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


13 thoughts on “Frozen supermarket food has more vitamins and antioxidants than fresh”

  1. covent garden market, and its role in the old distribution chain for fruit and veg, is also shown in the (delightful) 1957 documentary, “Every Day Except Christmas” –

    nowadays much of the area is owned by Capital & Counties (in which i have a few shares), who recently welcomed the arrival of a “cult burger joint from Manhattan”, which apparently furthers “the estate’s reputation as the neighbourhood for destination dining”.

    apart from changes in food, this also illustrates the way london has come to cater mostly only for wealthy.


  2. The reality of food shopping in the 60s and 70s that I remember is quite different to your rosy cheeked view

    A lot of tinned and processed food was eaten and the “fresh” food that you could actually buy in the local shops was in reality not very fresh at all, expensive or a long journey away

    There were more specialised butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers but their decent cuts were prohibitively expensive to enjoy every day and there were food scandals aplenty around the canned meat from Europe and South America that the less well-off were forced to subsist on

    While I don’t pretend that the current supermarket oligopoly is perfect, it has come about because Tesco, Sainsburys et al were a big improvement in the offering available and affordable to average families in the 70s-80s

    One of the problems with the UK is that from the 80s onwards once a private monopoly or oligopoly has been created it is allowed to run rampant throttling the local populace, without any interference from government


  3. @Neverland maybe London was different – the market stalls my mother used were in Lewisham market – it’s a pretty ghastly area now, but the market used to be the bit running south of the clock tower. Initially we lived in New Cross so it was a two mile hoof or a bus journey ISTR.

    I stand by my observation, though my mother is German and was of the opinion that British cooking was foul in particular over boiling veg like crazy, so maybe my experience was atypical.

    She despised supermarket fresh produce when Sainsbury’s first came to Lewisham in the 1970s though we used them for dry goods. She only really came round to the idea in the 2000s. She wouldn’t tolerate things like Spam and I first came across corned beef as a student.

    My Dad was a maintenance fitter so it isn’t like we were from up-town.

    Coming across non-supermarket produce, due to Mrs Ermine’s occupation, this reminds me of what fresh veg used to taste like. I used supermarkets ever since leaving home.

    Britons do eat more meat now – it was only once or twice a week in the 1970s, and food probably is a lot cheaper relative to wages now. However, the food looks right but tastes insipid – supermarket meat ain’t that flavourful compared to butchers, I don’t know what they do to it.

    So maybe it was a London thing, or maybe an atypical background, but decent veg was to be had at a reasonable price in my childhood. I think the move to supermarkets was also pushed by the change in working practices – people have less time to use specialised shops, and culturally Britons don’t seem to care as much about the food they prepare at home as, say, the French or the Germans who still use their charcuteries, boulangeries and Metzgers and Bäckereis even though both partners work full-time. The one-stop supermarket does address most UK requirements. If you go to a German supermarket they don’t even really try to sell fresh produce or meat aimed at mid-market – there’s no delicatessen in Lidl or Netto.

    I’m not saying we should change but I am calling out the low culinary quality and staleness of UK supermarket food, and some of the deceptive practices that result in fresh food being so stale that frozen food is better nutritionally than fresh – it’s something that just shouldn’t happen and it’s not progress other than in the lower price direction.

    I was at the Aldeburgh Food fair and yes, you can get fresh food but at a very high price premium, and even then it doesn’t always pass the taste test. Unlike the French, we seem to eat with our eyes so as long as you make it look all right it doesn’t need to taste of anything in particular. Tesco’s Finest range or Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference tomatoes look gorgeous compared to mine, but they taste of nothing in particular. Their apples look great, but compared to the Cox apples from Kent in the 1970s they again taste insipid.


  4. Before you get too depressed, there is of course now New Covent Garden Market, in the shadow of Canary Wharf, which still supplies many independent grocers and market stall holders in London (and I assume beyond). My local market (Ridley Road) will (at the right time of year) sell you whole cobs with the husks on, which are really delicious if you eat them same day (and still edible a week later, so I reckon they must be pretty fresh new!). Generally if you buy whatever is piled up highest on all the stalls, you can get it at a third of the supermarket price, and it’s better too. I still can’t believe it took me about a year to “find” the market after I moved here, just because it looks a bit scuzzy around the edges!

