Quality and convenience

by Allison Gibeson
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New food packaging technologies such as steaming and browning trays are quickly altering the quality and types of food products stocked in the frozen food aisles of supermarkets nationwide. The challenges processors face today include how the raw materials of meals are handled and consumer perception.

Frozen meals initially were developed for conventional ovens, but once microwaves became staples in most North American kitchens the packaging was then designed for use in both conventional ovens and microwaves. Now many companies focus exclusively on the microwave, and being able to develop just for the microwave has helped improve quality.

Aaron Brody, president and chief executive officer of Packaging/Brody, Inc., said the predecessor to today’s steaming technology in products such as Healthy Choice Café Steamers from ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, were rice dishes with a sauce on top. The sauce was intended to be thawed and permeate through the product with the steaming technology initiating the thawing process. But steaming technology is primarily for water-based products and isn’t ideal for crispness.

Dr. Brody and Mark Thomas, president of MDT, Ltd., said the key to the improved quality of foods in frozen meals is in part the technology that allows for quick freezing and heating. The faster a product is frozen and the faster it is heated reduces how much the process alters the taste and quality of the food. Also important is freezing the individual portions of the meals separately. Some companies are using liquid nitrogen to reduce the temperatures rapidly.

“The faster you get a product very cold or very hot, the more of the quality attributes you are going to retain,” Mr. Thomas said. “That’s why steaming is a preferred heating method; it’s a very quick way to heat a product up. It’s very effective with the moist heat.

“Cryogenics are very effective in freezing something without damaging as much of the cell structure of the target frozen item. The faster you can do either of those, the better delivered quality you are going to have.”

Dr. Brody said many companies still use bulk freezing, which doesn’t lead to optimal quality and is part of the reason why there is a difference in quality among frozen food brands.

Market trends, such as an increased demand for convenient products, has made consumers more willing to try frozen foods. Mr. Thomas said the desire for convenience and the improved quality of product companies like ConAgra Foods are producing outweigh consumer hesitation about frozen foods.

The new packaging technologies also have allowed food companies to broaden their target market to include different consumer segments. Now there is a variety of frozen meals that may appeal to all sorts of consumers without leading to boredom from the same flavors or concepts.

Another important development in packaging technology is browning trays, which absorb microwave energy and elevate the temperature to such a range as the temperature of a typical pizza oven.

In the future, Mr. Thomas said improvements in technology will allow for more seafood, including clams and oysters, to be incorporated into frozen meals. He added that the browning tray technology eventually may impact every protein.

In addition to frozen meals, Dr. Brody said there has been a shift to the production of refrigerated meals with products from companies like Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn. The products haven’t gone through the freezing process, which results in a product that is closer to fresh. In many instances with refrigerated meals, companies reduce the oxygen inside the package to give it additional shelf life.

Yet with the introduction of new technologies, there are obstacles to overcome.

“You have to remember the American public is relatively slow to adapt to technology when it comes to their food,” Mr. Thomas said.

As an example, he said the public has been slow to adopt shelf-stable bacon and processors of the product have moved the product, which doesn’t need to be refrigerated, closer to refrigerated bacon in the grocery store to overcome consumer perceptions.

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