Frozen food may not count as haute cuisine, but is its inferior reputation entirely deserved?

THE USEFULNESS of frozen food products should be evident to anyone who has ever added frozen vegetables into a wok, sprinkled frozen berries onto their morning porridge – or discovered a forgotten ready-made pizza in the freezer when thinking that there’s just nothing to eat.

And the benefits of a freezer do not stop there: Finns are particularly fond of freezing foodstuff, whether self-picked berries or game meat, as a way of preserving food. For example most berry-pickers freeze a major part of their crop, to be enjoyed when the season for berries has long passed.

There is, however, a persistent suspicion that frozen ingredients are notably less healthy than when bought fresh. In fact, the difference between the two is not as great as some imagine, and in some cases it can be that the opposite is true: frozen ingredients sometimes contain better nutritional value.

“If vegetables are frozen when fresh, their nutritional value tends not to drop much,” explains Kajsa Härmälä, development manager from Marttaliitto (the Martha Organisation), a home economics organisation that promotes the quality and standard of life in the home. “This is especially true when vegetables are quickly processed and frozen after collecting, using an industrial freezing system.”

The key here is industrial freezing, which differs greatly from freezing at home. “Home freezers freeze the food slowly, leaving water molecules big which, for example, changes the consistency of fish. Industrial freezing is immediate, and water molecules are left small and thus don’t have the same effect,” says Timo Partola, marketing director at Findus Finland Oy.

Moreover, in order to retain maximum nutritional values, many frozen products are processed as quickly as possible, and farmed close to the factories. For instance the contracted farms of Apetit are located within 100 kilometres from the factory. “Many consumers are not aware of this, but frozen food is actually fresh,” says Riikka Haarasilta-Suutarinen, product group manager at Apetit Suomi Oy. “Peas are a good example: our domestic peas are frozen within two hours after harvesting. In some cases such vegetables retain their nutrients better than vegetables that are stored and unprocessed for long periods of time.”

Ethics of frozen food

In January, some frozen food products that were advertised as including only beef were found to include horse DNA in the UK and Ireland. Later, also some products in Sweden and France were discovered to contain horsemeat. When SixDegrees went to press, the source of the meat was yet to be confirmed, but a Romanian meat producer was suspected.

However, no products sold in Finland have been found to contain horsemeat. A probable consequence of the incident is that production chains of meat products, which are sometimes unclear to the final consumer, are likely to become more closely monitored in the future. Timo Partola, marketing director at Findus Finland Oy, says he would welcome this development, noting that the quality of food is a number one concern for Findus, some of whose products were discovered to contain horsemeat.

To maintain high quality, Partola mentions a couple of programmes aimed at ensuring ethical use of meat in their products. Findus has a scheme that aims to make sure that overfishing doesn’t take place for its products. Furthermore, the company also follows MSC, a certificate and ecolabelling programme for sustainable seafood in which also WWF participates.

Different wok vegetable mixes
Saithe (fish)
Pyttipannu (hodgepodge of food)
Breaded fish

Finns as consumers of frozen food

Though frozen food sections in supermarkets are these days quite extensive, the Finnish market for frozen food is in some ways different from those of other Nordic countries. According to Partola, the per capita consumption of frozen food is the lowest in Finland.

“You can see a difference just by comparing bags of frozen vegetables: in Sweden they are much bigger, up to a kilo, as the Swedish use as much as they need at a time and save the rest for the next time. In Finland the bags are typically sized for single use,” Partola says. This is partly explained by the longer history that frozen food has in Sweden (Findus was founded there already in the 1940s).

Another difference is in the consumption of fish, which on the whole is very popular in Finland. “Even globally speaking, Finns eat a lot of fish. However only 10 per cent of it is frozen fish, a much smaller portion than in Sweden, for example,” says Partola, “You could say that the benefits of cold chain are better understood in that it’s better for the fish to be frozen soon after catching, compared to freezing at home.”

What also stands out to a foreign visitor is the fact that most ready-made meals are kept in the fridge in Finland, and not in the freezer, unlike in many other countries. For many Finns, the freezer is more for preserving food over longer periods of time or saving the leftovers from own cooking, and less for the storing of everyday ingredients or convenience food.

Given this background, it is not surprising that frozen food often carries connotations that are more negative than it usually merits. Also Partola notes that frozen foodstuff is sometimes seen as low-end items in the supermarkets’ range of choice. However, its popularity and the size of selection have grown over time, and the departments for frozen food in grocery stores are relatively big these days. “The most common way of using frozen food is as vegetable accompaniment, or in soups and casseroles,” estimates Haarasilta-Suutarinen.

Good for you

As a proof of the nutritional values that their products include, Partola refers to a recent study into frozen vegetables that an independent research group conducted for Findus. It found that in some cases, depending on the vegetable, frozen vegetables had more nutrients than those that had been stored and transferred to grocery stores fresh.

Relating to the healthiness of frozen food, it is also worth it to address a misconception that many have – namely, frozen food does not include any added preservatives. “According to our research, 30 per cent of consumers believe the contrary. ” says Partola. In reality, the cold chain that reaches from the factory to the consumer’s freezer is sufficient to preserve the food.

Part of the picture is also the way the frozen food is defrosted, which has an impact on the foodstuff. When making kiisseli (berry soup) or having berries with porridge, it’s a good idea to add the berries frozen as they soon melt in the food. For other uses, the defrosting method that retains most nutrients is the microwave, says Härmälä: “Using the microwave’s defrost function is a better solution from the point of view of nutritional value than leaving the product to defrost in the fridge or room temperature. However, you should only defrost the food, not let it heat up, so this requires you to be careful with the microwave.”

For those concerned by the recent news regarding meat in certain frozen food products abroad, the good news is that the selection in Finland is closely monitored, and no products have been found compromised (see the attached story for more details). So, good for you and simple to use – what’s not to like about frozen food?

Teemu Henriksson