Freezer-Friendly Frozen Foods

Sometimes we may take for granted the many food-related conveniences we enjoy every day. Frozen foods are one of those modern-day conveniences that we tend not to think about. The freezer section in many grocery stores can span two or more aisles, with everything from quick-frozen fruits and vegetables to meat, poultry, and seafood, to completely prepared meals and desserts—including classic comfort foods. Today you can also find fully prepared dishes like ready-to-bake chicken pot pies, beef stew, chicken and dumplings, and classic apple pies. You can even find “homemade” bread ready to thaw and bake—even Grandma would be envious of these gems!

More than 80 years ago in 1925, American inventor Clarence Birdseye (I’m sure you’ve heard the name) started the frozen food industry when he quick-froze fish on a refrigerated moving belt. This innovation started an entirely new industry. Large-scale commercial production of frozen foods began a few years later when a major processor bought Birdseye’s patents and began marketing frozen fruits and vegetables. The quality of frozen foods then wasn’t what it is now, yet the industry grew slowly but steadily. A resurgence of refrigerators and home freezers just after World War II increased the demand for frozen food and spurred its production to more than one billion pounds.

With increased product demand came increased consumer demands for higher quality foods. Consumers complained about the loss in flavor and the changes in color and texture. The industry also had its own concerns about the safety and nutritional value of frozen foods and in the late 1940s came to ARS’s Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) in Albany, California, for help.

WRRC scientists began the Time-Temperature-Tolerance (TTT) Project with the goal of improving frozen food. WRRC scientists built a freezer plant in which to test the food freezing process. The Center houses a full-scale pilot plant that allows researchers to simulate real-world food processing/manufacturing processes. They began testing every step in the process, including selecting the right crop variety, crop handling between field and plant, blanching and freezing, packaging and storing, and transporting products to the market. This project allowed ARS scientists to help the industry solve production problems. The scientists tested frozen fruit, orange juice, vegetables, poultry, prepared food, and bakery items. ARS scientists’ creativity led to the invention of processing equipment to improve frozen products and also frozen food standards and practices that ensured the survival and growth of America's frozen food industry.

On December 11, 2002, the American Chemical Society (ACS) designated WRRC  with National Historic Chemical Landmark standing for its groundbreaking frozen foods research related to time-temperature tolerance. Incidentally, WRRC received its second ACS Landmark recognition in August 2013 for its pioneering research in flavor chemistry. It is the only research center to have received two of this highly regarded award.

Today, we get to enjoy the unbelievable variety of high-quality frozen foods that are safe and nutritious—all thanks to ARS scientists!

This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of the USDA’s ARS & You newsletter. To view, click here.