Consuming Issues: Can frozen food save you time and money?

Shoppers are shovelling more frozen peas, ice cream and ready meals into the freezer. Frozen food sales leapt by 7 per cent in the 52 weeks to September, according to market research firm TNS.

The recession-busting rise is probably explained by people trying to squeeze some extra value out of their shopping by picking up bumper packs of pizzas. But the UK's £5bn-a-year frozen food industry wants to ensure its growth continues when the good times return. It says we should buy frozen food not just because it is cheaper and more convenient than fresh, but because it is better. Frozen is cheaper, healthier and kinder to the planet, according to the frozen food giants.

It's worth scrutinising these claims, because, if they are true, we should all be defrosting meals rather than preparing them from ingredients bought fresh from greengrocers, fishmongers and butchers.

The frozen food industry has been commissioning research from scientists to support its claims. Last month Birds Eye, which makes a frozen "traditional beef dinner", published a study from the respected Institute of Food Research in Norwich about the loss of nutrients and vitamins in fresh food. It turns out that fruit and vegetables can reach shops nine days after being picked, and stay on shelves for four days after that. The scientists found that these fading green beans could lose up to 45 per cent of nutrients, broccoli and cauliflower 25 per cent, garden peas up to 15 per cent, and carrots up to 10 per cent.

By contrast, Birds Eye's garden peas had up to 30 per cent more vitamin C because they were zapped into suspended animation within hours of being harvested.

The British Frozen Food Federation, which represents the likes of Birds Eye, Findus and Dr Oetker, continued the blitz last week by publishing some research into the practicality of frozen food. The Food Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University looked at cost, waste and taste of frozen versus fresh. Nine families ate fresh meals such as chicken curry and spaghetti bol one week and frozen the next. Diaries showed the frozen meals were 33 per cent cheaper and led to 36 per cent less waste.

The British Frozen Food Federation said the survey "reveals that cooking frozen food creates considerably less wastage, is better value for money than cooking from fresh food without compromising on taste". In fact, the families thought the frozen food was significantly less tasty: 82 per cent of fresh meals were rated in the top two of five bands for taste compared with 36 per cent of frozen meals.

Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, suspects the freezer giants' campaign is "mainly spin". At least, it is a distraction from the issue that could really made a difference to health and the environment: that British people eat too many carbohydrate, protein-rich meaty meals and too little fruit and vegetables – damaging our health, wealth and planet. Only one in four adults eats five portions of fruit and veg a day, and the recommendation should probably be for eight portions.

When it comes to getting those portions, though, frozen food can help. Frozen peas and carrots etc clearly can be just as healthy, if not more healthy than fresh produce that has hung around in supermarket food distribution chains for a week.

And it can be cheaper and easier to pull from the freezer a few portions of already-shredded spinach than wilt a fresh bunch. But there's probably little benefit from loading up with frozen pizzas or "traditional beef dinners", unless you're very short of time.

Heroes & villians

Crack open the bubbly and celebrate

Hero: Co-op bubbly

Want a decent champagne for a shade over £20? You could do worse than the Co-operative's Les Pionniers 2002, which was named in honour of the co-operative movement's founders, the Rochdale Pioneers. This week it won golds at the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter World Wine Awards. It costs £20.99.

Villain: European Union

Energy labels on household appliances such as washing machines are easy to understand. They are rated A to G, with A being the most efficient. MEPs have voted to introduce three new grades to reflect higher standards, which could be A+, A++ and A+++. How daft. They should have raised the thresholds for meeting A to G.

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