Freezing is one of the most cost-effective ways of extending the long-term shelf life of many foods. Though other emerging technologies, such as infrared irradiation, microwaving, pulsed electric field, and ultrasound, are gaining more attention, freezing remains a dominant food preservation method.
Freezing preserves food by physically changing the state of a substance’s water content into ice by cooling it. However, even though freezing will slow down the physicochemical and biochemical reactions that influence food spoilage, it will not completely stop them. The loss in quality of frozen foods is largely dependent on the freezing process, storage temperature, the length of freezer storage time, and the thawing procedure.
Maintaining safety and quality in frozen foods is a delicate process that involves the entire frozen food cold chain: pre-treatment, processing, packaging, frozen food storage, transport, and thawing food.
How The Freezing Rate Affects Quality
Controlling the entire freezing process is critical to achieving the best quality frozen foods. One crucial parameter is the freezing rate. In general, fast freezing produces better quality frozen food than slow freezing.
When freezing fresh vegetables and fruits, the cooling rate will determine the size of ice crystals formed and the amount of damage to the cell walls. Damaged cell walls cause food that is supposed to be crisp to be limp instead.
When freezing meat, fish, or poultry (including ground meats), water migrates out of the cells. Rapid freezing minimizes this dehydration and texture degradation. The faster the crystallization, the smaller the ice crystals will be, which will cause less damage during freezing foods.
In terms of thawed foods, the reverse is true – slow heating to room temperature allows water to diffuse back into the cells.
The detrimental effects of freezing on microorganisms may or may not be desired, depending on the type of food frozen.
- When foods do not contain any beneficial cultures, microbial growth is not desirable.
- In foods that do contain beneficial microbial cultures, maintaining their activity is essential. In frozen dough, for instance, rapid freezing will have a detrimental effect on yeast activity.
When it comes to food safety, the key is maintaining a delicate balance between preserving quality while preventing microbial spoilage. The ideal storage temperature for freezing vegetables, fruit, or meat ranges from 16°F – 10°F. Microbiological spoilage can be avoided by following basic hygiene guidelines such as proper cleaning procedures, heat processing, and cutting raw materials into smaller pieces if possible.
Generally, freezing will kill between 10 and 60% of the viable microbe population, depending on the freezer temperature and frozen storage time. However, in terms of microorganisms, there is a considerable difference between their sensitivity to freezing and how quickly they can grow once the product is thawed. Special attention needs to be given here as some microbes can lead to spoilage and various food-borne illnesses, and food poisoning.
Physical Changes and Frozen Food Quality
Specific physical changes take place when food is frozen. Among the most common, we can include:
- Weight Loss – Unpacked foods will lose moisture during the freezing process. Meat will lose up to 3% of its weight during the freezing process and up to 6.15% during freezing and 20-hour-long refrigeration.
- Recrystallization – is the process of changes in the number, size, and shape of ice crystals in freezer bags or freezer containers (during the frozen stage). Small crystals fuse together, creating larger ones, lowering the overall quality and shelf life.
- Retrogradation – Quality loss in baked goods occurs as a result of staling and starch retrogradation. This process happens most rapidly while the product’s temperature is above freezing. Rapid freezing preserves freshness.
- Protein Denaturation – Protein denaturation and solubility changes occur as a result of freezing. Fish deterioration during storage, for example, is associated with a decrease in protein solubility, which diminishes the nutritional value. In frozen raw meat and poultry, the water-holding capacity, enzyme activity, and surface hydrophobicity are affected by freezing.
- Freezer Burn – Moisture loss due to evaporation causes freezer burn. This type of dehydration during processing can be controlled with humidification, lower storage temperature, or better packaging.
Chemical Changes and Frozen Food Quality
Aside from the physical changes that happen during freezing, there are also chemical changes that can affect the quality of frozen food. Among these, we can include the following:
- Rancidity – Oxygen found in the air will affect almost all frozen foods. Oxygen contact causes oxidative rancidity. It will also cause color loss and off-flavors. Freezing leads to a concentration of solutes, which dehydrate cell membranes, exposing them to oxidation.
- Color, Flavor, and Aroma Loss – Color changes in most frozen vegetables and frozen fruit result from changes in natural pigments of plant tissues, the development of enzymatic browning, and the breakdown of cellular chloroplasts and chromoplasts. A light surface color is preferable in poultry, which is best achieved with rapid surface freezing. The process of freezing will also affect the flavor and aroma of frozen foods.
