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Are you a fan of frozen food?

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Simon Parkes Simon Parkes | 10:57 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

I readily admit that apart from the obligatory bag of frozen peas (oh and a very occasional Arctic roll!), I don't buy frozen food. I'll freeze leftover Bolognese sauce and rinsed-out ice cream tubs filled with chicken stock - and that's about it. But clearly a lot of people think otherwise as it’s an industry worth around £7.5 billion a year that accounts for 8% of all the food we buy in the UK, which is why we decided to look at frozen food for this week's edition of The Food Programme.

Frozen greens

 

In these straitened economic times, frozen food is a sector that’s growing as consumers recognise two things. Firstly, it offers value for money. And secondly, it helps reduce waste (there’s nothing to trim off and throw away and you only take out of the freezer the amount you need). And it seems to be growing at both ends. As the recession kicked in the frozen food chain Iceland reported double-digit sales growth, while the supermarket seeing the greatest growth in the freezer aisles today is Waitrose. 

Frozen food does desperately need to move upmarket if it’s going to muscle in on the lucrative chilled sector goods that most of us seemingly prefer to buy, and which deliver far better returns for the retailers.   

To me, it’s true that the range of chilled dishes seem infinitely more appealing than what’s on offer down the frozen food aisle. Apart from ice creams and sorbets, freezers seem to be filled with a vast array of retro foods such as vol-au-vents, gateaux and sausage rolls – all firmly rooted in the diet of 40 years ago. The progress that’s been made elsewhere in terms of food provenance (whether something is organic, free-range, fair-trade or local) hasn’t translated onto frozen food packaging. Frozen food manufacturers, or perhaps buyers, seem stuck in a time-warp.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Back in 1917, the scientist and explorer Clarence Birdseye observed the Inuit of Labrador freezing fresh fish in seconds as it hit the sub-zero temperatures out of the ice-holes. He famously went on to develop the technique of blast freezing, done so quickly so as not to destroy the cell structure of food. In the years after World War Two, we were in the thrall of this white-hot, but oh-so-cold miracle technology that allowed us to eat frozen items at the peak of their freshness at any time of year. Incidentally the house I grew up in had, like I suspect many others, a huge freezer cabinet at the back of the garage.

While other countries see no stigma in buying frozen foods (the French buy far more than we do), here in the UK, frozen has lost its lustre and become boring. What would you like to be able to buy in the frozen food aisles? How do you think that section of the supermarket should be re-invigorated to make it make more exciting and relevant? And, more importantly, how do we persuade people that frozen ingredients are just as wholesome as fresh? After all, just look at that bag of frozen peas in your freezer, frozen within hours of being picked…

Simon Parkes is a presenter of The Food Programme

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    One scary thing is the energy that must be needed for keeping food cold. Hopefully, it works out an OK trade-off, on balance.

    ("In these straightened economic times" should really be "straitened". Sorry.)

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for pointing out the typo - I've updated the text. There's been talk of this subject on our messageboard today and here are a few highlights:

    Dee: I do get a bit fed up with the constant berating of UK food. It's not all bad, honest. I really like the packs of frozen lime leaves, lemon grass & ginger etc that I get from Waitrose. Frozen chicken livers are a great standby for whizzing up a paté & all butter puff pastry can be very useful. I really like the frozen scottish raspberries & other fruits for crumbles, pies & pavlovas & to go with yoghurt & I love frozen petit pois. Raw prawns or fruits de mer are a good stand-by too. Sure, we have more than our fair share of poor ready prepared food, but there is some good stuff out there too if you look hard enough. Yes, we could do better & I'm sure that France has a bigger frozen veg selection than us, but it shouldn't always be UK=bad, France=good in the food stakes (or should that be steaks?

  • Comment number 3.

    Stokey Sue: As Dee says, you can buy rubbish if you want - but the basic veg, fruit & and fish (a lot which is now labelled to show sutainability) are very good now. Iceland own brand petits pois are superb (much nicer than Birds Eye IMO) And if you go to the larger supermarkets you also get a good choice of these things, plus handy ingredients. Lidl often has frozen game & organic poultry. Dorset frozen all-butter pastry is better than 9 out of 10 cooks can make, and there's quite a lot of good dessert items (as well as junk ones) if you look. I recommend the frozen traditional puds such as treacle tart in Waitrose, which I buy for my parents sometimes. Of course we'd like the more exciting things you can buy at Picard as well - but what we have is not that bad; certainly to suggest it is all rubbish is untrue.

    lesleylove: I listened to the programme and I think they were mainly going on about frozen ready-meals as opposed to veg, though they were having a debate about whether having row upon row of burgers, fish fingers etc in the frozen aisles here in the UK was the best use of space!

