Wednesday, April 13, 2011


There is an increasing tendency for people to go for "fresh", "local", "natural" or organic foods and the reason is not far to seek. It is simply the fear factor that is driving millions of consumers away from preserved or processed foods and the food industry is to blame itself for this sorry situation. Historically food technology evolved over centuries to extend the supply chain so that adequate foods are available all year round. Use of salt or sugar which increases the osmotic pressure in food system to discourage proliferation of pathogens and many spoilage organisms continues even to day though from healthy angle they are shunned by a substantial strata of the society. While uncontrolled salt consumption is known to be linked to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, high sugar can be responsible for dental decay, diabetes, obesity and other disorders. Organoleptically too much sugar or salt can create quick satiety. Salt and sugar preserved food products can be farthest from the concept of fresh foods.

Sun drying or the more scientific mechanical drying of perishables which contain high levels of moisture gives products with altered textural features but it still served the purpose of extending the life of the food significantly due to low water activity in such foods after removing bulk of the water content. Besides, the reconstituted final product has drastically different eating quality, not often liked by consumers. Vast improvements in dehydration technology have contributed to better finished products and freeze drying can give a product that can be quite satisfactory though cost wise such products can be very expensive. However dehydrated foods can also never qualify to be called fresh.

It is true that while advances in technology and transportation can extend the shelf life of food, consumer always will have to pay a price for availability and convenience in terms of nutrition and taste. Relentless progress of food science and technology has made it possible to have a wide choice of processing methods for the industry and techniques like atmospheric packs, storage of apples in 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), vacuum packing with carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and refrigeration have provided reliable tools to extend the shelf life very significantly. While most technologies are able to ensure safety of most foods for a long time, what happens to the quality of these preserved foods is an issue often ignored. For example most frozen foods when stored at a constant temperature of -18C can stay safe beyond an year but whether the consumer will accept the eating quality of these long term preserved foods is a genuine concern. Same is true with all preserved foods what ever be the technique used.

It is disputable whether the industry can call any of these foods "fresh"because they can never be equal in sensory quality and nutritive value to freshly harvested produce. According to common sense 'fresh' can only be those foods put on sale as early as possible after the time of picking, catching or producing. True, developments in food technology and storage ensure that the consumer has a wide range of fruit and vegetables available all year round, but it is not correct to call apples that are nine months old truly fresh. Similarly spinach refrigerated for just eight days is known to loose more than 50% of its key nutrients and consumer is never aware of this fact while buying a "fresh looking" spinach from the supermarket. Same is true with most fruits and vegetables seen in these markets. Probably some awareness has been generated amongst the minds of consumers about the relatively lower quality of retailed fresh produce which has spawned the "farmers markets" and "locavore" phenomena in some countries in Europe and the US.

Compared to many technologies freezing process provides the best product approximating to quality as close to its field fresh counterpart and this may be the reason why frozen food industry has made rapid strides world over during the last 3 decades. They are definitely superior to the so called fresh produce offered by supermarkets procured from far away places and transported over long distances. Here again if the consumer is quality conscious long time stored frozen foods must be avoided since even under frozen conditions quality loss does occur, albeit slowly. In the interest of the consumer no processed food industry players must be allowed to use the terminology "fresh" to describe their products, no matter what technology is used..


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