Caterers and chefs - even those in fine-dining restaurants - use frozen ingredients, but despite their convenience and cost-effectiveness they still face resistance in some quarters. Manufacturers are hoping to change that with a campaign targeting the food service sector. Diane Lane reports.
Frozen food sales rose in the UK food service sector between 2006 and 2009. According to data compiled by Horizons FS on behalf of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) there was a sales value increase of 2.4% over the period.
Brian Young, director of the BFFF, says: "Frozen food is now winning favour with chefs in a huge range of kitchens in the food service sector. The quality and range of frozen food has never been better, and growing numbers of food service kitchens are beginning to realise the many ways it can help meet their needs.
"Across the industry, caterers are looking for ways to provide high-quality meals to their customers while maximising cost efficiencies. Frozen products can play a significant part in meeting these twin objectives. Frozen products offer year-round access to produce which isn't subject to seasonal price fluctuations. There's much less waste with frozen, as kitchens can use as little or as much as they like; unlike fresh produce where what isn't used is thrown away. Portion control and costs can also be better controlled by using frozen ingredients.
"Freezing is a natural process which has been used by the food industry for nearly 100 years. Whether it's meat, fish or vegetables, freezing food involves locking in quality and freshness when the food is at its peak."
Last year the BFFF embarked on its two-year Profiting from Frozen Food campaign, which aims to educate the food service sector in methods of making money through frozen food. With a focus on how buying frozen food can save money and demonstrating that the quality and taste of frozen foods is better than ever, the campaign's activities have included a cost comparison report, a study on nutritional content, and a sensory comparison study.
Conducted by the Manchester Food Research Centre (MFRC), the cost comparison study found that the frozen prepared meals cost 24% less to make than a duplicate recipe made from scratch. Frozen equivalents of labour-intensive dishes requiring a high degree of skill offered even greater potential for savings - as much as 66%.
Colin Rodgers, technical project manager at the MFRC, says: "On the whole the study considered it was more cost-effective to buy ready-made frozen alternatives than manufacturing the food fresh from scratch, particularly the more labour-intensive dishes, which involve a high skill level at a considerable cost."
In the sensory comparison study, also carried out by the MFRC, blind taste tests carried out with 32 chefs revealed there was no statistically significant difference in the overall ratings between a range of fresh and frozen food items commonly used in UK pubs, restaurants and hotels, including sausages, bread, puff pastry, duck breast, tuna steak and spinach.
"Often the quality of the frozen product achieved a higher overall rating than the fresh," says Rodgers. "This indicates that although individual attributes may vary, there is little difference between the products."
The subject of nutritional value was addressed in a report jointly commissioned from Sheffield Hallam University by the BFFF and the Local Authority Caterers Association.
Analysis of the nutritional content of fresh versus frozen products served in primary schools established that there was no significant difference between the two for 37 key nutrients tested. In many cases, significant deterioration of fresh food in the supply chain can lead to lower nutritional value than frozen equivalents. "We must disregard the mistaken opinion that fresh food is always better for us than frozen food," says the report's author, Charlotte Harden, researcher at the Centre for Food Innovation at the university.
These findings will come as no surprise to frozen food manufacturers, who are quick to argue the benefits of using frozen products and are aware of resistance from some sectors of the industry.
Duncan Marsh, general manager of Bernard Matthews Foodservice, which supplies 100% British frozen turkey products, says many professionals recognised the benefits of buying frozen products but there was still an unjustified fear.
"When it comes to certain ingredients, fresh is something to shout about on menus, but there are instances where buying frozen can outweigh the benefits of buying fresh," he says. "The Food Standards Agency has readily accepted that, nutritionally, frozen is at least as good as fresh, and caterers should not be afraid to look at products that are naturally preserved in this way."
Sally Sturley, product knowledge manager at Brakes, goes even further and says that, nutritionally, many frozen foods can have greater benefits than fresh food. "Advances in freezing methods mean vitamins are retained during cooking. Take vegetables as a basic example: when they are picked they begin to degrade straight away; the frozen version is nutritionally superior, as the rapid freezing soon after harvest locks in the nutrients."
