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Frozen Foods


FROZEN FOODS. In the early twenty-first century, frozen foods are an important component of meals prepared and served in both homes and restaurants. They have expanded the kind and quality of meals served and continue to influence food preparations and consumption in this country. The variety of frozen foods in the market reflects the wide use of frozen foods in households. These include ethnic, vegetarian, fast foods, imported gourmet, dietary, and many others.

Early use of freezing occurred in parts of the world, such as Canada, where temperatures in winter drop below freezing for significant periods of time. When hunters brought game animals home in winter, it was possible to freeze the catch by using the outdoor environment as the freezer. It was also convenient on farms where butchering was done. These meats were frozen and used before temperatures moderated. Experiences like this demonstrated the advantages of freezing. Because the storage time was dependent on the weather, this procedure had limitations.

The advantages of freezing as a method of preservation prompted researchers to develop freezing technology. In 1842, a patent for freezing foods by immersion in a brine of ice and salt was issued to Henry Benjamin in Britain. Fish was first frozen in the United States in 1865, and in 1917, Clarence Birdseye began word on freezing foods for retail trade. The use of different refrigerants was one of the early needs examined. The possibility of freons as refrigerants was well received for industrial and consumer applications and led to their early incorporation into household freezers. These early models offered were large in size and were designed to be used for the game and butchering needs of farm families at that time. But soon after their introduction, it was obvious that they were extensively used to store fruits and vegetables, an attractive application for farm households who were growing their own produce. These early models were great successes, and they launched the freezing preservation of fruits and vegetables in this country.

The possibility of freezing preservation of fruits and vegetables became an important interest in the United States, catching the attention of many city apartment dwellers and suburban families who lived in small houses. Unable to accommodate the large-size freezers that appliance manufactures were selling to farm families, these householders teamed up with their neighbors to develop community freezers, where families could rent freezer space in a large freezer-locker rental operation. Although this solved the problem, it was less than convenient.

Questions were raised about the effect of freezing meats, fruits, and vegetables on the quality of the thawed product, including its nutrient retention. The USDA and land grant universities responded to this concern with research studies to assess the impact of freezing on nutrients in fruits, vegetables, and meat, which are summarized by Karmas and Harris. The results of this work showed the nutritional advantages of frozen foods and gave recommendations for freezing methods aimed at retaining maximum quality and nutritional value.

During World War II, homemakers began to join the U.S. workforce in large numbers and appreciated the timesaving advantages of frozen food. The appliance and food industries noted the acceptance by consumers of both freezing preservation of foods and the small freezer sections in household refrigerators. Early models of refrigerators did not offer separate compressor units for the freezer section. As a result, these appliances provided only limited freezing capacity and ability to freeze. The development of appliances with freezing sections that had separate compressors that allowed the freezing section to successfully hold frozen foods in the frozen condition had a major impact on the consumer's ability to store food. The food industry has also responded to the abilities of the new refrigerator models to hold frozen food by introducing frozen foods such as entrees, vegetable, breads, fruits, desserts, juices, snack foods, and ice cream. The refrigerator and freezer combination appliance fits into small spaces and is especially appreciated by those living in apartments and small homes. In the early twenty-first century, few refrigerators do not include a freezer on a separate compressor.

In microwave heating, foods are placed in an electromagnetic field when they are positioned in the oven cavity and the microwave energy is turned on. Heat is generated by molecular friction among the free water molecules in the food load. Since a frozen food has a very small amount of unfrozen water that attracts the microwave energy first, the heat is generated in a small part of the food load and is rapidly absorbed by the frozen part. In frozen foods, a large part of the water is in the form of ice. While water readily absorbs microwaves, ice does not. Some of the water in frozen foods does not freeze; this may be due to the salt content. The unfrozen water absorbs microwaves quickly in the microwave appliance. As a consequence, the use of microwaves to thaw and cook food may result in "runaway heating," a situation in which the unfrozen water containing salts is boiling while next to it, areas of ice exist. To prevent this, a defrost program is recommended; this feature exposes the food load to microwave energy for a short time, then turns microwaves off for a slightly longer time, allowing the heat to be conducted to the ice. This cycle is repeated until thawing is completed and does not usually produce runaway heating.

See also Birdseye, Clarence; Microwave; Preparation of Food; Preserving .


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Frozen Food Institute. Available at

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Keene, Linda. "Fame for the Inventor of the TV Dinner Is Frozen in Time." Seattle Times, 24 September 1999.

Institute of Food Technologists. "Effects of Food Processing on Nutritive Values: A Scientific Status Summary by the Institute of Food Technologists Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition and the Committee on Public Information." Food Technology 40, 12 (1986): 109116.

