Is frozen the new fresh? Yes—in some cases, frozen seafood really can be the better choice. The advent of modern freezing methods allows for seafood to be frozen at its peak freshness, capturing its flavor, preserving its texture, and maintaining its high nutritive value. And since many fish are often flash-frozen on a boat just minutes after capture, the offerings in a market freezer may actually be fresher than those in a seafood case. The increased shelf life of frozen seafood also reduces business costs associated with spoilage, translating into better value for customers.
But all the promise of new freezing techniques won’t be realized without the ability to recruit consumers into the frozen revolution. When contemplating a seafood purchase, most people’s first thought is “what is the catch of the day?” or “anything fresh from the boat?” We know that shopping the freezer aisle still bears a stigma—a leftover from the days when we were sourcing our seafood locally. But the reality of today’s seafood market is much different.
For starters, consumers need to realize that there are concerning environmental impacts that stem from the “fresh is better” perspective. This is especially true if seafood is flown in to serve diners or shoppers. A study by Dr. Peter Tyedmers, an ecological economist at Dalhousie University, points out that container ships are by far the most efficient way to transport food, and that shipping via air creates a significantly higher carbon footprint. In some cases, a fish flown from coast to coast in the U.S. has a higher carbon footprint than a frozen seafood item transported via container ships from Asia or Africa.
Furthermore, fresh seafood can also lead to larger amounts of food waste—most retailers accept a loss of 10 to 20 percent of fresh seafood due to spoilage and other factors. According to a paper on wasted seafood in the peer-reviewed journal, Global Environmental Change, nearly half of the edible U.S. seafood supply was lost annually from 2009 to 2013. Since one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set out by the UN is to cut global food waste in half per capita by 2030, one of the most effective ways to help achieve this is to buy or source frozen products.
The Cold Chain and New Freezing Technologies
The seafood industry is perpetually concerned with fast spoilage rates, improper handling, and timely storage. The factor that most influences spoilage rates is temperature, and an uninterrupted cold chain is critical to the successful delivery of a product from producer to plate.
For many seafood producers in the tropical world, maintaining end-to-end cold chain integrity is challenging. Breaks in the cold chain can affect their ability to capture the most value from their products.
There are a number of freezing methods used in the preservation of seafood today, including several that have been designed to combat the traditional challenges of low freezing efficiency and the creation of large ice crystals that affect food quality:
Super freezing is a technology where fish caught at sea can immediately be frozen down to -76 degrees Fahrenheit within 24 to 72 hours, which is critical to locking in key nutrients such as Omega-3 fatty acids that can quickly deteriorate in seafood that is not handled and stored properly.
Cryogenic freezing is a more advanced form of traditional blast freezing that involves spraying or immersing food in carbon dioxide or liquid nitrogen. Unlike traditional freezing methods, this form of rapid freezing creates only microcrystals, which helps maintain tissue integrity.
Impingement freezing, which is a technology well-suited for fish fillets, involves blasting the top and bottom surfaces with high-velocity air jets. The turbulence created by the streams of air surrounding the fish allows for more efficient heat exchange and quicker freezing time. Faster freezing times result in smaller ice crystals, which is key to decreasing cellular damage in food products. And since food tissue damage can be caused by the expansion in volume of water as it freezes at atmospheric pressure, this can greatly impact texture and taste.
Michael Kohan, seafood technical director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, stresses the importance of freezing seafood properly during harvest: "Freezing techniques for seafood can enhance the overall quality by preventing protein denaturation, lipid oxidation, and the formation of large ice crystals that can rupture cell walls in fish tissue and promote further moisture loss, and therefore freezer burn and off-flavors. By freezing seafood directly after harvest, the (Alaska) seafood industry is able to preserve the flavor, texture and nutrient content at the peak of quality." Many innovative technologies are still in the research and development phase, and while some are competitive on quality or cost, the frozen food industry is still concerned about whether consumers will buy. Fortunately, there is an observed growth trend in the frozen food sector, with busy millennials helping to fuel a greater demand for frozen convenience.
Proponents of the Gourmet Frozen Movement
Chicago-based Wixter Market, the only seafood market in the U.S. promoting 100 percent frozen fish, sells a variety of frozen seafood from around the world and specializes in super-frozen sashimi-grade fish. Nearly all their product has been harvested, portioned out, and flash-frozen at -18 degree Celsius within three days, and most of their super-frozen products are frozen within 24 hours.
“The whole goal is to get people to eat more seafood,” says owner Max Mixter. “I want to make it delicious, convenient, affordable and sustainable.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of where these freezing technologies can really make a difference is in the sushi industry, where traditionally sushi-grade fish needs to be flown in fresh, sometimes all the way from Japan. Google Food has a strict no air-freighted seafood policy for all Google campuses, which has limited the serving of some types of sushi. Recently, a unique partnership was established between Google Food; Off the Grid, a Bay Area–based food truck company that creates food truck concepts and uses them to serve Googlers,; and Uoriki, a Japanese seafood company that has been one of the pioneers in freezing technology. Through this partnership, Off the Grid launched “Electric Sushi,” which serves sushi-grade fish that has been frozen and sent via container ship from Japan. While there has been a stigma associated with frozen food in years past, the frozen food category is experiencing volume growth for the first time in years. With the environmental costs of flying food and the food waste implications, socially-conscious consumers will likely continue to drive this growth as the stigma begins to fade away. In addition, as technology continues to improve and become more accessible, the possibilities to support more types of developing world seafood products will also become more possible, expanding our options in the frozen case and opening up a whole new menu of opportunities.