Frozen veggies get an overhaul
General Mills and other food companies are going on the offensive, hoping to change consumer perceptions about products in the freezer aisle.
In winter's depths, family cooks often finds themselves facing a produce dilemma: Buy "fresh" produce out of season, which may have spent days or weeks getting to the local supermarket, or begrudgingly turn to the freezer aisle to find a bag of frosty peas, broccoli or blueberries.
Frozen produce is convenient, and often it is nutritionally comparable to fresh produce. But it has an image problem.
Often, "there is a perception that if you are using a frozen vegetable you have taken a shortcut and you are not trying to help your family," says Kate Gallager, research and development manager for Green Giant, a big producer of frozen produce and a unit of General Mills (GIS).
Frozen food companies are going on the offensive, aiming to make products that look better, taste better and offer enough convenience to overcome frozen-food phobia.
Hoping for a crisper outcome, Green Giant is considering products that advise consumers to ditch the microwave in favor of a skillet, Gallager says. Earlier this year, Birds Eye introduced Recipe Ready frozen vegetables, pre-cut mixes for specific dishes like sliced peppers and onions for fajitas and chopped carrots, onions and celery for chili, soup or stew.
The company hopes focusing on timesaving products will win over busy parents, says Mark Schiller, president at Birds Eye Frozen Division, owned by Pinnacle Foods (PF). But rather than focus on the frozen-versus-fresh question, he says, "we have much more upside as a company and as an industry just getting people to eat more vegetables."
Texture is a hurdle for some would-be consumers of frozen produce. The water in fruits and vegetables expands during freezing and breaks plant cells, which can create a mushy texture in some varieties, Green Giant's Gallager says.
Frozen vegetables offer many practical virtues: There is year-round variety, and they are easy to cook with and usually inexpensive. Floyd Cardoz, executive chef and partner at North End Grill in New York, owned by Union Square Hospitality Group, says when cooking at home in winter he often turns to frozen peas, spinach and berries. "There are only so many onions and pumpkins and potatoes that you can feed your kids," he says. The restaurant, with a seasonal menu, doesn't serve frozen vegetables, he says.
Corn is especially good frozen and perfect with cheese for a kid-friendly dish, he says. For cooking frozen peas, beans and other vegetables, he recommends adding them to a skillet on medium-high heat with olive oil or another fat, perhaps garlic and about 2 tablespoons of water, then covering until heated through and the moisture has evaporated. The veggies stay firm without overcooking, he says. Embrace frozen fruit's soft texture to make a compote or pie filling, he says.
Boosted partly by the rise of home juicing and smoothies, frozen fruit sales are growing even as sales of frozen vegetables and frozen meals are flat. Some 90% of people say they bought frozen vegetables at least once in the past year, according to a Nielsen Homescan survey in June.
Soon after they are picked, vegetables destined for freezing get a quick blast of hot water or steam -- known as blanching, which zaps some nutrients but also stops browning and loss of nutrients after freezing. The biggest losses during this step are of water-soluble vitamins like C and B. Then the vegetables are quickly frozen, locking in most nutrients for long-term storage.
At a typical supermarket, frozen produce may be as vitamin-rich as fresh. Fruits and vegetables often travel days or weeks before hitting stores, then sit in the display and a home refrigerator before being eaten. Nutrients escape all the while, a process speeded up by exposure to heat, light and oxygen.
"Yes, fresh can be best but there are other factors involved," such as storage temperature and how produce is eventually cooked, says Joy Rickman Pieper, a nutritional biologist and author of a 2007 literature review comparing the nutritional content of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.
The review, published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture and funded by the Canned Food Alliance, found that fresh and frozen -- and in fewer cases canned -- can be nutritionally equal, depending on how crops were stored and processed.
The FDA has long maintained that frozen vegetables and fruit are nutritionally similar to raw. The USDA dietary guidelines don't draw nutritional distinctions between fresh, frozen and canned produce except to advise consumers to avoid foods with added salt or sugar. Canned food is generally cooked before canning, resulting in a loss of some nutrients.
The Frozen Food Foundation has over the past four years funded three studies comparing the nutritional content of fresh and frozen produce. In one study, at the University of Georgia, researchers measured nutrients in fresh produce on the day it was purchased from a supermarket and after it had spent five days in a refrigerator; they also measured nutrients in a frozen version. The study, led by associate professor Ronald Pegg, found frozen produce was as nutritious overall as fresh produce and, in some cases, more nutritious than produce that had been refrigerated at home for five days.
Frozen broccoli, strawberries and green peas all had more vitamin C than the refrigerated samples. Frozen spinach, however, had less vitamin C than the fresh or the refrigerated samples. This may be because spinach, when chopped, has a large surface area and more vitamin C can leach out during the blanching step, Dr. Pegg wrote in the paper.
Some studies have found some fat-soluble nutrients actually seem to increase in fruits and vegetables when cooked, frozen and canned. Vitamins A and E, and carotenoids like lycopene are thought to be released from their cell structure when cooked, making it possible for researchers to detect more of them during tests, says Diane Barrett, a food biochemist at the University of California, Davis, who is currently working on a second study funded by the Frozen Food Foundation.
To highlight "minimal processing" of its new Lean Cuisine Honestly Good frozen meals, Nestle SA combined vegetables in bright colors that people "can actually see," says Catherine Maas, consumer insights director for prepared foods at Nestle USA, mixing, say, yellow summer squash with snap peas.
Since 2012, Nestle (NSRGY), whose frozen brands also include Stouffer's and Hot Pockets, has been taking bloggers, dietitians and lobbyists on tours of its frozen-meal production plants, hoping to show them that its frozen foods aren't really any different "than what you do when you make a lot of lasagna and freeze some and reheat it later," Ms. Maas says.
ConAgra Foods (CAG) uses only florets of broccoli that are about 1¾-inch long in its P.F. Chang's frozen beef with broccoli dish. They are big enough to feel as if you chopped them yourself, says Christine Hall, vice president of research, quality and innovation for frozen and grocery. The broccoli must be bright green and can't have "any visible ice," she says.
Yet after a review of its Healthy Choice recipes earlier in 2013, ConAgra made sure most vegetables are served with sauce, not au naturel, Ms. Hall says. "People say they want vegetables, but what they really want is vegetables covered in sauce," she says.
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