Half of all seafood caught and prepared for humans is wasted. That amounts to more than two billion pounds of healthful sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids going in the garbage annually (Seafood Waste, 2016). But researchers say there is a simple solution to this food waste problem: frozen seafood.
Studies show that switching from fresh to frozen seafood could cut the global food waste problem. Frozen food keeps longer, so there’s less chance of it going bad and needing to be thrown out.
It’s also a win for consumers. Freezing fish right after catching it locks in flavor and nutrients, giving us straight-from-the-sea taste without the risk of spoiling (Nielsen and Jessen, 2006). The preservation also reduces financial risk to grocers and their suppliers, which means frozen fish can be cheaper than buying fresh.
So, if frozen fish helps the environment and offers an easy way to lower food costs, why isn’t the world rushing to buy frozen seafood? The reason is straightforward, though paradoxical. To some fish lovers, frozen seafood is still seen as “less fresh,” even though the opposite is typically true.
To reduce food waste, consumers must be won over to the benefits of frozen. And a growing chorus of voices — from the food industry to environmentalists, chefs and consumers — is now making the case not just for frozen fish, but for frozen food generally.
The Global Food Waste Crisis
Food waste isn’t unique to seafood. As much as one-third of all the world’s food is wasted, even as many people struggle to find enough to eat, according to the “Food Wastage Footprint” report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
However, the problem is particularly prevalent with fish, where the reckless overfishing practices of large, industrialized operations are already harming biodiversity. The FAO’s global analysis, the first of its kind, shows that millions of tons of seafood go to waste each year. The report also points out that it’s hard to know the true volume of seafood waste, because commercial fishing operations often don’t accurately report their bycatch, the industry term for the unwanted fish tossed overboard.
In contrast, Vital Choice sources its wild-caught seafood from healthy, well-regulated fisheries like those found in Alaska, and it works only with partners who share its commitment to sustainable fishing without bycatch.
But seafood waste isn’t caused only by bycatch. Consumer preference is also a leading factor.
People are understandably picky about seafood, which goes bad quickly. At home, we recoil at the smell of old fish. When we go out to eat, we want to hear about the “catch of the day.” The result is that fresh seafood dominates at the supermarket and on restaurant menus — and too often ends up at the garbage dump after it goes bad.
Luckily, frozen seafood can offer an easy solution to fight food waste.
The Science of Frozen Fish
Food kept in the freezer rarely has to be tossed. According to a study published in the British Food Journal, frozen foods generate nearly 50 percent less home food waste than refrigerated foods and those stored at room temperature (Martindale 2014).
In America, families waste a quarter of the foods and drinks they bring home, claims a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. That amounts to a loss of $1,350 to $2,275 annually for a family of four. However, just five percent of frozen food gets thrown out (Martindale, 2014).
And in recent years, the fishing industry has made major advances in the rapid-freeze tools used on ships to help reduce waste and improve seafood quality (Gonçalves et al., 2012). For example, Vital Choice’s flash-frozen catch can be frozen solid in just seconds and is typically processed within just hours of catching it. (See: What is Flash Freezing?)
That’s good for us, because studies show that freezing is the best way to lock in the taste of fresh-caught seafood.
Starting in 2016, researchers at Oregon State University began gathering hundreds of participants for blind taste tests that pitted fresh seafood against frozen seafood (Rasor et al., 2017). They performed test after test, with seafoods ranging from wild-caught salmon to cod, tuna and scallops. The study even included high-end products, including frozen seafood caught on small boats off Oregon and Alaska and thawed the day before, as well as fresh fish of the same species that had been purchased from upscale grocers and cooked that day.
Taste testers consistently preferred the frozen fish.
The researchers also performed a separate scientific analysis using a device that scanned the fish and measured its quality and freshness. Fresh fish has intact cell membranes that don’t conduct electricity well, while older fish have leaking cells that result in tissue with more electrical conductivity. Once again, frozen fish came out on top.
Those findings back up similar work done with produce. Research shows that many frozen fruits and veggies have better flavor and nutrient profiles than fresh food does after just a few days (Bonwick and Birch, 2013).
More and more chefs agree, too. “The technology of freezing seafood has evolved to the point where [the quality] of frozen seafood is comparable to, if not better than, fresh fish,” chef Barton Seaver told the Portland Press Herald in 2018.
Chef Aliza Green told the Washington Post that “if you had asked me in the ’70s and ’80s, when I first started out as a chef, I would have said ‘only buy fresh fish.’ But I have really changed my mind. The freezing technology is so much better now.”
Why Frozen Fish is Better
With seafood, one underlying problem is that the “fresh” fish you’re buying from the grocery store could actually be weeks old. What’s more, upon closer inspection, some supermarket fish displayed in meat cases actually carries a “previously frozen” label. So, consumers who avoid the freezer section end up instead buying fish that’s been frozen anyway.
These practices can lead to food waste, too. Fish that sits too long in a supermarket meat section (just a few days in some cases) gets tossed in the trash.
As a result, frozen seafood is actually closer to the stuff fishermen pull out of the sea than is the never-frozen stuff you buy at the store.
As New York Times health columnist Jane Brody once said, “The freshest seafood is that which has been frozen shortly after harvest and remains that way until cooked.”
Fortunately, our collective opinion on frozen seafood may finally be changing. Many chefs are warming up to the idea that frozen seafood tastes better and also saves them money. Some environmental groups and government organizations are now urging consumers to make the move to frozen fish. It’s a sign that this could be a rare bright spot in the global fight to reduce food waste. The United Nations has set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030.
After all, how many environmental problems can you fight by eating better tasting, more affordable food?
Seafood Waste: A Staggering Problem. (2016). Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-community/environmental-health/article/seafood-what-waste
Martindale, W. (2014), "Using consumer surveys to determine food sustainability", British Food Journal, Vol. 116 No. 7, pp. 1194-1204. https://doi.org/10.1108/BFJ-09-2013-0242
Nielsen, J. and Jessen, F. (2007). Quality of Frozen Fish. In Handbook of Meat, Poultry and Seafood Quality, L.M.L. Nollet (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9780470277829.ch44
A.A., Nielsen, J. and Jessen, F. (2012). Quality of Frozen Fish. In Handbook of Meat, Poultry and Seafood Quality, L.M.L. Nollet (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118352434.ch31
Graham Bonwick and Catherine S. Birch. University of Chester. Antioxidants in Fresh and Frozen Fruit and Vegetables: Impact Study of Varying Storage Conditions; http://bfff.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Leatherhead-Chester-Antioxidant-Reports-2013.pdf
Rasor, Tyson. 2017. A Fresh Look at Frozen Fish: Expanding Market Opportunities for Community Fishermen. Oregon State University/EcoTrust https://ecotrust.org/wp-content/uploads/Fresh-Look-at-Frozen-Fish_executive_summary-1.pdf
Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources. United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. http://www.fao.org/3/i3347e/i3347e.pdf