    I recently discovered the corn on the cob keep their flavour better in cooking if, instead of de husking and steaming like I used to, you stick them in the microwave with the husk on. The husk is dry so doesn’t heat up, but does act to trap the moisture inside the cob, so it steams in its own juices and doesn’t lose any flavour – delicious! Only takes a minute or 90 seconds tops… The ultimate fast food! You do have to trim off just the hairy tip before you put it in the microwave though, or else it can catch fire (which is exciting, but doesn’t really do anything for the flavour 😉


  5. Your local grocery is likely to use an identical distribution system to a supermarket just the wholesaler isn’t in house. If your lucky they’ll have the in season stuff fresh but it’ll be a fantastic place which does so daily and chucks or puts the older stuff on sale.
    Even then I don’t fancy need to go shopping 3-4 times a week and you end up having endless dishes of whatever is in season at the time. For 6 months of the year eating fresh really is impossible.


  6. @Di that’s something I’ve never heard of! Presumably the corn silk (the hairy stringy bits) comes off with the husk. I didn’t realise the the Covent Garden market lived on elsewhere!

    @mucgoo I’m not saying you or anybody has to do anything different. It is already clear that in Britain we aren’t foodies despite what the Islington set are trying to make out. That is clear in that it took scientific analysis to tell us that our beef was actually horse, and that our frozen food is in fact fresher than our fresh food. Germans, French or Italians might have spotted both these facts with the pink flappy thing inside their mouths…

    However, we should be aware of what’s going on, and indeed call out piss-taking bastards like our supermarkets when they foist week-old sweetcorn on us as fresh. It also helps all of us take an informed choice – if only to stick with frozen and save the money 😉 I’m a shareholder in one supermarket and not a consumer of supermarket food in general so this doesn’t greatly trouble me personally. I’m happy to make money out of my fellow-countrymen’s indifference to food but I do think they should be aware of what’s going on, and that while there has been progress in the cost per unit it’s not better in quality than it was. The market is delivering the customer what they want at the price they want, and may explain why Tesco had to scarper from France with its tail between its legs in the late 1990s

    I happen to know for a fact that my local grocer, Chris’ Fruit and Veg doesn’t use a Tesco style operation. He uses a variety of local suppliers including market gardens at Newbourne, and no doubt Tesco-style wholesalers for some stuff or for imports. So there’s at least one exception in the UK.


  7. @mucgoo

    “For 6 months of the year eating fresh really is impossible”

    This simply isn’t true. There are a maximum of 2-3 months of ‘hungry gap’ when it’s more challenging, but still not impossible. The rest of the time there is certainly a choice.

    Each to their own, as ermine says, but my personal experience of growing some of my own food is that I’ve eaten a wider variety of fruit and veg than when I theoretically had more year round choice from the supermarket.

    For example, I’d rarely if ever eaten broad beans, winter squash or proper blackcurrants. Now I can have all 3, but not all at the same time! But I can’t buy the same thing in the shops, which is ermine’s whole point.

    It certainly is cultural, and that’s why Tesco gave up in France and Spain, where eating nice food isn’t just seen as middle class snobbery.

    By the way, most of my work colleagues do in fact choose to drive to Tesco every single day to buy their lunch, so frequent shopping doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem for them!


  8. We Brits do have a bit of an allergy to frozen food. Some can be good I think! I always have some frozen peas and baby broad beans in the freezer to add some greens if I’m out of fresh, or feeling too lazy.

    I once had some Norwegian salmon farming clients who told me that Brits will not buy frozen salmon, but will quite happily buy “fresh” to chick in the freezer (even though a domestic freezer obviously works much slower and creates much bigger ice crystals and basically destroys the meat in a way that industrial freezing avoids the worst of). So I am trying to be less anti frozen, but I think markets and farm shops definitely beat supermarkets for fresh if you have the option!

    Oh, and yes, with the microwave option the silk just comes off with the husk… You obviously have to chop it off at the stalk end, but because the husk doesn’t get hot it’s not too tricky! The only bits to cut off before you cook it are any little frondy bits that stick out!


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