With food prices rising at their fastest rate since the 1970s, people are turning away from fresh. By Sophie Morris
Food prices are rising at their fastest rate in 45 years, according to the latest government data. If you feel fresh out of ideas for saving money on your weekly shop, why not start off in the frozen foods section?
“Supermarkets want you to shop in the fresh aisle first,” says the author of The Batch Lady cookbook, Suzanne Mulholland. “It’s where they make money and they know you have an empty trolley to fill.”
But the big retailers are reporting that while we are trying to spend less overall - with total grocery volumes down four per cent in the first quarter of 2023, according to Kantar data - sales of frozen food have not dropped. A survey for the app Zipzero found that 25 per cent of British adults are buying more frozen food.
It’s not all deep-pan pizza and microwave meals, but frozen food still has a poor reputation, in particular among millennials. A Tesco report from 2022 found that misconceptions about frozen food being unhealthy are widespread, with almost half of 18- to 34 yearolds thinking it is both of lower quality and not as good for you.
But while plenty of frozen items can be healthier than fresh as well as cheaper - and you’ll reduce waste into the bargain - there are a number of factors at play.
“Fresh” is not a specific term. It means “not frozen”, rather than “freshly picked”. Most produce loses up to 30 per cent of nutrients within three days, and very often takes longer than this to reach supermarket shelves - before you let it languish for a week at home.
A University of California study found that Vitamin C degrades rapidly after harvest, up to 75 per cent for spinach after a week at the back of your veg drawer.
You’ll lose much less by freezing - 30 per cent for spinach. That said, frozen food is often blanched to maintain colour and texture, which reduces nutrient content.
The NHS counts fresh, frozen and canned fruit and vegetables as five-a-day candidates, so it’s worth taking another look at frozen.
Research from South Dakota State University found that frozen blueberries contain more antioxidants, which help to fight disease. They work well in cakes, crumbles and smoothies. Children love frozen fruit as snacks, as they get that “ice-lolly” mouthfeel.
Sales of Waitrose Essential frozen berries are a steal at £4/ kg compared with £10.67/kg for Essential fresh blueberries and £12.67/kg for Essential fresh raspberries.
“Frozen fruit and veg is flash frozen, so it retains the majority of its nutrients compared to fresh,” says Mulholland. “It’s 20 per cent cheaper to buy frozen fruit and veg than fresh and someone has done the hard work for you by peeling and chopping it.”
She recommends green beans, which are cheaper frozen (900g for £1.20), than they are fresh (80g for £1.25).
CHIPS Hard to believe that chips would make a “healthy” foods list, but it’s all about how you cook them.
Potatoes boast a good helping of nutrients, including fibre, vitamin C, B6 and potassium, but deepfrying adds a lot of fat, so baking oven chips is healthier.
There isn’t much price difference between potatoes and frozen chips - and a wide range in terms of quality. But with frozen you save on prep and pricey oil.
“Pre-chopped sweet potato is a handy ingredient to have in your freezer,” says chef Jamie Oliver, who teamed up with Tesco to create budget recipes using what’s in our cupboards and freezers.
The supermarket found that 62 per cent of us are “freezer raiding” to cut costs, and sweet potato is one of Jamie’s top picks. “It’s great for roasting, squishing into quesadillas, and making meat dishes go further,” he says.
“Plus, it takes on other herb and spice flavours so well.” For Tesco, he created a sweet potato and pepper tikka masala.
But is it healthier than the fresh version? The bright orange veg is known for its high levels of vitamin C and beta carotene, which converts into vitamin A for skin and eye health, and frozen sweet potato has been found to contain more beta carotene than fresh.
But here’s the rub - it is far cheaper to buy fresh and chop and freeze yourself. At Tesco, fresh sweet potatoes are £1.10/kg but frozen are £3/kg.
Frozen garlic can be cheaper than fresh because there’s no waste. Jamie Oliver describes it as “a genius ingredient to have in the freezer. It’s the base of many recipes to enhance flavour - pasta dishes, stir-fries, risotto, broths”.
When frozen, garlic retains its flavour but can lose some of its pungency, which is often welcome. It’s not ideal for every recipe, but is always better than the jars of “fresh” minced garlic, which are over-processed and lose their flavour and texture very quickly.
Morrisons gives its four-pack of small bulbs (95p) a shelf life of seven days plus, which is a lot of garlic to get through.
A 100g bag of chopped frozen garlic is £1.39, and a 200g jar is priced at £1.89.
Choosing the frozen option is a good way to enjoy foods that aren’t easily found fresh. Edamame beans, for example, are high in protein and nutrient-rich. Steam and add to soups or rice and noodle dishes - a fail-safe fallback for when you think you’re out of veg.
Ocado has frozen edamame at £2.80 for 600g. The fresh version is six times the price when adjusted for weight, at £2.50 for 85g.
The UK sources mangoes from all over the world to make sure we can access them year-round, although peak season is our summer months, when fresh mango is cheap, sweet and abundant. Buy now and freeze it yourself, or save mess and hassle with good value frozen bags. Soft fruits like mango go off quickly, so you’re more likely to preserve the nutrients by freezing.
“These products are not only really handy to have in the freezer for dinners, desserts or breakfast smoothies,” says Waitrose frozen buyer Joe Sharkey, “but they also help to mitigate waste as customers can use the exact amount they need for their dish or recipe.”
A number of the major supermarkets have bags of frozen at £2.50 for 500g. This is on a par with buying whole fresh fruit and prepping for the freezer yourself, but fresh chopped mango is around double the price.
“Often fruit and vegetables are picked in season before they’re ripe, and stored, sitting for some time before they’re added to the supermarkets as fresh produce,” says Mulholland. Broccoli is full of antioxidant-rich vitamin K, which you’ll preserve more of by buying frozen, as well as saving on waste.
Tenderstem, the pricier version with the long stems, is one of Iceland’s top frozen sellers and, at £1 a bag, is half the price of the fresh product. No need to defrost before cooking - add straight to stir fries or a steamer, or grill on the barbecue.
If you only like to eat “fresh” fish, you might be surprised to learn that the majority of the fish we eat in the UK is imported and has been frozen, then defrosted and presented as fresh.
“Frozen fish is typically fresher as it is frozen at sea, while fresh fish undergoes a defrosting process before reaching supermarkets,” says Andrew Staniland of Iceland, which has seen a 20 per cent hike across its frozen products.
I buy bags of individual salmon fillets, which defrost quickly for hungry children, and bags of fish pie mix make speedy dinners.
Sainsbury’s frozen salmon portions are £12.50/kg, while the fresh portions start at £14.58/kg.
It doesn’t seem fair to leave out our most trusted frozen veg. Despite a UK harvesting season of only six weeks, growers pick and freeze enough to feed 90 per cent of our pea habit, locking in the freshness within a few hours.