Frozen food is easy-to-prepare, super convenient, nutritious, delicious, and an everyday part of modern life. However, you might be surprised to know that people the world over have been feeding their families with frozen food for far longer than we might imagine! In fact, the history of frozen foods goes back 10,000 years to the Chinese, who developed systems for storing ice during warm, summer months to keep food frozen and safe for consumption long before electricity and modern kitchen appliances were invented!
The natural ice system of refrigeration (commonly referred to as “iceboxes”) was used in many homes throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, fishing vessels and railroad cars began installing blocks of ice in insulated cargo containers to better transport fish, meat, and dairy, throughout the ever-growing territories of the United States.
History of Frozen Foods: The Early 1900’s
What we would consider the “modern frozen food industry” was launched almost 90 years ago, in 1930, when Clarence Birdseye and his company developed a process that made frozen foods a practical reality. While Birdseye would go on to be known for frozen vegetables, in the early days, the business also produced frozen meat, fruit, fish, and seafood. Birdseye is credited with several inventions that helped to establish the frozen food industry. Some of these innovations include:
- Quick freezing to reduce cellular damage to the food that would negatively impact taste.
- Blanching prior to quick freezing to capture the best taste and nutrition while eliminating bacteria and microorganisms.
- Creating cellophane, which allowed the consumer to see what the frozen food looked like.
- Quick freezing the food in the package it would be sold in.
- Developing packages of a convenient, easy-to-store size that made food easy to prepare.
While Birdseye’s inventions were seen as essential for large-scale, commercial producers who needed to ship their products over long distances, the technology was not immediately embraced by grocery stores hesitant to purchase the expensive refrigerated display cases needed to store frozen products. During this time, many consumers either purchased fresh-grown fruits and vegetables, or relied on canned versions. However, during World War II, the United States government enacted stringent controls on the metals used in cans and this helped to usher in the era of frozen foods, which were packaged in cellophane, paperboard, and waxed paper.
History of Frozen Foods: Post World War 2
During the 1950s, American consumers were introduced to the “Frozen TV Dinner” and the idea took off like wildfire! In the years following World War II, technology had improved so that home refrigerators and freezers were affordable for the average family, and by 1953, over 33 million families owned one in their home. The TV Dinner offered a complete frozen meal of meat, a starch, a vegetable, and a dessert, and provided a fast and easy way for families to have a meal together.
By the 1960s, some brands of frozen dinners were put on a “diet” as Americans started to embrace new weight-loss systems such as Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers. Families now had more frozen food choices than ever before including healthier, reduced calorie / reduced fat, options.
History of Frozen Foods: The 70’s and 80’s
The introduction of the microwave oven in the 1970s and 1980s allowed consumers to prepare frozen foods at home in record time – it was no longer necessary to heat up vegetables or a frozen dinner in the oven or on the stove-top. The popularity of “Frozen TV Dinners” began to wane and were replaced by a wide variety of “frozen entrees” that offered increased variety, in addition to the convenience of quick preparation in the microwave.
New Technologies and Consumer Preferences
In the last two decades, the frozen food industry has experienced exponential growth in “healthy” eating. American consumers are now placing a premium on frozen foods made with healthy ingredients and produced using sustainable environmental methods. Now more than ever, consumers look for frozen foods that are USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Gluten-Free, Sodium Free or Vegan.
Just as consumers’ tastes and preferences for frozen foods have changed over time, so has the technology used to create it. Cryogenic or “flash freezing” of food is the most recent development (it’s what we use at Tommy’s Superfoods), and utilizes very low temperature gases applied directly to the food. Flash freezing allows fruits and vegetables to the frozen at their peak of ripeness, ensuring the best tasting product and the highest nutritional value.
The next time you’re picking up a bag of Tommy’s Super Greens at the market for dinner or using frozen strawberries in your blender for a breakfast smoothie, take a moment and think about the long history civilization has had with frozen foods. From iceboxes to Frozen TV Dinners to flash frozen organic vegetables, the frozen food industry is always changing and improving! What do you think the future of frozen food will look like? Share your ideas with us in the comments section or through our social media channels.