Despite its bad press, frozen food offers a multitude of advantages for caterers, and the British Frozen Food Federation's Profiting from Frozen Food campaign has come up with the figures to prove it. Emma White investigates.
It may have had something of a bad press in the hospitality industry, but frozen food offers numerous benefits for caterers - including cost savings, year-round availability, portion control and reduced wastage. Not only that, but advances in freezing technology have led to improvements in the taste and texture of frozen products.
According to research by Horizons, the food service sector spends a cool £2.3b per year on frozen food, with quick-service restaurants accounting for 42%, pubs 20% and full-service restaurants 7.1% of this figure.
But the perception remains that fresh is best, which is why the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) has launched a campaign, Profiting from Frozen Food, to communicate to caterers the cost savings and increased quality of frozen food.
As part of the campaign, the Manchester Food Research Centre has conducted a cost comparison study, showing that frozen food could save the food service industry millions of pounds a year. The study compared six popular dishes - two starters, two mains and two desserts - made to a duplicate recipe from scratch using fresh and frozen ingredients. In nearly all cases, the dishes using fresh ingredients cost 25% more than frozen counterparts, rising to 162% for more labour-intensive dishes. The costs included raw materials, energy used to prepare the dishes, and wastage.
BFFFdirector general Brian Young says: "We have long known that frozen food offers a better-value option for the caterer and we now have independent research to statistically support this belief. In this tough economic climate, there is a compelling business case for using frozen food. Buying frozen will save money because of competitive and stable food prices, the ability to control portion sizes and waste, plus the opportunity to cut kitchen labour costs."
Advances in freezing technology mean food is rapidly frozen when it is at its freshest state so that nutrients, taste and texture are preserved. By comparison, fresh produce canoften besitting around for days during transportation and storage so that by the time it is eaten manyof the nutrients are lost.
"People assume frozen is inferior but it is a very efficient process taking things at their peak condition so that nutrients are retained," Youngsays. "Spinach loses 70% of its vitamin C two days out of the ground and the same applies to French beans and peas. Fish is frozen at sea, vegetables are frozen within hours and because they are frozen quickly, minimumcell structure damage occurs, resulting in a better taste."
With the exception of a few foods with a high water content, such as lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber, which easily lose their structure, most products can be successfully frozen. Young says freezing works particularly well for meat, desserts and bread.
"Desserts with cream, such as profiteroles, can be better if frozen because they hold their shape during delivery and caterers can bake off frozen bread products to give customers that fresh aroma," he says.
Young adds that frozen food can successfully be used in combination with fresh produce to give customers the best products, while caterers benefit from cost savings and ease of preparation.
"Have a selection of frozen dishes that you can put on a menu and accompany them with fresh and locally sourced dishes when the ingredients are in season and the price is right," he says. "This can take a lot of the labour and preparation out of the kitchen to allow the chef to concentrate on signature dishes or sauces and accompaniments to make it an even better meal."
Every day, contract caterer Sodexo provides one million meals to clients at more than 2,300 locations in the corporate, education, healthcare, leisure and defence sectors and its chefs use a mix of fresh and frozen produce to deliver the best products to its customers.
Buying director Steve Jobson says there are benefits of using both. "Using frozen produce will sometimes be more appropriate where there is a requirement for ingredients that are out of season, or where there may be restrictions in terms of facilities or labour. In the healthcare sector, it is sometimes more beneficial to use frozen food to ensure consistent quality or to provide readily available meals on demand where a 24-hour hot meal service is required."
For Ron Eaglestone, head chef at the Missenden Abbey Conference Centre in Buckinghamshire, the biggest advantage of using frozen food is portion control. The conference centre has three dining rooms with a capacity for 110-120 people, served from a central kitchen that delivers about 80-100 lunches and 40-50 dinners a day.
"Frozen food used to be supplied in mass so you had to defrost it and use the whole pack," Eaglestone says. "Now you can buy food in smaller portions, such as spinach briquettes, which defrost quickly and you use only what you need.
"If I was cooking for 38 people I might need to buy two boxes of fresh broccoli when I only need a box and a half, so I have some left over and that's money in the bin. With frozen broccoli, I can take out exactly what I need and I know, for example, that 1kg will give me 10 portions."
Eaglestone buys a range of frozen items- from peas, sweetcorn, cranberries and redcurrants to burgers and vegetarian foods - and counts convenience and ease of use as further benefits. "You have to take on board how long it takes to cook fresh food from scratch," he says. "It might take you 45 minutes to make 45 beef burgers when you could just take the product straight out of the freezer. Fresh peas vary in size in their pods so can be difficult to cook evenly, where frozen peas offer greater consistency and because they are harvested and frozen so quickly they are very fresh."
Eaglestone also makes the most of freezing technology to extend the life of food left over after service. "I'll freeze bread to use another time if I have an excess," he adds.
FLEXIBILITY AND SEASONALITY
Another benefit of using frozen produce is having access to products year-round. Eaglestone says: "I use a lot of redcurrants for desserts, which are available fresh only for a short season and are cost-prohibitive. These redcurrants are frozen when they are in season so you can use them in peak condition throughout the year."
Paul Farr is head of food at the Punch Pub Company and is responsible for product development and creating menus that are implemented across the company's 896 managed pubs in its 8,300-strong estate. He agrees that frozen produce offers caterers extra flexibility and a cost benefit for diners, too - as long as the original product is good quality.
"People shouldn't have the perception that frozen products are inferior as it's what you freeze that matters and the way it is manufactured," he says. "A poor product is going to taste terrible whether it is fresh or frozen. You can still give customers freshness and nutrition if part of the meal is frozen."
Frozen food is undoubtedly a suitable option for large-scale operations, but as BFFF's Young says, it can benefit operators at every skill level in operations of every size. "It's hard to imagine anyone who couldn't benefit from including frozen produce on their menu," he says. "Smaller operators can benefit from frozen food because it offers choice, reduced wastage and a better cost structure. For people trying to make money in these difficult times, frozen should be at the top of their list."
For more information on the British Frozen Food Federation visitwww.bfff.co.uk