Consumer Articles

History of Frozen Foods is Long and Varied

Date: May 14, 2009

The easy and convenient home meal solutions provided by frozen food products today make our hectic life-styles seem a bit easier. Convenient, easy-to-prepare, nutritious and delicious frozen foods seem as if they were recently invented—specially-designed for modern life. In fact, frozen foods have been around a lot longer than you think, successfully evolving and adapting to the needs of consumers.

Freezing Foods Has Long History
The modern frozen food industry was born over 70 years ago, in 1930, but freezing foods as a means of preservation is a practice that has long historical roots. The first to harness the power of freezing foods beyond the winter months were the Chinese, who used ice cellars as early as 1000 B.C. The Greeks and Romans stored compressed snow in insulated cellars, and the Egyptians and Indians discovered that rapid evaporation through the porous walls of clay vessels produced ice crystals in the water inside the vessels.

But it was Clarence Birdseye and his American company that finally made frozen foods a practical reality in 1930. Legend has it that Birdseye’s interest in freezing food began in 1912, when, as a young engineer in Labrador, he often froze his catch after a day of fishing to keep it fresh. But it wasn’t until 1928 that Birdseye was successful in creating the double belt freezer, the forerunner of modern freezing technology, and not until 1930 that he finally introduced a line of frozen foods to the public. Contrary to popular belief, the line was not strictly vegetables, but included 18 cuts of meat, spinach, peas, fruits and berries, fish fillets and Blue Point oysters.

But the road to consumer acceptance of these products was a long and rocky one. The first obstacle was the retailers themselves, who were unwilling to spend the money to buy refrigerated display cases to merchandise the new products. Consumer resistance was also high, so the industry found its early savior in the institutional market. By the latter part of the 1930s, railroads and steamship lines became dumping grounds for surplus retail inventories and low or off-grade frozen products, because the frozen products were prepared before being served to diners, and customers didn’t know the food was frozen.

The War to Save Frozens
Frozen foods might have died off altogether if not for the onset of World War II. When Japan overran southeast Asia, it captured a large portion of the world’s tin resources and the U.S. government placed stringent controls on canners in an effort to conserve this vital wartime metal. This opened the door for frozens, which used less crucial materials such as paperboard, waxed paper and cellophane. Furthermore, retail shelves emptied as canned goods went to war, so major grocery chains eagerly pressed frozens into service to fill the gaps. Additionally, since frozens did not use metal, their purchase by consumers required fewer ration points than canned products.

The 1940s were host to another milestone in the growth of the frozen food industry: the introduction of frozen concentrated orange juice.

This product really marked the first volume item for the frozen food industry, but was soon followed by another: frozen breaded seafood.

The TV Age
The 1950s were significant for the frozen food industry because it marked the introduction of a product that grew to be synonymous with the term frozen food: the TV Dinner. For the first time, a complete meal was available in frozen form to families who wished to dine quickly and easily at the table or in front of the TV, as the name implied. These dinners included an entree/meat item, a starch and a vegetable, and sometimes a dessert.

Americans were introduced to another favorite frozen food in the early 50s—the fish stick, and more companies scrambled to win a piece of the suddenly growing frozen food market. Because of this heightened competition, the 1950s remain as one of the most innovative periods in the history of frozen foods, and manufacturers all scrambled to bring new products to consumers first. Among the other innovative foods introduced in frozen form during this decade were frozen pies and frozen side dishes.

The Lean Years
The 1960s were lean years for the frozen food industry, but not in the traditional sense. The 1960s were characterized by a new “diet” craze in America, and from this craze such products as Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers were born. The industry continued to experience growth until the early 70s, when the country was gripped by one of the worst recessions in history, and an inflationary spiral that led the government to institute severe price controls.

Creative marketing and a strong determination attitude helped the industry to survive this tough period, and allowed the industry to remain strong heading into the late 70s and 80s, when a new invention led to booming sales.
The introduction of the microwave oven for home use allowed consumers to prepare frozen foods in record time, and solved the dilemma of families who now had two working parents. Teamed with the microwave oven, frozen food’s new buzzword became “convenience,” and consumers were quick to respond. TV dinners were replaced by “frozen entrees” and upscale dinners, with more taste and variety, and the option to prepare in minutes using the microwave.

The 1990s ushered in an era of “healthy” eating for Americans. Frozen foods were quick to adapt to this new life-style of America, and brands like Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers, and many others thrived. Consumers were hungry not only for taste, but for healthy ingredients, and regulations requiring full disclosure of ingredients made consumers more health conscious than ever before. Words like “lite,” “low-salt,” “low-fat,” and “low-cholesterol” were the new adjectives of choice on frozen meals.

The Future
What does the future hold for frozen foods? It’s impossible to predict. Clarence Birdseye may have shook his head in disbelief if someone had suggested in his day that the future would hold frozen dinners that could be prepared in minutes, frozen foods targeted specifically to children, frozen ethnic foods of every variety and frozen food choices for every meal occasion in the day.

But, thanks to the tenacity and innovation of the frozen food industry, all these dreams are reality today, and our dreams of tomorrow could show up in your freezer much sooner than you think!

Source: National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association