Frozen supermarket food has more vitamins and antioxidants than fresh

Yes, really. In studies coincidentally sponsored by the frozen food industry it appears that supermarket fresh food can have fewer vitamins and all round Good Stuff than frozen food. Yesterday I railed against the Daily Telegraph for reading into the OECD survey on skills a result that favoured their own prejudices that the world’s all gone to hell but I’m thinking they’ve got a point, what passes for public discourse could use a bit of common sense.

Let’s take the headline:

Frozen food IS better than fresh: Higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants in frozen fruit and vegetables say scientists

Now let’s think about what this claim actually means, shall we? On the face of it, it means that the very process of freezing food improves its nutritional quality. Doesn’t something strike you as ever so slightly odd about this assertion?

Fresh fruit and veg is often still alive

I didn’t realise this until recently Mrs Ermine showed me some time ago that a head of broccoli would last longer in the fridge if you stick the cut end in a cup of water, and tastes better for it. In just the same way as if you bought a bunch of flowers – you put them in a vase with some water, so that some of the processes of life continue, else you end up with a wilted bouquet in half a day. Obviously without the root structure and connection with the soil this isn’t going to last for ever, but you can buy useful time against the  processes of decay. This is why you shouldn’t trim all the leaves and bits you don’t eat until just before cooking.

Let’s take a look at some sweetcorn growing

Sweetcorn growing in a field (you can't see the corn cobs because it's the devil's own job to see them as they are covereed by leaves lower down the plants)
Sweetcorn growing in a field (you can’t see the corn cobs because it’s the devil’s own job to see them as they are covered by leaves lower down the plants)

It’s basically minding its own business, with the structure of the plant turning water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates using the energy from sunlight. Sugar and starch, in the case of the bits we eat, the seed-bearing bits. The sugar is what makes sweetcorn sweet, and the process of photosynthesis is very noticeable in sweetcorn. The best way to have sweetcorn is to start in the noonday sun, and get a pan of boiling water ready on a camping stove. Crucially, do not add salt.

Then send a small child up to the corn to harvest a couple of cobs, and get them to run, not walk, the 100 yards back. Get parent to take cobs, trim all the stringy stuff and leaves, boil for a couple of minutes and definitely less than five (depends on size and how windy it is giving the stove a hard time). Fish out insert fork into either end, add butter and salt and hand to child. And watch the amazing smile – because this is SWEETcorn and they have never understood why it was called sweetcorn. Freshly harvested contain about 5-10% sugar by weight of the kernels. The sugar is turned into starch by the endosperm of the kernels. Sweetcorn is picked immature, before this conversion is complete otherwise you end up with maize – sweetcorn is a variety of maize.

This is how nature meant us to eat sweetcorn. Freshness is critical in Britain because sweetcorn originated in sunnier climes in the Americas, and we are at a much higher latitude, our sunlight is weak compared to there. Cynical readers might think that freshness can’t matter that much, I was chuffed to find backup in the Wikipedia article when I researched where sweetcorn originated from 😉

Su varieties are best when cooked within 30 minutes of harvest.

Leave it kicking around for an hour and it is very noticeably less sweet. Still thoroughly decent, but it shows that once the processes of life are slowed, the sugar begins to turn into starch. I don’t know enough about biology to know if that builds up the body of the corn cob, after all this process must cycle daily.

At The Oak Tree we harvest corn on the day it’s collected, it should be less than 12 hours old. Ideally it doesn’t see the dawn before it’s eaten…

Sweetcorn - needs to be < 12 hours old IMO
Sweetcorn – needs to be < 12 hours old IMO

If it’s older than that it doesn’t go to waste, but it’s not good enough for humans. We have other ways of dealing with it

Chickens will run, not walk or hop, for sweetcorn
Chickens will run, not walk, for sweetcorn

So what exactly do we mean by fresh these days?

Earlier this year I was in the Cotswolds, in the chi-chi town of Stow-on-the-Wold. There is serious money in this part of the world – these good people think nothing of shelling out more for fancy water than they do for diesel.

Wow. Borehole water at nearly £3 a litre, there's some money around these parts
Wow. Water at nearly £3 a litre, there’s some money around these parts

Tesco sell the good people of this discriminating part of the country sweetcorn labelled as fresh. I took this photograph just before noon on the 31st of August

Tesco sweetcorn - as sold on the 31st August
Tesco sweetcorn – as sold on the 31st August

Eat fresh, eh, Tesco[ref]I don’t particularly mean to pick on Tesco – they are what I have a photo of, but they aren’t any worse or better than other supermarkets[/ref]? Putting lipstick on pigs, are we? Indeed at three days old we’d probably feed old sweetcorn to the pigs. It won’t do you any harm at three days old, but it’s not exactly fresh, is it? No wonder kids don’t understand why it’s called sweetcorn!

Here is a video from Tesco, where their poor producer gets to tell you that they have packaging keeps the corn fresh for a week after purchase!

