Nancy Backas, Contributing Editor

September 24, 2009

9 Min Read
Eat Your Veggies

Mom was righteating your veggies is important. The trouble is, when we were kids, the vegetables were often overcooked and didnt taste all that great. The rise of fast food created the idea that a vegetable had to be fried to taste good. Its part of the reason why there is so much talk today about combating the obesity crisis in America: Weve forgotten to eat our veggies!

With fewer people eating out, consumers are primed for frozen and fresh vegetables formulated and packaged for easy preparation. If frozen vegetables are available in interesting combinations and flavored well, and if fresh vegetables come pre-cut, seasoned and ready to cook, all the better. The increased interest in vegetables also encourages restaurants to offer more vegetable side dishes.

Because many people are heeding the dieticians call to increase vegetable consumption (the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommends 2½ cups of vegetables per day), vegetables have not only gained more room on the plate, but sometimes take center stage. Add to that the need to increase dietary fiber, and vegetablesespecially in gourmet preparationsare gaining notoriety.

Fresher faster

New breathable packaging has made it much easier to offer fresh vegetables precut. The so-called smart packaging extends the freshness of packaged produce using the latest technology, thus slowing nutrient loss.

Precut vegetables are subject to increased respiration, oxidative browning and microbial spoilage. Modified-atmosphere packaging works by manipulating the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the package. It perfectly matches the respiration and ethylene sensitivity of the product being packed, as well as the outside storage temperature and humidity. Shelf life of vegetables is extended for long hauling from farm to table and once it reaches the consumer or restaurant. The newest technology can customize packaging for various vegetables, since the needs for different vegetables can be quite diverse.

Once a plant is harvested, it will begin to die. We prolong its life by keeping it cold and maintaining moisture, says Gina Nucci, manager foodservice marketing, Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, CA. Once the vegetables are harvested, they are cooled to remove field heat temperatures and then processed, cut into whichever form is needed; then they are washed and dried.

Fresh-cut vegetables, Nucci adds, are packaged in breathable film to optimize shelf life. This smart film maintains a higher carbon dioxide level, which plants like, up to a point. If the CO2 level is too high, vegetables might be subject to anaerobic respiration and the production of off-flavors.

For foodservice operations, life-extending packaging is even more welcome. Packaged, cut vegetables reduce labor costs and waste, especially for high-volume operations and quick-service venues.

Other packaging options that help manufacturers offer fresh vegetables include plastic trays with film lids that have a 10-day shelf life. The packaging is designed so that, when the vegetables are microwave-heated, the film inflates and creates a steam dome, allowing the contents to cook evenly. Some pouches now on the market can also create this effect. Microwaving without a steam dome often causes vegetables to cook unevenly.

Freezing fine-tuned

Freezing vegetables creates several processing challenges. Frozen vegetables must have the freshest flavor possible, good color and pleasant texture, all of which can be negatively affected by freezing.

We do a minimal blanch to inactivate enzymes that would cause flavor and color deterioration over time, says Kim Claggett, R&D manager, NORPAC Foods, Lake Oswego, OR. And then we do a quick freeze for best vegetable texture.

Slow freezing and slow thawing, Claggett explains, maximize cell damage, resulting in poor texture and excess free water. Starchy vegetables like peas, corn and winter squash hold up much better upon thawing than higher-moisture vegetables like zucchini, onion and peppers. As much as possible, we formulate sauces around the vegetable thaw characteristics, she adds. A properly formulated sauce can pick up free moisture so the finished product isnt too watery.

For frozen vegetables, a lot depends on storage conditions once it leaves the factory. The American Frozen Food Institute, McLean, VA, stresses the critical need for temperature control throughout the distribution channel.

Our storage rooms hold product at below -10°F with relatively little fluctuation, and our totes of vegetables are well-covered to prevent problems with dehydration, says Claggett. When vegetables are repackaged for various market segments, we take care to minimize their exposure to ambient temperatures.

Temperature changes and/or exposure to a frozen, low-moisture atmosphere can cause freezer burn, dehydration and oxidation that causes the white spots on poorly stored frozen vegetables, and the formation of ice crystals that destroy the texture. Its critical that packaging maintains the products moisture during storage. Vegetables that are individually quick-frozen (IQF) maintain their integrity when heated better than conventionally block-frozen vegetables. A relatively new technology where sauces and spices can be sprayed onto IQF vegetables is poised to create a whole new generation of vegetable products.

Frozen foods are not only convenient, but also a nutritious choice. Research has shown that exclusively focusing on fresh vegetables as the best choice for vegetable consumption may exclude the nutritional benefit of frozen vegetables. In one study, published in Food Chemistry (1998; 62:59-64) found that frozen vegetables, such as green beans, sweet corn and peas, contain similar levels of vitamin C, fiber, magnesium, and potassium as fresh vegetables. Although the study found that freshly picked vegetables remain the nutrient leaders, with prolonged storage, substantial nutrient degradation occurs in fresh vegetables, even with refrigeration. For example, vitamin C losses for some fresh vegetables when stored in the refrigerator for several days were greater than that of vegetables stored in the freezer. Freezing vegetables locks in important vitamins and stops the nutrient loss that can occur in fresh vegetables over time.

