New technology is helping to overturn the widespread idea that frozen vegetables are the less nutritious poor relation of the fresher variety. As correspondents Deirdre Mason and Swineetha Dias Wickramanayake found out however, the frozen sector has still got plenty of opportunity to make up missed sales opportunities.

Technology that freezes food almost as soon as it is harvested is being credited with helping to shake off the common public perception that frozen vegetables are less nutritious than their fresh equivalents. Its champions claim, and produce scientific research to back up their arguments, that quick-frozen foods retain their vitamin content, whereas fresh produce may lose a considerable degree of nutrition during the time spent in transit to the supermarket shelves.

The Heinz Corporation relies on the “freshlock” processing system for its frozen foods. Developed from some 40 years of experience, the system relies on breeding superior Research by category:

Research by category:

Frozen Foods

Frozen Foods vegetables, crop management and growth support systems to ensure minimal agricultural residues. It is also essential that factories are situated near to the fields where the crops are harvested, and that thevegetables are steam-blanched before being frozen.

Sonya Mandeno, marketing manager for Heinz Wattie, in New Zealand, says that research conducted by the Crop and Food Research organisation found that freshlock frozen peas actually contained higher levels of vitamin C after three months in the freezer than fresh peas only three days after harvesting.

A year ago, a national campaign was launched in New Zealand to encourage people to eat more vegetables, fresh and frozen alike. Heinz Wattie has been an enthusiastic participant, says Mandeno: “Our consumer research showed a poor perception of frozen vegetables and we identified an opportunity to change this by communicating some key facts about our products.”

Elsewhere in the Pacific region, Japan has seen frozen foods becoming a mainstay of the processed food industry. Focus Japan reports that the restaurant trade accounts for the lion’s share, taking an estimated 70% of all frozen food products. Japanese frozen food production surpassed 1.5m tons in 1999, with increasing consumer confidence attributed to advances in frozen food processing technology.

That said, the picture is not one of a straightforward domestic boom. Shinichi Taneya from the Japan Frozen Food Association, said that home production is under increasing pressure from imported foods, mainly from China and the USA. Japanese processors have also been moving production facilities overseas.

“We’ve seen a significant number of cases in which labour-intensive production – necessary for products like rolled cabbage – was moved to China,” said Taneya.

The association’s members themselves are also increasingly importing frozen processed foods – 128,000 tons in 2000, an increase of 28% on the previous year. Indeed, there are benefits regarding quality and cost through this approach. Yoshinorj Okada, spokesman for the Nichirei Corporation‘s food divisions planning group, says: “Having the co-operation of foreign firms in the areas where they are strong contributes a lot to quality control and cost reduction.”

Looking at China’s home market, domestic frozen food sales are estimated at less than 1% of all food sales, mainly because outside of the urban areas few consumers have the capacity to store frozen food at home. Frozen products are generally consumed the day they are purchased. However, 1% of the world’s most populous nation is still a significant opportunity for sales. A report prepared by LaVerne E Brabant of the US Consulate General in Shanghai and sent to the US Department of Agriculture, said that China’s frozen dumpling market alone was worth US$300m-US$400m in 1998, and that Shanghai is leading the nation in terms of the purchase of frozen and chilled foods.

Meanwhile, the US market for frozen meals continues to rise, growing by almost 9% in 2000 to a value of US$6.2bn. Finding reasons for this expansion, the US’s National Frozen Food Association points to the growth of one and two-person households, which now account for more than half of total households in the country. These consumers want speed and convenience, says the association, with no waste and no leftovers.

Nevertheless, the US market for tinned vegetables (including tomatoes) and fruit remains healthy, ranking fifth out of 206 categories and ringing up US$5.3bn a year in retail sales. This contrasts with trends in Europe, where figures from Euromonitor have shown sales of frozen and fresh vegetables rising steadily but – with the exception of the Republic of Ireland – tinned foods declining slowly and steadily since 1996. Generally however, tinned foods continue to hold their markets in countries with poor communications and lack of refrigeration (such as China) and in island nations (notably the outlying parts of New Zealand).

Will frozen vegetables prevail?

These trends beg an important question: will frozen foods – and vegetables, in particular – overtake fresh produce in popularity? The European figures suggest that there is still a long way to go. French consumers devoured 2.65m tonnes of fresh vegetables during 2000 and 1.32m tonnes of canned foods, compared with 582,000 tonnes of aggregated frozen foods. Germans meanwhile munched 5.57m tonnes of fresh vegetables, compared with 882,000 tonnes of frozen foods and 1.21m tonnes of canned food.

In the UK however, the British Frozen Food Federation found sales of frozen foods (excluding ice cream) grew by 3.4% over the course of the last year. Fresh vegetable consumption in the home is also rising, by 2% in 1999. Indeed, the big growth market for frozen foods in Europe is likely to be of organic vegetables, a boom that is currently being reflected in the fresh sector.

Dr Robert Mitchell, a research scientist with the UK’s Public Health Laboratory Service, explained: “Over the past few years, the size of the market for organic food has grown dramatically, and so has interest in how ‘safe’ organic foods are.” His research into organic carrots, published on 14 June this year, tested 3,200 food samples for listeria, campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli O157. Not one sample tested positive for any of these food poisoning organisms, fresh or frozen.

By Deirdre Mason and Swineetha Dias Wickramanayake, correspondents

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Frozen Food: The International Market – By Euromonitor Plc

Frozen Food in Western Europe – By Euromonitor Plc