- Vitamin Loss – The retention of nutritional value can be challenging with any preservation method. Freezing is among the least destructive. The destruction of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), for example, does occur during freezing. Still, the total loss is dependent on several factors, including the type of freezing, packaging, pre-treatment methods, and storage conditions. The main contributor to the loss of vitamins is oxidation.
- Enzyme Release – The disruption of plant and animal tissues through freezing leads to the release of enzymes. At around 32°F, the enzymatic breakdown of protein is the main cause of product quality loss.
- Acetaldehyde Formation – This process occurs in frozen vegetables during storage and limits shelf life. The amount of acetaldehyde formation depends on the blanching process and storage efficacy.
It’s essential to recognize that a successful freezing process will only retain the already existing food quality and will not improve it. Maintaining the quality and safety of frozen food starts with pre-treatment.
The most common pretreatments include the following:
- Blanching – The majority of vegetables and some fruits undergo blanching before freezing. This is a process of scalding fruits or vegetables in boiling water or steam for a brief time. This process destroys the permeability of cell membranes, removes intercellular air, and fills those spaces with water. As a result, ice crystallization can form over the entire surface without interruption. It also preserves foods’ texture, color, flavor, and nutrient content by deactivating their enzymes.
- Heat Treatments – Maintaining proper texture is important when freezing fruits and vegetables. Heat treatments help maintain their firmness while killing microorganisms that may be present. For example, carrots heated for 30 minutes at 140°F and then frozen at the optimum rate of 23°F/min will avoid cell damage and excessive softening. Common foods that undergo heat treatments include cooked foods, some vegetables, meats, and fish.
- Dipping Treatments – In some cases, foods are immersed in different solutions before freezing. Apple slices, for instance, are usually soaked in a 1% salt solution to remove intercellular air. Fruits are generally dipped in ascorbic acid and various sugar solutions to minimize browning. Glazing compounds are also used to add a protective layer of coating against dehydration and oxidation. Sodium acid phosphate, sodium carbonate, calcium lactate, ascorbic and citric acids, glutamic acid, and some corn syrup solids, among other solutions, can be used for glazing.
- Cryoprotection – Cryoprotectants such as sugars, amino acids, polyols, methylamines, or carbohydrate polymers are compounds introduced during processing or product formulation, or they may occur naturally. This helps prevent adverse changes in foods during the freezing and thawing processes.
Storage, Packaging, and Thawing
The packaging, storage, and thawing processes also affect frozen food quality. The detrimental effects on quality and food safety are slow, gradual, cumulative, and irreversible.
It has been revealed that aluminum foil laminated packages best limit oxygen permeability, light transparency, and water vapor transmission.
Storage and distribution temperatures need to be kept at 0°F or lower to maintain quality. Every 9°F increase over 0°F increases the rate of quality loss by about 200 to 250%. The amount of food in a storage unit can affect temperature fluctuation.
Some food types, such as pork, fish, fried chicken, animal organs, and spinach, can be maintained at high-quality only for about 3 to 7 months at -4°F. In contrast, sugared fruits, beef, most vegetables, and bakery products can be maintained over one year under the same conditions.
Thawing is the final step of the freezing process and is essential to the quality and safety of frozen foods. Microbiologically safe methods of defrosting foods are to store foods in the refrigerator at temperatures below 41°F, microwave, or cook.
All of the steps included in the frozen food cold chain need to be considered to provide high quality and safety. Cablevey’s Frozen Food Conveyor Systems will facilitate quality and safety throughout the food production and freezing process, going from mixing, pre-treatment, freezing, safe food handling, and packaging. While stainless steel equipment is seen as the most “clean” and easily cleanable, when it comes to most frozen food applications, clear-vinyl tubing also has the added benefit of reducing the incidence of black specks occurring on the product.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common issue with other systems, particularly open belt conveyors or bucket elevators. Being enclosed systems, tubular cable conveyors are also better equipped to eliminate product spillage, warming, and cross-contamination from the environment. Cablevey’s frozen food conveyor systems come in different sizes and offer a full range of various components to cover any facility layout and frozen food conveying needed.
Contact us today to learn more about the best conveyors for your frozen food processing facilities.