Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Case for Frozen Food

As I begin this post, I’m enjoying a highly delicious, unusually nutritious homemade mixed berry smoothie. Normally, the cost of making such a drink in mid-January is prohibitive, with fresh berries running up to a dollar per ounce. But if you order a similar smoothie at a place like Jamba Juice? At four or five bucks a pop, you may as well blow your nose on Abe Lincoln.

Enter Trader Joe’s bag o’ frozen strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. For a mere $2.99 you, too, can procure a pound of sweet, juicy produce that tastes almost as good as the day it was wrenched from a vine. Throw in some low-fat yogurt, a little light soy milk, and a dash of honey, and *poof*. It’s manna in an glass for less than half the price of the Jamba shake.

When it comes to whole fruits and vegetables, fresh is nearly always preferable to frozen. Yet, there are circumstances in which iced goods have clear benefits. An affordable blueberry smoothie in the dead of winter is just one example.

Nutritionally speaking: frosty fare retains most of its vitamins and minerals because it’s flash-frozen soon after being picked. In some cases, frozen eats may actually be healthier than fresh, since they’re not artificially ripened, shipped long distances in precarious containers, or left laying around to wilt. More on that here.

Financially speaking: I bought a pound of mixed, chopped bell peppers for $1.29. Fresh green bells were going for $1.49/lb at Key Food, and red and yellow peppers for much more than that. Frozen produce can be a massive bargain, especially because supermarkets seem to run specials almost every week.

Culinarily speaking: home cooks get pretty tired of potatoes, apples and winter squash after a few months. A variety of iced goods counters the boredom. Yeah, the quality can waver (greatly … oh, so greatly), but y’know – the spice of life and whatnot.

Conveniently speaking: chilled fruits and veggies are on par with zippers and the invention of the wheel. Produce will last for months in a freezer and can be purchased in giant, hulking bags. Sure, there’s some thawing time, but overall, the handiness is hard to match.

Flavor … uh … ly speaking: preservatives are kept to a minimum, since the cold acts as a safeguard against the elements. What’s more, food is given a chance to ripen before it’s packaged, meaning it'll taste better than that suspicious February chile.

It’s worth noting that lots of processed frozen entrees don’t meet these criteria. For every semi-healthy Amy’s Kitchen shepherd’s pie or Lean Cuisine panini, there is a slew of artery-clogging Hot Pockets, Hungry Man Hearty Breakfasts, and TGI Friday’s mozzarella sticks. The calorie counts in these foods can reach four digits, never mind the fat and sodium levels. For the sake of convenience, it might be difficult to cut them out entirely, but don’t forget to read the nutrition labels before you buy.

Also meriting a mention is the environmental impact of mass-produced frozen foods, which is … hard to quantify. Freezing a string bean consumes a lot of energy. Keeping it cold uses even more. However, you do save precious food miles by avoiding imported off-season goods. (See? Hard to quantify.) To reduce the negative effects on the atmosphere, try to buy the majority of your produce fresh, in-season and/or organically-grown. Or? Grow and freeze your own fruits and veggies. The Earth will thank you.

That’s it for me (I have a smoothie to finish), but if you’re interested in reading more about the glory and magic of whole frozen foods, these resources will do quite nicely:

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Milehimama said...

Frozen produce is way cheaper than fresh a lot of the time - for example, the bell peppers are already chopped and you don't have to pay for the wieght of the seeds. Spinach and greens are already "devolumized" so you get a lot more bang for your buck - and you're not paying for half a can of water like canned veggies.

They also hurt less when you drop them on your foot, so you'll save on dr. bills too... :)

Amphritrite said...

This is an excellent point! Lately, my favorite veggies have gone out of season and I so miss them in soups and the like. So I buy frozen... Easy :) Cheap, healthy, good ;) Y'know the phrase.

monica said...

We're always told to eat seasonal fresh produce, but you're right, winter vegetables do get old. And the next best thing is summer veggies, picked when they were in season, and preserved in the freezer. I always have frozen fruit, peas and corn on hand. I sometimes freeze my own fresh-bought veggies if I'm not going to use them before they go off. Not to mention the merits of frozen homemade soup, stew, chili, whatever... convenient meals don't get better, cheaper or healthier than that.

English Major said...

People learned to freeze for the same reason we learned to can, and now that most brands flash-freeze, really very little nutrition is lost.

I wouldn't eat most frozen produce raw, but if it's cooked, it's fine. This very morning I cooked down a bag of raspberries (from Trader Joe's) into a coulis. It tasted great, and cost me $2.29 or something instead of $10.