I have no beef with Barfoot’s, whose job is done when they deliver Tesco fresh sweetcorn. It’s now Tesco’s job as wholesaler and retailer combined to get that sweetcorn in good eating condition to you, and removing the husk and topping and tailing it reduces the chance for your corn to stay alive. That endosperm will still be there, turning the sugars into starch. In theory it would be easier for Tesco to get that product to you within 24 hours than those stallholders getting it from the 1970s Covent Garden wholesalers, because Tesco and the other supermarkets have eliminated the wholesaler.

But they can’t be arsed. We’ll leave it kicking around for up to a whole week shall we – and to add insult to injury they’ll tell you about it in their magazine titled Real Food. It’s not what it looks like, it’s what it tastes like you toe-rags. And a week is not fresh. What ordinary people knew in the 1970s was don’t take all the flippin’ leaves and husk off either – because your produce will fade faster. Remember it’s alive, and it dies from the cut point in. Bunch of shysters. No doubt Tesco corporate PR will tell you that today’s food consumer is frightened enough of veg that doesn’t come in a ready meal, so they don’t recognise the husk is to be discarded just before cooking. Maybe they’re right. But it’s cheap, innit?

The meaning of fresh is something that we lost all contact with as the supermarkets have taken over the role as single supplier of our cheap food. This is cheap, at £1 a pop, and it is from Suffolk, so it is local in a relative sense of the word. But it’s crap, because it’s too old. My mother bought her sweetcorn decades ago from market stalls in London, and these guys would go up to Covent Garden market early in the morning to get their fresh produce[ref]Covent Garden was a wholesale fruit and veg supplied by farmers[/ref]. They would aim to sell all they bought wholesale in the morning to their customers by 6pm that day – i.e. in 12 hours. They could achieve field to fork in 24 hours if necessary, as the suppliers harvested and took to market the day before for leafy and easy-spoiling items.

produce wholesaling before Tesco
produce wholesaling before Tesco

In the primitive systems of food distribution we used to have before the fantastic marvel of cheap supermarket food fresh actually meant fresh. These market stallholders wouldn’t have got away with selling sweetcorn more than 24 hours old – their customers knew what fresh food tasted like, and they’d have the traders’ guts for garters if they tried to palm off two-day old sweetcorn on them. We, of course, are so much more advanced, so we spend all our time working for The Man so that we can’t buy fresh food on the day we eat it. Every so often we look around and wonder why there are so many lardy butts, obviously the cheap food’s all right then, it’s not like people’s ribs are showing…

random picture from local paper on QD bargain hunters
cheap food fills you up okay 😉

Chub rub is the problem these days, as prepared meal manufacturers use our ancient instincts for sweetness and fat. They concentrate these, making  things moreish before the “I’ve had enough” messages can get to the brain. As evidenced in this random photo from a local press article 😉

Just like in Orwell’s 1984, a lie repeated often enough gets accepted as the truth, and so Tesco can get away with describing this as ‘fresh’ though it went from Suffolk (let’s assume they harvested and packed it in a day) to the Tesco regional distribution centre that serviced Stow (probably Tesco RDC Didcot) and back out to Stow, so it’s probably already 24 hours at least off the stalk before I snapped this, and it’ll stay on the shelves for up to two more days.

So unless you get up in the morning, look in the bathroom mirror and see this looking back at you


then that Tesco fresh sweetcorn ain’t fresh enough. Not in the way that someone in the 1970s or before would call fresh. They’d probably know what do do with stuff that old too, because in another example of outstanding modern progress and an inability to balance risks and rewards we have decided to do away with Northern European’s waste management traditions and banned feeding food leftovers to pigs in 2001. We’re flippin’ clever that way, aren’t we, so now we get three problems for the sake of none. We landfill food waste instead to of turning it into sausages, feeding our pigs with cereals instead. So our diminishing holes in the ground fill up with decaying food, stinking the joint up needlessly, releasing greenhouse gases like methane, and stopping us filling up the holes with other stuff we’d like to go away for good, like bags of dog shit, old iPads,  last year’s must-have Christmas toys and plastic junk food wrappers. We lose out on about £1billion worth of fine British pork sausages, according to Simon Fairlie’s calulations. Oh and we now have to grow the cereals to feed to the pigs we used to feed the waste to, rather than  turning the cereals into, y’know, human food maybe. I don’t even think there was any hazard to human health in the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, that caused all this knee-jerkery, just a hazard to the profits of concentrated pig operators where disease runs through a massive herd like a dose of salts.

