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Frozen Food Fan? As Sales Rise, Studies Show Frozen Produce Is As Healthy As Fresh

May 17, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 12:46 am

Americans are rediscovering the coldest aisle in the supermarket.

According to a new report, sales of frozen foods, including vegetables and prepared foods, are now on the rise following a multi-year slump.

The uptick is new — and modest. But growth "is accelerating as consumers begin to see freezing as a way to preserve food with fewer negatives," concludes a report from RBC Capital Markets.

At a time when two-thirds of Americans say they want to eat more vegetables, 85 percent of consumers fail to eat the minimum recommended amount. It's "one of the widest disconnects in the world of eating," concludes the RBC report. Perhaps innovations in the frozen aisle could help narrow this divide.

Frozen produce already has several factors going for it: "its affordability and its convenience," says Phil Lempert, editor of Supermarketguru.com. And given that the typical American family tosses out $1,500 worth of food yearly — normally after it goes bad in the fridge — frozen foods, which have a much longer shelf life, could help cut back on waste. "People are more concerned about waste than ever before," Lempert says.

Big food companies are offering up new options in the frozen aisle. The RBC report points to the development of products such as veggie tots, an alternative to carbohydrate-heavy tater tots, and veggie rice, which is seen as a healthier alternative to white rice, which is a refined starch that can spike blood sugar.

Pinnacle Foods, which owns Birds Eye, has launched new pastas made from vegetables. And Green Giant, owned by B&G Foods, has introduced Veggie Spirals, made from beets, butternut squash, zucchini and carrots. Options like these may help "increase vegetable eating occasions" — and help maintain the growth momentum for frozen foods, the report concludes.

But, there are still headwinds facing the frozen food sector. Many Americans have heard the message that fresh is best. And the texture of frozen vegetables turns some people off.

"Fresh and local is what they say tends to be healthier," shopper Olivia Mitchell told me as she shopped the aisles of a Trader Joe's with her baby in tow. Mitchell says she prefers to buy fresh produce, and she recently joined a CSA, so she's looking forward to deliveries of local produce this summer.

However, with two kids and a busy schedule, Mitchell acknowledges the convenience of frozen food. "I buy frozen peas and okra," she says. She also buys frozen entrees that her husband takes for lunch.

As for the assumption that fresh is healthiest, it turns out that frozen produce can pack a punch when it comes to nutrition.

When you freeze fruits and vegetables, it locks in nutrients, and several studies have shown that this helps retain high levels of vitamins.

"You can store them in the freezer for a year and the nutrient level pretty much stays the same," says plant scientist Hazel MacTavish-West, who is a food industry consultant.

She says many factors influence the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables, but frozen produce tends to hold up pretty well.

Food scientists at the University of California, Davis, designed a study to compare the nutritional value of fresh and frozen produce. They measured the nutrients in samples of eight different kinds of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables — including carrots, broccoli, spinach, peas and berries.

"We were quite surprised to find there were no significant differences," says study author Diane Barrett, an emerita professor in the Department of Food Science & Technology at UC Davis.

"Overall, the frozen was as good as fresh, and in some cases the frozen fruits and vegetables were better than fresh," Barrett says. For instance, most of the frozen fruits and vegetables had higher levels of vitamin E.

That study was funded by the Frozen Food Foundation, part of the American Frozen Food Institute. However, Barrett says the foundation did not dictate any of the parameters of the study. "I designed the study, determined which analytical procedures to use, and interpreted the results," Barrett explains.

Barrett says frozen produce does lose some nutrients during processing, when it's blanched or steamed. But she says part of the reason the nutrition holds up well in frozen fruits and vegetables can be explained by how quickly it's frozen after harvest. "Typically, the freezing facilities are very close to where the vegetables are grown, so within hours, [the vegetables] are frozen," she says.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Frozen food is having a moment. After years in a slump, sales of frozen and prepared foods are on the rise. They are often cheaper than fresh and can be more convenient. As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, another upside of frozen food may come as a surprise.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Like a lot of us, Olivia Mitchell (ph) has had some preconceived notions about frozen food. She prefers to buy fresh produce.

OLIVIA MITCHELL: I think so. I mean, fresh and local is, you know, what they say is - tends to be healthier.

AUBREY: But with two young children and a busy schedule, she's come to appreciate the frozen food aisle.

MITCHELL: I buy frozen peas and okra.

AUBREY: With a quick zap in the microwave, you can get them from the freezer to the dinner table in a flash. And Mitchell says less goes to waste.

MITCHELL: I think frozen is great because sometimes with fresh food, it goes bad.

AUBREY: After it sits too long in the fridge. All these factors explain the renewed interest in frozen, says Phil Lempert. He's editor of supermarketguru.com. The uptick is recent, he says. But he thinks it will continue.

PHIL LEMPERT: It's affordability. It's convenience. It's not having a lot of waste. People are more concerned about waste than ever before.

AUBREY: And so what about the assumption that fresh produce is healthiest? Well, it turns out that frozen produce can pack a punch when it comes to nutrition. When you freeze fruits and vegetables, it locks in nutrients. And several studies show this helps retain high levels of vitamins. Plant scientist Hazel MacTavish-West, who works as a consultant to the food industry, says freezing is a great preservation method. Take a bag of blueberries or peas.

HAZEL MACTAVISH-WEST: So you could store them in the freezer for a year, and the nutrient level pretty much stays the same.

AUBREY: By comparison, fresh produce continues to lose nutrients due to handling and oxidation.

MACTAVISH-WEST: You could take fresh vegetables, and you put them in the fridge maybe for up to a week. They'll just continue to decline in most cases.

AUBREY: To nail down how fresh compares to frozen, food scientist Diane Barrett and a group of colleagues at UC Davis evaluated a bunch of fruits and vegetables. With funding from the Frozen Food Foundation, they measured the nutrients in samples of fresh and frozen carrots, broccoli, spinach, peas and berries.

DIANE BARRETT: Overall, the frozen was as good as fresh. And in some cases, some of the frozen fruits and vegetables were better than fresh.

AUBREY: For instance, most of the frozen produce had higher levels of vitamin E.

BARRETT: That was really the most shocking thing.

AUBREY: Barrett says frozen produce does lose some nutrients during processing when it's blanched or steamed. But she says part of the reason the nutrition holds up well in frozen fruits and vegetables has to do with how quickly they're frozen after harvest.

BARRETT: Typically the freezing facilities are very close to the place where the vegetable is grown. So within hours, that vegetable is frozen.

AUBREY: Of course fresh produce is loaded with nutrients, too. And many people are big believers in the buy-local movement. But Barrett says frozen holds its own, and it could be one more factor to help make the frozen aisle a little more attractive. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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