cannot tell if their hot meal was freshly prepared within the last 36 hours in a flight catering kitchen next to the airport or produced in a distant unit 10 weeks ago.

Another key factor is food safety. Product that is frozen as soon as it has been prepared, has no time to develop any form of contaminate. Tests also show that the freezing process can destroy harmful bacteria in the unlikely event any have crept in.

Another key factor for airlines is the need for consistency. They need to know that agreed meal specifications will be duplicated identically into the future on every flight. Freezing makes this easier to deliver because of the volumes and because the meal is literally frozen in time at the optimum moment en route to the passenger.

Any restaurant meal is at its very best when just freshly prepared for service. Now advanced freezing techniques ensure that this perfection can be captured and held until needed. The reconstituted result must look, smell and taste perfect.

Research in frozen foods by the major providers is ongoing. Some experimenting with international cooking styles and ethnic cuisine to see what works and what doesn’t. So development of the frozen offer goes on.

So what do we conclude from this? In a perfect world, we would harvest, prepare and consume our food within a day or two at most. The reality is that it just is not logistically possible. Is ambient pasteurisation the answer? Ultra-Heat Treated [UHT] processes have remained similar for decades and degrade some nutritional values and can significantly damage appearance and texture. More recently High Pressure Pasteurised [HPP] processes have been able to preserve food without heat but this still inflicts nutrient loss and texture changes.

Freezing needs no preservatives or any other artificial additives to keep meals looking perfect so it’s easier to handle, transport and manage, and safer to eat. Critically, taste tests prove that most people cannot detect the difference between a fresh and frozen hot meal.

Not everything lends itself to freezing. I have yet to see a frozen Caesar salad, but there is no doubt – as the studies prove – frozen food has a real future for our industry. I think Clarence Birdseye would be rather chuffed.

References: *University of California-Davis – Dr D Barrett; **Leatherhead Food Research for BFFF – Dr R Burch; American Frozen Food Federation