The Right Chemistry: How frozen foods became a supermarket staple



Freezing is an excellent method of preserving foods, requiring no added preservatives and generally providing better taste than canned food.

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The fish tasted like it had just been caught! Clarence Birdseye was amazed. He had eaten frozen foods before, but they had never tasted quite right. What was the difference? This fish did not come from any commercial processing facility, it had been frozen by the Inuk fisherman right after he had caught it through a hole in the ice.

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Birdseye consumed that epic meal sometime around 1914 while he was working as a surveyor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Labrador. The winter temperatures sometimes reached minus-40 degrees there, which meant that a fish would quickly freeze after being pulled from the water. Perhaps, Birdseye thought, this rapid freezing was the key to the retention of texture and flavour. He was correct. If food is frozen slowly, there is time for its water content to convert to large ice crystals that can damage cells and lead to off tastes and a mushy texture. Quick freezing results in much smaller ice crystals that are less disruptive.

Once Birdseye returned to the United States, he followed up on his Labrador experience and experimented with flash freezing of fish fillets. He soon developed and patented a “double belt freezer” in which cartons of fish were frozen as they passed between two refrigerated surfaces cooled by a brine solution. In 1925, he founded the General Seafood Corporation, and four years later, after further improvements of the machinery, Birdseye sold the company to Postum, which eventually became the General Foods corporation. The price was a stunning $22 million!

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Birdseye, of course, did not invent freezing food; in addition to the Inuit, who were no strangers to the practice, the ancient Chinese already been preserving food in ice caves and American food producers had dabbled with selling frozen foods. But Birdseye’s technology had made the food far more palatable. Frozen peas were marketed as being “as gloriously green as any you will see next summer” and peas were joined by spinach, fruits, berries and meat. Frozen foods competed with the canned foods to which the public had become accustomed, but sales got a huge boost during the Second World War, when cans were rationed. There were a couple of reasons for this. Canned foods were ideal for sending overseas to soldiers and metals were needed for the war effort. Tin specifically was in short supply. Japan was the largest producer of the metal and it was needed for airplane parts, ammunition boxes, solder and, especially, for syrettes.

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The syrette, developed by the Squibb pharmaceutical company, was a huge advance in medicine. It consisted of a small tin tube, much like a toothpaste tube, that was filled with morphine and fitted with a small hypodermic needle. Syrettes were carried by soldiers and if wounded could be used to self-administer the pain killing drug. Tin reclaimed from two cans was enough to manufacture one syrette, and millions of syrettes were needed. The metal became so valuable that canned foods were rationed and canned pet foods were eliminated. Interestingly, this led to innovation with the development of dried pet food that now makes up most of the market. A huge publicity drive to salvage cans was launched with the slogan “save’em, wash’em, clean’em, squash’em.”

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With the need for weapons, tanks, planes and ammunition, factories shifted from manufacturing civilian goods to military supplies. Automobile assembly lines were reconfigured, and no cars were produced between 1942 and 1945. The public was asked to donate non-essential typewriters to the military and even sliced bread was banned because automatic slicers used metal blades.

After the war, metals again became available for consumer products including aluminum, the production of which had been commandeered by the military because of its critical importance in producing aircraft. Aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat and reacts minimally with food, making for an ideal container when it comes to producing frozen foods. In the early 1950s, airlines began to serve passengers frozen food in in little aluminum trays heated in specially designed ovens, instead of the usual cold sandwiches. And it was the memory of being served such frozen food, at least so the story goes, that launched the iconic “TV dinner.”

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The Swanson company had capitalized on Birdseye’s quick-freeze technology and was producing frozen turkeys on a large scale. It seems that in 1953 someone made a miscalculation and there was overproduction of some 260 tons of frozen birds. It was then that Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas recalled being served heated food in a metal tray on a business flight and thought the technology could be applied to the sales of the frozen birds. There was nothing terribly innovative about that nor about the compartmentalized aluminum trays that allowed turkey slices to be accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas. As early as 1944 airlines had served frozen dinners called “Strato-Plates” on a paperboard tray coated with Bakelite resin. Then in 1950, the first aluminum tray for frozen meals was introduced as the “FrigiDinner” but it was the Swanson Company that captured the frozen dinner market with Thomas’s brainchild of designing the tray in the shape of a television screen! America had been thoroughly captivated by television and meals at the dinner table were rushed through so that the family could settle down on the couch for the evening’s entertainment. Why not skip the dinner table and enjoy a full course meal in front of the TV, thought Thomas.

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Not a bad idea, as it turned out. In 1954, Swanson sold 10 million TV dinners. The origin of that fruitful idea has, however, been contested by heirs to the Swanson fortune, who claim that Clarke and Gilbert Swanson, who ran the company in the 1950s, came up with the design of the iconic tray. Whoever was responsible, the fact is that the idea has stuck. Swanson frozen meals are still available, although the TV connection has been abandoned. Numerous other companies have joined the frozen food frenzy, producing a stunning variety of individual foods and meals. Freezing is an excellent method of preserving foods, requiring no added preservatives and generally providing better taste than canned food. Thanks Clarence Birdseye! Now I’ll go and pop my pre-sliced frozen bagel in the toaster. Tastes like fresh. Well, almost.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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