Freezing breakthrough makes better tasting food possible

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food preservation

A scientific breakthrough from freezing specialist Asymptote has
been granted a European patent, opening the door to the
multi-billion pound frozen food market, writes Anthony
Fletcher.

The company has found a way to control the size and location of ice crystals during the freezing process. This enables it to minimise cell damage that can affect the taste of frozen produce.

And though Asymptote is not specifically a food technologist, the UK-based research company is confident that its patented freezing process could benefit the frozen food market.

"We develop techniques to minimise cellular injury, and this is how we got into the food sector, in a roundabout way,"​ Asymptote research director Dr John Morris told FoodProductionDaily.com.

"We deal with freezing and crystallisation, and found that fruit, vegetables and meat - things with cells - can be better preserved through this technique."

Furthermore, Morris contends that the technique can be implemented in conventional freeze tunnels with minimal alterations.

This is significant news for food manufacturers eager to take advantage of growing consumer demand for convenient, healthy and, above all, safe food. The frozen food market has grown over the past decade as a result of these changing consumer preferences, with health concerns playing a major part.

In the UK alone, the sector - excluding ice cream - is worth over £3.7 billion and things are improving. According to the latest Plimsoll Portfolio Analysis - Frozen Foods,​ 58 companies within the sector saw sales increases of over 15 per cent, while 83 companies doubled their profits.

The Plimsoll analysis examined the performance of the top 632 companies in the UK frozen foods industry to assess their financial health.

"After the last few years of uncertainty, the UK Frozen Foods industry is experiencing a positive upswing,"​ said David Pattison, senior analyst at Plimsoll Publishing​.

Indeed, manufacturers such as Heinz and Nestlé have been tapping into current preoccupations of health and self-image with brands such as Weight Watchers and Findus Feeling Great! Lean Cuisine. Latest research from market analyst Euromonitor found that of total frozen ready meals, the 'healthy' share in western Europe increased significantly from 30 per cent value in 2001 to 38 per cent value in 2002.

In developing the patented freezing process, Asymptote worked with a major UK processor of tropical fruit. In store tests, Asymptote claims that consumers were unable to tell the difference between the fresh and the frozen fruit.

"The comparison is not between other frozen foods, but with fresh food,"​ said Morris. "In some cases, it's even better than fresh. If you take a mango and freeze one half, then compare it to the other half in the fridge, the frozen half will be preserved for longer."

At a time when food manufacturers are under intense pressure to cut out additives and preservatives, this process could therefore prove to be highly applicable in food production.

However, the frozen food sector suffers from an image problem. Consumers not only instinctively believe that fresh food tastes better than frozen food - they also see frozen produce as cheap and inferior.

"The consumer perception of frozen food is so bad that even if a frozen product was better, public opinion would still probably say it was rubbish,"​ said Morris. "What we need to do is find a niche market - such as fruit salad - where the benefits will be appreciated."

If it proves successful therefore, Asymptote's​ crystallisation could launch a second wave of frozen food products, with taste, as well as health concerns, coming to the fore.

"This is the sort of thing that a lot of people will jump on once it is proven,"​ said Morris. "It's just a question of getting it going."

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