Can Frozen Foods and 'Natural' Coexist?

Food processors' ability to keep foods natural while improving their taste has risen in tandem with consumers' expectations thanks to the right stabilizers.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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When Wholly Wholesome began in 1996, "What was 'natural' in those days was pretty awful," recalls Lynn Nelson. In frozen foods, baked goods or any food category back then, "It was assumed natural foods would taste pretty bad. Everybody would say, 'It's natural; the consumer will understand.' "

Similarly, "For many years we only made refrigerated soups and actively avoided making any frozen soups because the quality of frozen soups available at that time was of a very low quality," says Levon Kurkjian, marketing vice president at Kettle Cuisine Inc. "However, about five years ago we discovered the poor quality was not at all a function of the frozen format. Since then, our frozen soups have exceeded the expectations of even the most discerning chefs."

So there has progress on two fronts recently in the evolution of food manufacturing. Food processors' ability to keep foods natural while improving their taste has risen in tandem with consumers' expectations. And frozen products have evolved beyond TV dinners and other blocks of ice to be the perfect carrier for extending the shelf life of natural foods.

The term "natural" is not used loosely at Wholly Wholesome (whollywholesome.com). The Chester, N.J., company is "dedicated to ensuring that its ready-to-eat and ready-to-bake products taste as good or better than any other baked product produced, not only for the natural foods marketplace but for the conventional market as well." But in Wholly Wholesome's vocabulary, "ready-to-eat" and "ready-to-bake" mean after thawing.

Wholly Wholesome makes pies, pie shells and crusts, cookies and cakes, some of them gluten-free, for both consumers and for in-store and foodservice customers.

As vice president of product development, Nelson says that's a tall order, especially as consumers get more sophisticated in both taste and their understanding of what is and what is not natural.

"We have to ask, 'How is that vanilla extracted? How was that oil pressed? Are there any GMOs [genetically modified organisms]?" One of the biggest challenges, he adds, is then going from a natural baked good to a frozen natural baked good.

"Each product category has its own challenges," he says, but common issues are freeze-thaw stability and shelf life. They're tricky enough with conventional ingredients; even tougher for natural ingredients.

Starches and gums are key ingredients, and they're difficult to keep natural. "For many applications, our suppliers have come up with great replacements that have all the same functionality but are natural," says Doon Wintz, Wholly Wholesome's president. Native waxy maize starches in particular have been greatly improved that they can solve most problems, he says.

No argument from National Starch, one of Wholly Wholesome's key suppliers. "Introduced more than a decade ago, functional native starches are a well-established solution for clean label formulations," says Leaslie Carr, marketing manager-wholesome, for Ingredion Inc. (www.ingredion.com), Westchester, Ill., the new name for Corn Products International and National Starch. "Although traditional stabilizers, such as modified food starches and gums, provide stability, these ingredients do not support clean labeling.

"Functional native starch ingredients are different from traditional native starches, such as corn or tapioca starch," she continues. "Through proprietary processing, they possess the functionality of modified starches, but can be labeled simply as 'corn starch' — a trusted ingredient."

National Starch says functional native starches can withstand the harsh rigors of modern food processing and offer shelf life stability equivalent to the modified standards.

To further complicate their lives, Wholly Wholesome is developing gluten-free products, including a frozen pie shell. "For gluten-free, you have to forget everything you know about baking," says Nelson.

Nelson turned to rice flour, but had to specify how it was milled. Shortening levels had to be adjusted because "a gluten-free pie shell is more brittle than a traditional pie shell." They even had to design special packaging to keep the gluten-free shell intact.

If you're thinking beyond the pie shell to the fillings, choose carefully between waxy starches (based on amylopectin) and dent starches (based on amylase). "A dent starch will give you a shorter texture, which could help suspend or hold fruit pieces, typically gives more opacity and can impart some creaminess in dairy based fillings," says Shawn Sprankle, senior food scientist-technical services at Chicago-based Tate & Lyle (www.tateandlyle.com). "A waxy starch has a longer texture, gives clarity as well as a shiny appearance. Waxy being more branched, it has improved water holding compared to dent and would improves freeze-thaw stability."

He said it's tricky to find a starch that works well in both the processing and the freezing of products. And trickier still if the product is likely to be frozen multiple times, or at least to partially thaw somewhere during the distribution process. "Ice crystals grow bigger every time a product refreezes," he says. "We do have ways to minimize that."

Many native starches work well, he says, but modified starches generally are better at binding water and minimizing ice formation.

Don't forget gums
Gums play a role, too. "Gums work as excellent water binding agents. When used in frozen applications, gums effectively control water that is released during thaw, preventing the formation of large ice crystals once the product refreezes," says Donna Klockeman, dairy food scientist in the R&D technical service team at TIC Gums Inc. (www.ticgums.com), White Marsh, Md.

"Gums can also effectively reduce the water available to form ice crystals in frozen food systems," she continues. "As such, gums tend to help maintain better product quality over a longer shelf life when compared to products that do not contain hydrocolloids. Thus gums can be used not only to develop the texture of the product but also play an important role in managing the overall quality of frozen foods."

Gums also are great team players. "To control the moisture in a [frozen] cake, a blend of citrus fiber, xanthan gum and gum arabic can bind moisture over time to produce a product that maintains a moist soft crumb. This combination also helps provide a great cell structure and a light bouncy texture," says Janae Kuc, senior research and development scientist at Gum Technology Corp. (www.gumtech.com), Tucson, Ariz. "Gums also work synergistically with starch to provide improved texture and freeze thaw stability."

"The beauty of gums," she continues, "is the fact that many of them are natural and come from seaweed, tubers, and seed plants." That makes "natural" statements easier to make.

So, with a little functional ingredient help, "natural" and "frozen" are perfectly complementary words.

"In terms of maintaining 'natural,' this is precisely the reason we turned to frozen in the first place," says Kurkjian of Kettle Cuisine (www.kettlecuisine.com), Chelsea, Mass. – which is the one of our R&D Teams of the Year. "In order to expand our geographic reach, we could have either added preservatives to our all-natural refrigerated soups or converted the recipes to frozen and avoid compromising our all natural, real food philosophy." He chose the latter.

"The only real difference between refrigerated and frozen is that we cook with rice flour instead of wheat flour because rice flour roux freezes and rethermalizes better than wheat flour and doesn't break down as easily." Very few consumers – even the restaurant chefs Kettle Cuisine sells to – can tell the difference in the final product between a roux made with rice flour roux versus one made with wheat flour, he says.

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