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Tonight: The Food We Eat - Fresh vs Frozen Food

Seventy years ago, when the coldest thing in your house was a pantry, most of the food we ate was harvested, sent straight to the shops and would have been on our plates before it started to go off.

However, the advent of the home freezer and advances in various preservation techniques changed all of that and now we’re used to eating what we want, when we want, regardless of the time of year when the food is actually grown. So how do they keep the food for so long? And does the quality stay the same?

Fresh v Frozen - which is best? Credit: ITV / Tonight

The concept of freezing food as we know it was popularised in early part of last century by American inventor Clarence Birdseye. Taking inspiration from the Inuits he encountered during a visit to Newfoundland, he discovered that packing fish in ice kept it perfectly preserved and edible for months.

Back at home he set to work recreating this freezing technique in an industrial setting and in the 1920s perfected a method of flash freezing which launched the frozen food industry. The introduction of the domestic freezer in the late 1950s boosted its popularity and for the next two decades serving frozen food was a way of life – and a source of pride.

However, all that was to change in the 1980s when, thanks in a large part to Marks and Spencer’s launch of chilled convenience foods and the famous chicken Kiev, frozen food fell out of favour.

According to Charles Banks, of industry experts The Food People, this is when people started to believe that fresh is best.

There is a natural feel good associated with buying fresh foods. You have that emotional feel good – I am preparing something from fresh and from a consumer point of view that would link freshness to something that is healthier and more nutritious.”

– Charles Banks
Peas destined for the country's freezers Credit: ITV / Tonight

But are they right? In order to investigate further, Jonathan Maitland sets out to follow two of our most popular foodstuffs – frozen peas and fresh potatoes – on their journey from field to fork. And some of what he learns might surprise you.

Potatoes being sorted during the harvest Credit: ITV / Tonight

Jonny also took two identical roast chicken meals, one made with fresh ingredients and one with frozen, for testing at the NOW Food Centre, at the University of Chester, to see whether there is any nutritional difference between the two.

Lead scientist Professor Graham Bonwick set to work in the lab while Jonny enlisted the help of a group of students to take part in what is perhaps the most important test of all – the taste test. Watch the programme for the results of both experiments.

Cheeta Rawlings exploring the freezer aisle Credit: ITV / Tonight

We also meet the Rawlings family, from Kent, who are self-confessed fresh food devotees. Mum Cheeta, who rarely ventures into the freezer aisle, agreed to swap the family’s usual fresh ingredients for frozen equivalents for a week to see if they can be won over by frozen meat, fish, fruit and veg. They kept a video diary so we could see how they got on.

Watch Tonight: Fresh vs Frozen Food at 7.30pm on ITV.