The Mayor of London, aware that the Great Wen generates an awful lot of food waste, bitched about it entertainingly and lent his support to The Pig Idea. I see his point, I wouldn’t like to have to think up a solution for where to bury London’s food waste either. The whole point of a pig is to recycle waste – as Fairlie puts it in Meat: a Benign Extravagance

8000 years ago, when herds of wild swine were attracted to the settlements of early agriculturalists, an interspecies bargain was negotiated.
‘You give us your waste food and a bit of that extra juicy grass seed you have, and well keep your camp clean and let you eat our surplus offspring, of which we have many’

I guess if Tesco had any of that sweetcorn left over after the 2nd they landfill it. Barmy as hell, though the regs aren’t Tesco’s fault.

Now it’s easy to see why frozen supermarket food has more vitamins and antioxidants than fresh

…because fresh supermarket food ain’t fresh, not in the way people of my parents’ generation and before knew as fresh. Now supermarkets do use some wheezes like nitrogen-enriched protective atmospheres in some packaging to slow the process of decay, and I’ve used a particularly rapidly ageing vegetable as illustration, but it gives the lie to the claim of fresh food. Freezing operations can be gotten closer to the harvest than supermarket fresh delivery with the hub and spoke RDC system. Although freezing does considerable damage to the texture and structure of many foods, it does almost arrest the chemical processes of decay, so if I were to freeze sweetcorn within hours of harvesting then it would be sweeter than Tesco’s fresh sweetcorn after 24 hours. Let’s just not think about what that fresh sweetcorn is like after a week…

We have gotten much smarter and cleverer since the 1970s, we can now make our food still look fresh, although it doesn’t taste fresh. On those market stalls the produce looked distinctly tired by the end of the day, and what was left over probably did go to London’s pigs. We have used our cleverness to make our food a lot cheaper. Shame we’ve made it taste insipid and crap, but hey, it’s convenient. Oh and did I say cheap? And all this cleverness means you have the choice – if you want nice fresh food then you can buy it fresh, well, labelled as such and looking as such.

Except it isn’t. Which is why frozen is better than fresh, from a supermarket 😉 There’s no problem with that, the evidence seems to be that most of us can’t be arsed to maintain standards of taste and quality with food, we just want it cheap. Eventually we probably can get it down to popping a custom-tailored ‘nutrient pill’ just like in those sci-fi movies of old. At least that would be honest. We could save ourselves all the other rotten crap associated with ‘cheap’ food, like concentrated animal feeding operations, our inability to tell farm animals apart, disease running through massive confined herds so we have to dope the beasts up with antibiotics leading to antibiotic resistance.

Fresh. It means up to 48 hours from harvest in fruit and veg, and less than 24 hours in some cases

It has only been the advancement of technology with the RDC hub and spoke based system and the elimination of the wholesaler that has made our fresh food stale, because of the imperative to reduce labour. Look at the photos of 1970s Covent Garden here with what looks like horrific amounts of manual handling to modern eyes. Something had to give – and quality and taste went. Progress is fantastic. We can’t tell horse from beef, there’s shit in the meat, most of our fresh veg would have been fed to the pigs in earlier times for being stale, frozen food is better than so-called fresh food, it all tastes of diddly squat, McCance and Widdowson tell us the trace mineral content of our fresh produce has more than halved over the decades and for some reason we are all becoming fat bastards but damn, did I forget to say – it’s cheap. Cheap is like that, it sometimes costs in sneaky ways .

loss of minerals in seven vegetables  analysed by McCance and Widdowson
loss of minerals in seven vegetables
analysed by McCance and Widdowson

I am the world’s most incompetent gardener, but even years ago I used to grow tomatoes in the back garden to occasionally have some of the blighters that tasted of something. I didn’t understand rotation so eventually I was nuked by blight, but even my early September crops tasted far better than the insipid taste-free ‘taste the difference’ vine-ripened tomatoes[ref]I learned while researching this article that vine ripened tomatoes are simply cut off the plant with a bit of vine while green and then ripened using ethylene gas unattached to the plant. Isn’t industrial farming lovely, eh? And there I was thinking they were ripened on the vine attached to the plant, boy was I a sucker, though at least I tasted the difference and observed it was no good[/ref]. What was my secret?

  • I grew them in the ground (my later downfall as I didn’t understand rotation) not in growbags. So there were trace minerals
  • I picked the tomatoes when they were red
  • I ate them within half an hour

I never realised you could ripen green tomatoes, so when the sun gave out and they stayed green I chopped the lot down and threw it out till next year. Vine ripened, FFS, lying sacks of shit that supermarkets are.

Cheap food, don’tcha just love it, but if we we really want cheap and aren’t bothered about taste let’s take it all the way to synthesising those NASA style pills and lose some of the nasty externalities of industrial agriculture and food distribution… If we want vitamins and antioxidants we’ll just put ’em there. I’ve never bothered with supplements and vitamins and all that clobber, on the grounds that humans and food have worked okay for tens of thousands of years, so I should be able to get all I need from food. It’s starting to look as if that’s not a wise assumption if you get your fresh food from supermarkets, which I don’t. Let’s have some TV ads with the strapline

Frozen – fresher than supermarket fresh