A rainbow of variety

Nature has given us an amazing rainbow of vegetables, and food companies are doing their best to put together appealing combinations. There are vegetable combinations in both retail and foodservice channels like never beforefresh and frozen, mixed with grains and beans, flavored and saucedall of which help create appealing and convenient vegetable sides.

On the fresh side are precut vegetables in every form imaginable: hand-carved shapes, shreds, julienned, diced, cubed and chipped. Shredded broccoli is one newer retail product that utilizes the stalk of the broccoli plant, which often goes to waste.

One of the newest products is fresh vegetables packaged in microwavable bowls with dairy-based sauces formed into cheese-like shreds that melt during cooking. No preparation is necessary, and cooking is complete in three minutes or less in the microwave. The packaging uses a steam-valve cooking system that allows the steam to escape and the water-soluble nutrients to stay in the product instead of draining off in cooking water.

Fresh vegetables can be packaged in microwavable pouches both with and without sauce: stir-fry vegetables sized for quick sauté with a sauce packet inside; and vegetables with seasonings and sauces in aluminum foil trays ready for the grill. In the frozen case, vegetables also come in steamable packages.

Some of the difficulties processors encounter with such products is differing cooking times for various vegetables. Cooking vegetables together in a microwavable package can result in uneven cooking. For vegetable blends, cutting different varieties in sizes that correspond to cooking time helps remedy the problem. Some vegetables are forgiving. Potatoes, for example, do not easily overcook. But broccoli can easily become mushy.

Specialized components are available to meet manufacturers needs. We supply a lot of oven-roasted whole garlic which has the bite taken out of it through roasting; oven-roasted tomatoes for Italian vegetable side dishes; and fire-roasted corn, which will give a cooked, roasted note to side dishes, says Dave DeGraff, IQF product line manager, Van Drunen Farms, Momence, IL. Our clients often ask for freeze-dried chives and green onion for frozen products.

Fresh-cut vegetables in myriad forms also offer foodservice operators a way to cut down on labor. Processed fresh onions, for example, come diced, in rings, whole and peeled, ready-to-bloom, stir-fry and slivered. Onions also come in IQF form: diced, in rings or strips. Occasionally, customers will ask for partially heated and partially cooked onions. Sometimes they want the onion flavor without having the onion chunk in a sauce, so if it comes to them partially cooked, it easily falls apart in the cooking process, says Kim Reddin, industry and public relations director, National Onion Association, Greeley, CO.

The most popular trends in vegetable sauces and seasonings tend toward safe flavors like butter, cheese and garlic. However, there is interest in more interesting flavors: Mesquite and chili flavorings are prime examples, pointing to the popularity of Mexican and Southwestern flavors. Italian flavors like pesto, Asiago cheese and garlic show up in many vegetable blends. Asian flavor profiles also have a following, especially stir-fry blends with flavors like ginger, sweet and sour, and teriyaki. Some of the newest products include vegetables blended with various rice varieties (white, brown, red, wild) Kamut wheat, couscous and quinoa.

Nancy Backas is a Chicago-based freelance writer and chef. She has been writing about food and the foodservice industry for more than 20 years and can be reached at [email protected].

Impending Food Safety Act

Food safety has been an enormous concern in the last decade. We have seen foodborne-illness outbreaks increase, and many of these outbreaks have been associated with vegetables. Lawmakers have taken this to heart, introducing new bills designed to plug holes in the food safety net.

The latest pending legislation, called the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 and released on May 29, would give FDA the authorities and resources it needs to better ensure the safety of the nations food supply, according to a report by the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

However, the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., is concerned. An early review of the draft shows many challenges for the food industry in general, with significant user fees for food facilities and importers, inflexible and difficult traceability provisions, a new country of origin labeling requirement for food ingredients, and the ability for FDA to quarantine geographic regions based on outbreak information, notes the organization in a prepared statement.

While farmers and processors alike agree food safety is critically important, there is much disagreement on what standards should be in place. There are questions as to whether farmers should be held to the same standards as handlers and processors, and if the increased cost of time and money is worth it.

For their part, processors and handlers are kept to strict guidelines, with microbiology labs onsite to check microbial levels and food-safety procedural programs like HACCP.

Younger Generation Eating Fewer Veggies

According to an Aug. 2009 USDA-ERS report, Younger Consumers Exhibit Less Demand for Fresh Vegetables, demand for fresh vegetables for at-home consumption may slow because people born more recently spend less money for fresh vegetables than older Americans. Unless something happens to alter how younger consumers make food choices, notes ERS, they will likely exhibit lower demand for at-home fresh vegetables in their later years than todays older generations.

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