Clarence Birdseye invented the quick freezing method in 1924, but the ready-to-eat revolution didn't really start until the 1950s. By the 1970s, home freezers were widespread, and on March 6, 1984, President Reagan approved a National Frozen Food Day. But is frozen food sustainable? Environmentalists often tout the benefits of shopping local, growing your own garden, and eating fresh, in season, organic food. But what if you live in the city, don't own a car, or can’t get to the farmers’ market? Or you have a limited budget? Or there’s a pandemic and you are trying to avoid crowds and stores? While it's difficult to compare the carbon footprint of fresh, frozen, and canned produce because of the myriad of variables associated with refrigeration costs, growing, distribution, packaging, and waste, you may be surprised to learn that frozen food isn’t a necessary evil but a legitimate sustainable choice.
8 Reasons Frozen Food Can Be Sustainable
Lower carbon footprint: Frozen foods and fresh foods both require energy to keep them cold during transportation and distribution. A Tufts University professor who studies the environmental impact of frozen vs. fresh food says the difference in energy consumption between the two isn't that great in terms of freezing vs. refrigerating; however, the transportation of frozen food, which is usually done by ship, utilizes a fraction of the fuel used in the transportion of refrigerated fresh crops by plane. Asparagus, berries, and green beans are typically flown in by plane. Conscious consumers are making greater demands for labels such as "airfreighted" so they know which products are shipped vs. flown in.
Less waste: Frozen food results in less food waste. It is often cited that one-third of the food worldwide winds up in the trash, and 45% of that is made up of fresh, perishable fruits and vegetables. The British Food Journal says frozen foods can reduce waste by six times! While home cooks may discard or compost kitchen scraps, large-scale processors don’t automatically send stems, fruit rinds, and vegetable peelings to landfill. Green Giant uses its trimmings as compost for its research farm and animal feed for local farmers. Earthbound Farm, which manufactures organic produce, sells scraps to juice makers, and its spinach and broccoli waste goes to an organic dog food manufacturer. Keeping waste out of landfill by composting scraps and buying less to begin with, recycling plastic packaging, and looking for ways to reduce packaged produce are all great actions for the environment! Visit HERE for additional tips on reducing food waste at home. HERE's a previous SCOCO article by Kimberly Lam on reducing waste in your kitchen.
Energy efficiency: If you grow your own food but can’t consume, trade, or give away your excess, consider a freezer chest. Keeping a freezer chest in the garage or basement used to be verboten among the eco-conscious, but it is actually an efficient food preservation method (along with canning, pickling, dehydrating, and using a root cellar), especially if it is an Energy Star rated model. Cold air in freezer chests is contained and doesn’t flow out, even with the lid open. If you keep the chest full, the thermal mass keeps everything cold for a long time (unless there’s a prolonged power outage). While it’s true that you are using electricity for a freezer or fridge in your kitchen or garage, the amount pales in comparison to the pollution generated by air freight. Treehugger.com published this excellent article on why and how freezer chests are environmentally friendly. It provides a CO2 emission breakdown of using freezer chests vs. shipped produce. (You may also wish to visit the most energy efficient refrigerators of 2022).
Fewer pesticides: According to UC Davis Cooperative Extension, frozen produce is prepped, washed, and peeled before it’s packaged, so it usually has much less pesticide residue than conventional fresh produce.
Availability: Frozen veggies and fruits are grown in season but readily available all year long, while local produce is seasonal. You can make fruit smoothies during the winter using frozen berries when there’s nary a fresh local berry in sight. Check out "Fresh vs. Frozen Strawberries and the Environment." Even food guru Michael Pollan advises, “Don’t overlook frozen vegetables when they are out of season. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman asked a chef at an upscale restaurant where the amazing Brussels sprouts came from and he promptly answered, “the freezer."
Nutrition: Nowadays your grocer’s freezer contains super healthy choices such as frozen kale, spinach, and other veggies, all picked at their peak of freshness. There are even organic options. Nutritionally, frozen produce is equivalent or even superior to fresh. Vitamins and minerals degrade soon after harvesting, so by the time broccoli travels from the farm to your grocery to your fridge, it’s already lost some of its nutritional value, whereas produce that’s frozen within hours of harvest retains fiber, minerals, and vitamins.
Time: Frozen food buys you time. You don’t have to drive to the store as often, which saves on gas, and if you stock up on something at the grocery or farmers’ market, you can freeze the excess before it spoils. Also, there’s no rush to consume everything all at once.
Convenience: College students, seniors, and anyone with a busy schedule can have a quick, easy, and relatively healthy meal with quality frozen foods (provided you pay attention to sugar, salt, and fat content). Frozen foods give us the convenience of microwaving or baking foods that no longer resemble the boring TV dinners of our childhood, whether it’s Indian curry, Thai noodles, or chicken pot pie. Check out these "Seven Best Healthy Frozen Meals." The downside of frozen food can be the excessive packaging and non-recyclable materials.
How To Freeze Fresh Food:
Good Housekeeping provides this "Guide to Freezing Food." The following are some tips taken from "Nine Mistakes You're Making When Freezing Your Food":
- Wrap foods airtight to prevent freezer burn. Common plastic bags are adequate for short periods, but heavy-duty aluminum or freezer bags/wraps will keep the integrity of your food for 2-3 months. For even longer, you may choose to invest in vacuum-packing systems.
- Sturdy greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss Chard freeze better than watery veggies like celery, cucumbers, and lettuces.
- Avoid washing produce before freezing so it doesn’t toughen the skin or cause freezer burn.
- Blanche fresh vegetables before freezing to stop enzymatic decay process and preserve flavor, color, and texture.
- Don’t freeze fruit in clumps. Spread out berries or smaller chunks on trays in single layers and freeze first, and then store in freezer safe bags or containers.
- Don’t freeze in containers that aren’t meant to be frozen (e.g. yogurt or cottage cheese containers); they are brittle and break easily.
- Label and date food before freezing.
While it's still best to eat fresh, local, in-season, responsibly grown food, decrease animal protein consumption, reduce waste, compost leftovers, and avoid packaging, frozen foods are an overlooked green choice for countless reasons. Besides, is there anything better than ice cream (or ice cream alternative such as coconut milk, frozen kefir, gelato, Hawaiian Shaved Ice, sorbet, tofu ice cream, Korean Bingsu, or frozen yogurt)?