How to redis­cover the food in your freezer

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ta­mar Haspel Spe­cial to the Washington Post

Cut­ting waste is one of the food world’s top pri­or­i­ties. Up to 40 per­cent of all the food we pro­duce ends up in the trash, and there are pro­grams up and down the sup­ply chain to try to pare that down.

But there’s a sim­ple step con­sumers can take to cut waste: Re­think “fresh.”

It’s a word we as­so­ciate with food that’s whole­some and good-tast­ing. And there’s no ar­gu­ment about a just-picked tomato or a just-caught striped bass; those are the tastes that drive me to grow toma­toes and catch fish. But most toma­toes and fish don’t come to us just-picked or just­caught. They come to us af­ter hav­ing been picked or caught, packed and shipped, ware­housed and dis­played.

Be­cause “fresh” sig­ni­fies “per­ish­able,” es­pe­cially when it comes to pro­duce and seafood, there’s a lot of waste in that sys­tem.

Ac­cord­ing to JoAnne Berkenkamp, se­nior ad­vo­cate for the food and agri­cul­ture pro­gram of the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, freez­ing and can­ning can cut back sig­nif­i­cantly on pro­duce waste — a huge prob­lem, since slightly more than half of our fruits and veg­eta­bles go un­eaten. The sav­ings start within hours of pick­ing. “The veg­eta­bles are typ­i­cally shipped straight from the farm to pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties and frozen or canned within hours, and then sta­bi­lized for months or years,” she says.

The lo­gis­tics are closely man­aged. Farm­ers con­tract to grow the pro­duce, and plant­ing dates are co­or­di­nated with pro­cess­ing plant avail­abil­ity, so when the peas are ready to har­vest, the plant is ready to

re­ceive. With fresh, Berkenkamp says, “you could be mov­ing from farm to pack­ing shed to ware­house to truck to dis­tri­bu­tion fa­cil­ity to su­per­mar­ket.” Each of those steps has the po­ten­tial for loss.

But the big­gest loss is our own fault. “About 43 per­cent of all food waste oc­curs in con­sumers’ homes,” says Berkenkamp. “It’s the largest sin­gle con­trib­u­tor to food waste, and much of that will be fresh prod­uct.” When was the last time you threw out fresh pro­duce that moldered in your crisper? If you’re like most peo­ple, it was re­cently. I am shamed every time the greens get slimy or the broc­coli goes limp.

And when was the last time you threw out frozen pro­duce? You prob­a­bly have — I know there’s been some freezer-burned sweet corn in my com­post — but prob­a­bly not nearly as of­ten as fresh.

Freez­ing and can­ning cut down on waste in an­other way, too. Be­cause the pro­cess­ing gen­er­ally in­volves chop­ping and blanch­ing, it doesn’t mat­ter if some of the pro­duce isn’t pic­ture-per­fect. The im­per­fect spec­i­mens go right in with the per­fect ones, with­out the need to es­tab­lish a sep­a­rate chain for sell­ing the re­jects. Eat frozen, eat ugly.

Pro­duce isn’t the only food we waste, of course, and there’s an ar­gu­ment that the prob­lem of throw­away seafood is even more acute, given that seafood is a more lim­ited re­source. Among all the food cat­e­gories, seafood comes in sec­ond only to pro­duce in the amount we waste — about half of it, ac­cord­ing to Berkenkamp, with much of waste com­ing at the re­tail level.

Some re­tail waste comes from a down­right ridicu­lous prac­tice that ex­ists solely be­cause of our prej­u­dice against frozen food: thaw­ing it at the fish counter.

You’ve un­doubt­edly seen it. You go to the fish mar­ket, or the fish depart­ment at the su­per­mar­ket, and the fish are spread out on ice in the case. Some of the fish are la­beled “fresh.” Oth­ers are marked “pre­vi­ously frozen.”

Now why on earth would the fish mar­ket take a frozen prod­uct that is only mod­er­ately per­ish­able and turn it into one that is ex­tremely per­ish­able, thereby dra­mat­i­cally rais­ing the prob­a­bil­ity that it will go to waste, ei­ther at the mar­ket or once you take it home? Be­cause, and only be­cause, we con­sumers don’t like the idea of frozen fish. Even if our ra­tio­nal brain knows it used to be frozen, our rep­tile brain still thinks it’s more ap­peal­ing in its thawed state.