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Gertrude Ambruster

TV Dinner

In 1954 C. A. Swanson & Sons introduced TV dinners to consumers in the United States. Gerald Thomas, an executive at Swanson, conceived the idea after the company unexpectedly found itself with 520,000 pounds of unsold Thanksgiving Day turkeys (information available at any website on popular culture of the 1950s). The turkeys were being stored in refrigerated railroad cars moving coast to coast across the country because there was not enough storage space in the company's warehouses. Thomas also conceived of the idea of using aluminum trays with three separate compartments. Based on his experiences in World War II, when soldiers ate from a tray, commonly known as "mess gear," he wanted to solve the problem of different foods running together in their serving tray. He observed the lightweight metal trays then being utilized by the airline food industry to heat meals and adopted them for use with the TV dinner.

The TV dinner concept was not met with immediate approval or enthusiasm at Swanson, though, where two more traditional-thinking brothers owned and operated the company. It was not until the older brother, who opposed the idea, went on vacation that Thomas's idea became a reality. The first dinner contained turkey, corn bread stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, and buttered peas. Its packaging was designed to look like a TV. Because most consumers did not own freezers in 1954, the dinners were usually consumed on the day they were purchased.

The market for TV dinners, or "frozen food dinners or entrées" (as they have come to be described almost exclusively by the frozen food industry since the 1960s), has continued to expand over the past five decades, reflecting the values and concerns of a larger American society. The initial production order by Swanson was for five thousand dinners, at a cost of 98 cents to consumers. Within a year, Swanson sold more than ten million turkey TV dinners. To ensure successful sales of the TV dinner, Swanson created an ad campaign featuring Sue Swanson, who "re-assured housewives they needn't feel guilty about not cooking homemade meals for their families." During the 1960s the sale of frozen food entrées rose dramatically after it became well publicized that the first American astronauts to land on the moon ate prepared meals while in space. In the 1950s and 1960s these entrées featured mostly comfort foods, similar to the homemade dinners that "Mom" would make, such as meatloaf or fried chicken combined with mashed potatoes.

The microwave oven was then invented in the 1960s, and it became a standard feature in most American homes by the 1980s. This development further increased the convenience and attractiveness of TV dinners to consumers. The 1980s witnessed a rise in the production of ethnic, low-calorie, and budget entrées, whereas the 1990s saw an increase in the production of gourmet entréees, "kid cuisine," and "hearty portions." The new millennium has so far indicated increasing growth in the production of frozen food entrées that are either healthy or "wholesome."

The frozen dinner is currently the largest category within the frozen food market; it currently accounts for over $5 billion worth of supermarket sales annually. One of the ten most popular dinners served in American homes is now a TV dinner, and nearly half of all Americans purchase frozen entrées. Those individuals most likely to consume TV dinners are "blue-collar families, older couples, and retired singles," whereas those least likely to consume TV dinners are either more wealthy families living in the suburbs or poorer people living in the country (see American Demographics for further information). In addition, frozen dinners are being delivered increasingly across the country to individuals who are homebound because of poor health or functional impairment. Survey findings reported by the Frozen Food Institute in 2002 reveal that certain frozen foods are among the top three items that Americans would not want to live without.

Julie Locher

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frozen foods

frozen foods, products of the food preservation process of freezing. This process has been employed by people in the Arctic from prehistoric times. Eskimos throw fresh-caught fish on the ice to freeze, and naturally frozen fish have been a trade staple of the Great Lakes region of North America since the mid-19th cent. Brine and cold-room convection methods were in use in Europe and the United States from about 1860 for freezing meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. In the early part of the 20th cent. small fruits were frozen for manufacturers of preserves, bakery products, and ice cream. Freezing prevents food spoilage by inhibiting microorganic and enzyme action. Deterioration is rapid after thawing, since reactivated organisms attack cells injured by ice crystals. Earlier methods involved inserting the food into chilled brine or an ice and salt mixture. In flash freezing, commercially begun in Germany in the early 20th cent., rapid chilling gives less time for the diffusion of salts and water for microorganic action. Methods of quick freezing include direct contact with refrigeration, indirect cooling by contact of the product with refrigerated shelves, cold blasts, or a combination of these methods. The frozen food industry has expanded rapidly because of the labor-saving and space-saving advantages of frozen foods and because the freezing process generally involves less loss of taste, flavor, and appearance than do other methods; it has been paralleled by the development of suitable containers and of specialized methods of transportation, storage, and retailing.

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