To anyone with a busy life, frozen food can feel like a gift. If we’re honest, most of us could probably confess to slipping a frozen meal into the oven or microwave after a long day when we don’t have the energy to cook from scratch.
And not only is cooking from frozen convenient, but those frozen pizzas and chicken drumsticks can hit the spot too – there’s definitely something about them that makes our brains light up.
But trust me … that’s not a good thing.
The reason we get such a kick out of them is because most are packed with ingredients that our brains have been conditioned over the years to love: Fat, salt, added sugar and more. Such is the impact of many of these foods on our brains that a 2015 study published by the Public Library of Science concluded that ‘highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (e.g. high dose, rapid rate of absorption) appear to be particularly associated with “food addiction”.’
But is all frozen food really so bad for you? And if not, what’s okay and what should you avoid?
The frozen food debate
First, the good news. Frozen food itself is not inherently bad. On the contrary, in 2014 two independent studies by the University of Chester and Leatherhead Food Research found that in two-thirds of cases, frozen fruit and vegetables actually contained more vital nutrients than those that were refrigerated from fresh for just three days.
The researchers concluded that this was likely to be because fresh foods of this type are frozen at the point when they are most nutritious, whereas fresh produce may have spent days or even weeks in transit and on supermarket shelves, gradually losing nutrients.
Other studies have found that vegetables lose their valuable nutrients more slowly, the lower the temperature at which they are stored. In 2007, a large two-part review conducted by the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California found that by the time a consumer eats fresh goods bought from a shop, the frozen equivalent may be nutritionally similar due to the loss of nutrients during handling and storage. (Of course, eating fruit and veg fresh from your garden or allotment will always be the most nutritious option.)
It seems that the story is similar for meat products, with the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service reporting that the freezing process doesn’t destroy nutrients and that for meat and poultry there ‘is little change in nutrient value during freezer storage’. Nor does short- to medium-term freezing affect the quality of meat, according to a 2015 study published in Meat Science which found that lamb frozen for up to a month had almost the same quality as fresh meat. However, there was a general decrease in quality, the longer it spent frozen.
So what’s the problem with frozen food?
Let’s be clear, I’m not attacking the freezing process here. The problems come down to the types of frozen foods designed purely to be put straight into the oven or microwave, with little to no prep. I’m talking about pizzas, processed ready meals, chicken pieces, fish sticks – and anything else pre-packed that bears little resemblance to the food in its original form.
As a 2014 study published in the journal Food Chemistry recently highlighted, those foods are bad news. The study reported that at least half of such meals commonly found on the European market are nutritionally imbalanced. To make matters worse, some of the nutritional information on the food packaging was shown to contain inaccuracies.
It’s also not uncommon for processed frozen foods to be packed full of sodium – a component of salt. While sodium is an essential mineral, the problem is that most of us consume far too much of it, often from processed food. The Harvard School of Public Health reports that consuming high amounts of sodium contributes to high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke, heart disease and heart failure. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming no more than 2,300mg per day with an ideal daily limit of 1,500mg for most adults, yet the average American consumes around twice that at 3,400mg. Given the lifestyles of many in the UAE, we can imagine that figures in our region could be similar.
The AHA recommends that meal servings should contain no more than 600mg but when US health and nutrition website Livestrong did some investigation, it found some frozen lasagnes to contain as much as 832mg of sodium per serving, while certain frozen pies contained 1,390mg. Diet meals were no different, despite their healthier image.
The reason for these high sodium levels in processed frozen foods is two-fold. First, sodium reduces what’s known as the water activity of food. This serves to draw water out of any bacteria that may be present in the food, slowing the decaying process and preventing your meal turning into a soggy mess when thawed.
Sodium is also added to enhance the flavour of such meals. As most frozen meals are relatively inexpensive, sodium comes in handy for food manufacturers as a cheaper alternative to higher quality flavourings such as herbs and spices.
Another common ingredient in processed frozen foods is trans fats, which are particularly bad news for our health. They are made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Their use in processed foods became popular because they provide a cheap and easy way to enhance taste and texture.
Another common ingredient in processed frozen foods is trans fats, which are particularly bad news for our health.
However, over the past couple of decades research has revealed that they deliver a double-whammy to heart health – raising levels of LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) and lowering levels of HDL (‘good’ cholesterol). According to the AHA, they increase risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke and are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile a 2015 study by researchers at the University of California found trans fats to significantly impair memory function.
While many food companies in the Gulf, and other parts of the world, have pledged to begin phasing out trans fats from their products, in reality this may take some time. According to the AHA, the recommendation is that you should have no more than one percent of your total daily calories as trans fat. This means that if you’re following the average diet of 2,000 calories a day, it works out to a mere 3g of trans fat (though really, they are good for nothing, so elimination entirely is my vote).
Not so sweet
And of course there’s sugar, which is often added to processed and frozen foods, not just for flavour but to maintain texture and prevent discoloration in some foods. Eating too much added sugar is a known cause of obesity as well as being strongly linked to increased risks for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, so it’s important to keep levels down. The AHA recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 25g a day for women and 36g a day for men.
Fresh v frozen – settling the debate
In truth, the fresh-versus-frozen debate misses the point. By the time food reaches the consumer’s plate, there are no more nutrients lost from freshly frozen food than the fresh equivalent – and fewer in some cases. As with most matters concerning diet, it really comes down to the quality of the produce.
If food is healthy before it is frozen, in most cases, it’ll be healthy afterwards too. Equally, if a dish is packed full of sodium, trans fats and added sugar before it even hits the deep freeze, these ingredients will still be waiting for you when you take it out of the microwave.
So it makes sense to peruse the frozen aisle with the same mindset as when buying any foods: avoid anything high in salt, added sugar and trans fats – and always read the label. Also, be aware that trans fats may be labelled as ‘trans fatty acids’, ‘hydrogenated fats’ or ‘partially hydrogenated fats’, while added sugar can also be listed as syrup, molasses and ingredients ending in ‘ose’ as in sucrose and dextrose.
It makes sense to peruse the frozen aisle with the same mindset as when buying any foods: avoid anything high in salt, added sugar and trans fats – and always read the label.
As a general rule of thumb, try to buy frozen ingredients rather than frozen meals. For example, many frozen ingredients such as vegetables, meats and seafood go through little processing and therefore will contain most of their valuable nutrients. Ready-made meals on the other hand – where other ingredients, coatings or sauces have been added – are liable to be pumped with additives to enhance flavour, bind the separate ingredients together or add weight. A quick scan of the ingredients listed should let you know what you’re dealing with.
So, should you eat frozen or should you eat fresh? Ideally a mixture of the two is best, but what’s most important is that you’re getting enough of the good stuff – vegetables, fruit, lean meats and fish. Let’s aim to keep it simple, folks.