No­body seems to track how much fish goes into the garbage be­cause we are ruled by our rep­tile brain. But of all our food waste prob­lems, this seems to me to be some of the low­est-hang­ing fruit. Can we just stop?

The pref­er­ence for the thawed fish arises from a per­fectly ra­tio­nal ob­jec­tion, of course: Frozen fish can be down­right dis­gust­ing. I re­mem­ber buy­ing scal­lops that were the size of marsh­mal­lows when I took them out of the bag and the size of pen­cil erasers af­ter I sauteed them. And mealy, nasty-tast­ing pen­cil erasers they were.

But here’s the thing. Fresh fish, too, can be down­right dis­gust­ing, as any­one who has ever left one in the fridge a cou­ple days too long can at­test. The qual­ity of any par­tic­u­lar piece of fish isn’t as much in the “frozen” or “fresh” as in the dev­il­ish de­tails. Fish that’s frozen on the boat in low-tem­per­a­ture flash-freez­ers, then pack­aged to re­duce mois­ture loss, can reach our ta­ble all but in­dis­tin­guish­able from the fresh ver­sion. When we at The Post did a sal­mon tast­ing a cou­ple years back, a frozen sam­ple won top hon­ors. If you’re a sushi lover, per­haps the more con­vinc­ing proof is that nearly all fish served raw in the United States is re­quired by the FDA to be frozen first, to kill par­a­sites. Have you no­ticed tex­ture prob­lems? I haven’t.

So what do we do about all this waste?

I’m not go­ing to plug canned veg­eta­bles, be­cause, other than toma­toes, which are a kitchen sta­ple, I find very few that I’m will­ing to put on my ta­ble — al­though I know peo­ple who grew up with them and ac­tu­ally en­joy them, and power to you. But I’m a big fan of frozen veg­eta­bles and fruit, and not just be­cause they re­duce food waste. Some veg­eta­bles, such as peas and corn, are of­ten bet­ter than what you find fresh. (Starchy veg­eta­bles freeze well be­cause they have a lower wa­ter con­tent, and it’s wa­ter, which ex­pands when you freeze it and breaks down cell walls, that de­stroys tex­ture.) Oth­ers, such as kale and col­lards, are pretty close sec­onds. I’ve found a brand of baby Brus­sels sprouts that don’t get all mushy when I mi­crowave them, and frozen edamame are a stan­dard ac­com­pa­ni­ment when we make sushi at home. (Nu­tri­tion­ally, by the way, freez­ing is a wash; some nu­tri­ents get lost as foods are blanched, but oth­ers are re­tained be­cause the foods get pro­cessed just af­ter har­vest, be­fore the nu­tri­ents have been lost to de­te­ri­o­ra­tion.)

And then there are fruits. For smooth­ies, it doesn’t mat­ter much that their tex­ture has been com­pro­mised, be­cause you’re us­ing them in a way that com­pro­mises their tex­ture any­way. Ditto for com­potes or sauces or even some kinds of pie. I al­ways have frozen cher­ries in the house be­cause I snack on them, right out of the freezer.

One of the big­gest prob­lems with frozen, though, is sim­ply that it isn’t fresh. I talked with Sean Cash — an econ­o­mist who stud­ies con­sumer be­hav­ior when it comes to food and nu­tri­tion, and an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Tufts’ Fried­man School of Nu­tri­tion Sci­ence and Pol­icy — and asked him about the al­lure of “fresh.”

“It’s the clos­est thing to our ideal of what food should be, and right­fully so,” he said. “We love the taste. We love the smell. If it’s fresh, we can con­nect with it, in the ab­sence of grow­ing it or buy­ing it from some­one who grows it.” But it can turn into some­thing “em­blem­atic of some ideal pic­ture of the food sys­tem,” which can, in turn, be­come a “ten­dency to look at any­thing that isn’t ‘fresh’ as in­fe­rior.”

It’s that pesky rep­tile brain again, get­ting in the way. Show it who’s boss. Fight food waste and visit the freezer aisle.


Cook­ing with frozen veg­eta­bles can help re­duce food waste, and some va­ri­eties, such as peas and corn, of­ten taste bet­ter than what you find fresh.

Fresh food may be con­sid­ered the ideal, but that doesn’t mean frozen is in­fe­rior.


Frozen fruits are ideal for smooth­ies; it doesn’t mat­ter much if their tex­ture has been com­pro­mised once you throw them in the blender.

Fresh greens can wilt quickly; you don’t have that prob­lem with frozen.

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