And it's not as if you have to be totally fresh or frozen, she points out. "Caterers can use frozen food as a component part of their dishes without the need to create a meal made wholly from frozen. For instance, the fish may be frozen but the chips and vegetables may be fresh, or vice-versa."
For Ian Day, senior buyer for frozen food at DBC Foodservice, the barrier isn't always ignorance of the benefits. He says: "Most importantly, restaurateurs should not feel guilty about using frozen products. Just remember, many of the world's top chefs use items such as frozen pastry to produce fresh desserts. This saves time and effort, and also ensures consistency in terms of quality and presentation - an essential part of any restaurant's food offering."
WHY BUY FROZEN?
• Products are frozen at their peak of quality
• Freshness is locked into frozen products
• Freezing is a natural process and does not require preservatives
• Frozen products offer optimum price stability and competitiveness - avoiding expensive out-of-season prices
• You can use as little or as much frozen food as is needed - thereby reducing waste
• Frozen foods offer an extended shelf life
• Freezing offers year-round availability of seasonal products
• Frozen foods offer long-term menu planning
WHAT THE SUPPLIERS SAY
"Poultry freezes well, a factor which suits more and more caterers as they look for cost-effective solutions that still deliver on nutrition and flavour. Caterers should not be afraid to look at products that are naturally preserved in this way."
Duncan Marsh, general manager, Bernard Matthews Foodservice
"All fish and seafood begins to decline in quality immediately after it has been removed from water, so freezing products immediately ensures their quality and freshness is retained. This quality is passed directly on to caterers because of the hugely extended shelf life of frozen produce - normally 18 months in a commercial freezer."
Peter Lee, technical director, CP Foods (UK)
"The use of frozen pastry gives a great deal of value to caterers compared with chilled or making from scratch, especially when it comes to creating dishes that use the most delicate and complex pastries, such as puff or filo. As well as removing any prep times or ingredients needed, frozen pastry maintains its freshly made texture and flavour right up until it is used."
John McKears, food service sales manager, Jus-Rol Professional
"Vegetables, and potatoes in particular, do not lose taste and quality through the freezing process and tend to provide the freshest option, other than growing your own and cooking straight from the garden. If stored correctly, frozen foods are also less likely to go out of date, so being able to hold stock for ‘possible sales' becomes a cost-effective, realistic proposition."
Phil Cumming, sales and marketing director, Lamb Weston
"Many of the large casual-dining and pub restaurant groups' menus include dishes which are easy to prepare, such as chilli and curry, and the benefits they reap by buying frozen rice are many: low skill required in the kitchen; ease and speed of preparation; consistent delivery of quality; portion control; and no or low wastage."
Mark Lyddy, head of food service, Tilda
"Frozen ready-baked jacket potatoes offer flexibility to caterers as they can be cooked and ready to serve in minutes. They do not deteriorate during storage unlike fresh or chilled potatoes and therefore reduce the amount of wastage a caterer would have if using fresh or chilled."
Marie Bannister, sales and marketing director, Farmhouse Potato Bakers
"There has never been a better time for caterers to look into quality pre-prepared frozen alternatives to premium-priced chilled desserts. They might also need reminding that freezing enables manufacturers to use more natural ingredients, reducing the need for preservatives - a key concern of today's consumers."
Sue Garfitt, commercial director, Alveston Kitchens
• Alveston Kitchens 0800 575755
• Bernard Matthews Foodservice 0845 519 4097
• BFFF 01400 283090
• Brakes 0845 606 9090
• CP Foods (UK) 01299 253131
• DBC Foodservice 01707 323421
• Farmhouse Potato Bakers 01262 605650
• Jus-Rol Professional 0800 626893
• Lamb Weston 0800 963962
• Tilda Foodservice 01708 717777