Are people snobbish about frozen food?

A man looks at a frozen food product

A new series captures what life is like at frozen food retailer Iceland, but are some of us a little bit snooty in our attitude to frozen food?

Google it and you'll see there have been dozens of attempts to establish whether fresh or frozen vegetables are better for you.

Many cite a US Food and Drug Administration report from 1998 that established frozen was better than fresh. Advocates of frozen say the process prevents nutrient loss occurring in transport. Even those who plump for fresh admit that frozen vegetables are still a healthy option.

And yet there's a marked degree of antipathy towards frozen food.

"Iceland is a classic British institution that half the country loves and half the country hates. Half of the population absolutely hate it without ever having, in most cases, been in a shop or bought a product," says Keith Hann, PR consultant for Iceland Foods. "In a word, snobbery."

For some, frozen food conjures up images of Mike Leigh's 1977 drama Abigail's Party, with kitsch dishes such as defrosted prawn cocktail, vol-au-vents and black forest gateau, not forgetting the staple of any 70s dinner party - the Arctic roll.

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Brian Young, director general of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF), says he senses a chill in the air when it comes to the British public's opinion of frozen food.

"Pretty much every food manufacturer will do blind testing of their product and every blind test that I've known, particularly on fish and other products, will ask the consumer to compare two samples side by side and nearly always they prefer the frozen variety.

"If you then show them the packaging and you show it was a frozen product or a fresh product, they then nearly always choose the fresh one, even though they have just tasted something that was significantly better."

Price could be a factor, suggests Young.

Berries Research has found some frozen fruit contained higher levels of vitamin C

"[Frozen food] can be produced much more efficiently than a fresh or a chilled counterpart, so it finishes up that the price of the product is quite often significantly less. People associate the fact that if you looked at two pizzas and one was £2.50 and one was £1.50 you naturally assume the £2.50 one is better quality."

Cutting down on waste in the supply chain is one of the biggest advantages of freezing, says Young.

Start Quote

Everybody loves the fantasy that everything has been... picked from the market that morning”

End Quote Food critic, Kate Spicer

But he also claims there are health benefits. Research conducted recently by Chester University and Leatherhead Food Research - and funded by the BFFF - found in two out of three cases frozen fruit and vegetables contained more antioxidants and nutrients than fresh produce. "They are losing their vitamins, they are losing their antioxidants the minute they come out of the ground or you pick them off the plant or tree, so by freezing them you lock in that goodness for longer," says Young.

However Michael Barker, editor of Fresh Produce Journal, says consumers do like the taste and that "just picked" look of fresh produce.

"It's true scientifically that you do start to lose [some] nutrients as soon as the product is picked, but I don't think it's such a massive loss that you're not still getting those nutrients. It's still an incredibly healthy product to eat regardless of whether it's fresh or frozen," says Barker.

Jamie Oliver Jamie Oliver cooked a cauliflower and broccoli bake using frozen ingredients

He says fresh and frozen are not rivals when it comes to the food chain. "The number of fruit and vegetables, and particularly fruit, that you find frozen is relatively limited. You think about the biggest selling fruits - bananas, oranges, apples, pears - you don't really see these in frozen formats."

Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith have both used frozen vegetables in recipes on their cookery programmes.

Ice cool facts

A fridge with freezer compartment, 1962
  • Clarence Birdseye - who started his career as a taxidermist - first began selling frozen food to the public in 1930.
  • It is said Birdseye got the idea on an expedition to Newfoundland where he was taught by the Inuit how to freeze meat and fish under ice
  • Towards the end of World War II, tin cans were in short supply and frozen food began to become more popular because it was packaged in paper and cellophane which were more readily available
  • Frozen food continued to increase in popularity after the war and in 1949, the first frozen pizza was launched on to the market
  • In 1970, Iceland started trading and sold loose frozen food. Consumers could buy a scoop of fish fingers or peas and store them in the freezer compartment at the top of their fridge
  • The chest freezer was introduced in the mid-70s and it became commonplace in the home to have a separate fridge and freezer

But David Gray, analyst at Planet Retail, rejects the idea that frozen food has any type of image problem.

"Frozen food is a lot more popular than it used to be, a lot more common," says Gray. "It is seen as good value for money by consumers."

He believes the industry's reputation was knocked recently by the horse meat scandal which affected frozen meat products, but predicts frozen food sales will keep rising.

He also says frozen food could expand into discount stores. Some pound stores are already starting to sell a small selection of frozen food.

There has even been a resurgence in the popularity of some retro classics such as chicken Kiev - eaten by Don Draper in the 1960s inspired TV series Mad Men.

As well as expanding into new areas of the high street, frozen food manufacturers and retailers are also now offering consumers new ranges at the top end of the market.

For example, frozen food store Cook sells handmade food for the freezer. Beef wellingtons are priced at £20 for two portions, and on the packet you will find the name of the chef who prepared the dish before it was frozen.

Food critic and regular on BBC's Masterchef Kate Spicer says there is a "revolution in home cooked food being sold on to people".

She advocates schemes such as buying homemade food from a neighbour who has more time to spare to prepare meals which can then be frozen.

When it comes down to it the British public are not snobbish about the method of preservation, she says.

"There's frozen food and there's frozen food, and I think a lot of it has to do with the brand on the box and not the fact that it's frozen," says Spicer.

Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet was on Monday 21 October at 21:00 BST on BBC Two

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