    Joanbunting: Hi Dee. I don't think so either, but the point of the programme was that the UK frozen food industry could and should try harder. My recent experience in the UK has been patchy as I have not been to parts where Waitrose has stores; they didn't when I lived in Newcastle either. So I didn't buy much in the way of food from supermarkets and I still don't here (in France). My experience of Picard, the firm mentioned on the Food Programme, is only relatively short as I could never get to a store previously. Until I did, I never bought frozen food here and if I buy "ready meals" as I very occassionally do, it is always from our butcher/traiteur . As I said yesterday after visiting Picard for the first time I realised how many of my friends here "cheat". I still have to buy all my spices for Indian food by mail order from the UK and of course bacon has to be imported by anyone who happens to be visiting.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great frozen meals ARE available in the UK. www.cookfood.net

  • Comment number 5.

    I recently discovered frozen fruit - cherries, blueberries and raspberries. So much cheaper than the fresh, out of season stuff and just as tasty.

  • Comment number 6.

    Having praised the suppliers (as quoted by Ramona, thanks) - I do wonder why (apart from the Waitrose ingredients) there is no "world food aisle" equivalent in frozen food shops - I would like to be able to buy things like skinned broad beans, artichoke bases, samosa wrappers etc that are available in specialist shops but not generally

    And neither Iceland nor Farm Foods sells broad beans of any description. Odd. I suppose it is because frozen food IS in fact seen as down market

    And like the first poster I do wonder if frozen food always justifies the energy costs in terms of both running costs and making the freezers

  • Comment number 7.

    Frozen food is a mixed blessing. We have an allotment and so tend to use the freezer for over production, but the trouble is domestic technology is rubbish at freezing - as you point out the long freezing process destroys the cellular structure, where as the blast freeze that the big companies use preserves the structure.

    In your article, you have fallen for some of the hype and myths about frozen food.

    1. It is cheaper - well, yes - if you do not mind a lower grade product. Top grade frozen food (which is rarely found in the specialist frozen food stores) can be as expensive as their fresh equivalent.

    2. There is less waste, you claim, because the vegetables are pre-trimmed. So, who did the trimmings? And what did they do with them? Just because you do not generate the waste at home does not mean there is no waste.

    The majority of home created waste is because we cook too much and throw much of it away. The UK Frozen food market with its emphasis on bulk buying encourages that waste rather than helps it.

    I do use a freezer, but more and more it is for some meat and frozen peas and huge quantities of ice. But other than that, I would much prefer to seek my bargains in a good market than in a frozen food retailer.

  • Comment number 8.

    As the general opinion seems to be, frozen food has its good and bad!

    For a start some foods we take for commonplace have been created by the frozen food revolution (im thinking ice cream) whereas others have a level of snobbery about them.

    I think as with all food it comes down to fresh and seasonal goods careingly produced. Maybe the fact the majority of the frozen food isle is filled with ready-meals harms the image of other less sub-standard produce?

    As a side note I've just set up a food blog and would be grateful to receive a few followers of similar interests. I'm a student who loves all things food and will be sharing some of my thoughts with the world!

    http://thestudentfoody.blogspot.com

  • Comment number 9.

    02curtisb wrote:

    For a start some foods we take for commonplace have been created by the frozen food revolution (im thinking ice cream)

    Ice cream pre-dates the Frozen food industry by quite sometime! We have been freezing stuff since Roman Times but Ice Cream as we would understand it dates back to the early 18th century. Even before any refrigeration, in great houses they would create Ice Houses where they stored ice from their lakes for many months insulated with straw.

  • Comment number 10.

    I am not bought frozen food fan but do freeze my own veg from plot, homemade ice-cream and bread dough in small batches.

  • Comment number 11.

    I mostly use my freezer to freeze food I have made (or grown) myself. However, I think the freezer can be a useful store cupboard and I will buy some ready made frozen stuff e.g. peas, broad beans and ice cream. I confess to a weakness for some frozen deserts, especially fruity cheesecake!

  • Comment number 12.

    I use the freezer to keep meat, fish and meals which I have bought or made in bulk or as a single person my food waste would go up. The only veg I buy are peas and broad beans as almost everything else in the supermarket freezers are damaged by the freezing process. It would be much more budget friendly to buy frozen broccoli and cauli but the florets are generally so battered that they do not look right and they just tase of water. The fruit is good, but there is not enough choice available in the supermarkets. I would like to see more unmixed frozen fruit packets though. But the ready meals are generally poor quality packed with salt and and flavourings. The sound of the french chain sounds good but I can't see people moving away from the chiller cabinet to the freezer here in the uk.

 

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