The optimization of transportation footprints, batch sizes, temperatures and storage times may greatly lower the impact of frozen food on the environment.
Fresh versus frozen: a sustainable choice with a twist
Fresh food is greener than frozen. We have an intuitive feeling that it takes lots of energy to freeze and store food? That assumption often holds true, but it is certainly far from universal.
According to Melanie McGrice, from the Dietitians Association of Australia, “Whether fresh is better [than frozen] depends on how fresh the veggies actually are.” While the best choice is often fresh vegetable from the garden, for many people, especially those living in cities, it is hard to get fresh food so easily.
The dilemma is not rare for researchers studying food supply chains. A study published in the International Journal of Production Economics states that the optimization of transportation footprints, batch sizes, temperatures and storage times may greatly lower the impact of frozen food on environment. A careful supply chain analysis is needed to decide on a more sustainable alternative in each particular case.
For some instances, the industry is already clear on the preferred choice. Marine food chef Barton Seaver calls frozen seafood “a major win for sustainability” that allows us “to capture pristine quality” through technologies like deep freeze. The technology allows us not only to store food for a while, but also to preserve produce’s freshness, flavors, fibers and vitamins.
A study by the US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation revealed that consumers rated the taste of cooked frozen fish as superior to fresh fish, with frozen also scoring three times better on the cell structure test. And another study found frozen produce to have three times higher antioxidant content compared to fresh.
And as fresh food gone bad goes into waste, frozen can be stored for months, taken in quantities needed. That can reduce food waste by astonishing six times, according to a recent study published in the British Food Journal. Considering that one third of food produced for human consumption is thrown away globally and 45% of it are fresh fruits and vegetables, this starts to seem like a good idea.
And yet, not for everyone. First of all comes the trouble with patterns. People trust something they can smell, while frozen is associated with worse taste and quality. Fresh intuitively looks more “local” and “organic,” while frozen seems to come from “far away” and doesn’t look too natural. Such views are hard to overcome unless companies find smart ways to communicate their values.
Secondly, many important food options are outside the fresh vs frozen debate. Choosing local and responsibly grown food, avoiding food waste, decreasing animal protein consumption and composting leftovers are the most crucial choices to be made.
Beyond that, the choice is actually much wider even in regards to fresh or frozen, as drying and preservation do not require energy for storage while frozen food is often associated with hard-to-recycle packaging. Finally, as novel approaches like freeze-drying enter the debate, in the near future making sustainable choices may become an environmentalists’ nightmare.
As technologies develop, we will increasingly have to choose between fresh, frozen, vacuumed and many other options. And the quality of our choice ultimately depends on how informed we are about the initial conditions and the consequences of the choices we make.