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January 13, 2003
Volume 81, Number 2
CENEAR 81 2 p. 43
ISSN 0009-2347


CHEMICAL LANDMARK
PRESERVING FROZEN FOOD ADVANCES
ACS recognizes efforts of USDA scientists to freeze foods and keep taste intact

ELIZABETH WILSON

Sing praises to the modern frozen pea, bright green, sweet, and nutritious, for in the early half of the 20th century things were quite different. The pre-World War II frozen pea was often encased with its siblings in a lump of ice, turning a pallid gray as its flavor, texture, and vitamins deteriorated.

It's no wonder that Americans back then actually preferred canned peas.

Mushy strawberries, limp beans, rancid poultry--all of them plagued the struggling U.S. frozen food industry. That is, until 1948, when the Department of Agriculture stepped in with an array of temperature-controlled freezers, an army of tasters, and a cadre of chemists.

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EYEING THE PRIZE Seiber (from left), Brown, Betschart, and Pavlath celebrate advances in freezing foods at the newest National Historic Chemical Landmark.
PHOTO BY ELIZABETH WILSON


Over a period of 17 years, scientists at USDA's Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) in Albany, Calif., discovered how to keep frozen foods stable and fresh-tasting--with nutrients intact. The industry roared to life, going from $500 million in 1950 to $68 billion in 1999.

For this groundbreaking research, the American Chemical Society has designated the USDA WRRC a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Since 1992, the program has designated 44 sites around the world as chemical landmarks, which mark seminal events, people, and places in the history of chemistry, including the home of Joseph Priestley and the National Institute of Standards & Technology.

In a ceremony on Dec. 11, 2002, ACS honored the frozen food research, known as the Time-Temperature Tolerance Studies, with a plaque that lauded "the discovery of the chemical changes occurring as frozen food went from the farm to the dinner table," and the "freezing protocols, analytical techniques, and food handling and storage recommendations ... that led to the superior flavor, texture, and appearance of today's frozen food."

Attila E. Pavlath, then immediate past ACS president, presented the award, which USDA WRRC Director James N. Seiber accepted.

On hand to give brief addresses were Antoinette A. Betschart, director of the USDA's Pacific West Area; Rodney J. Brown, USDA's deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics; and L. Frank Flora, national program leader of USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

The Time-Temperature Tolerance scientists established how much frozen foods could vary from their ideal temperature of 0 ºF, and for how long before their quality suffered. In addition, they developed gas chromatography techniques for measuring chemical compounds that caused rancidity and other nasty flavors.

The researchers also developed a simple assay for peroxidase, an enzyme thought to degrade frozen foods and to be deactivated by blanching. They then learned that other enzymes, such as catalase and lipoxygenase, also affect quality and in some cases are even more important than peroxidase.

And 54 years later, the industry whose production dropped 87% between 1946 and 1947 now employs a workforce of 2 million, has a warehouse capacity of 3 billion cubic feet, and accounts for about $5 billion in food exports--a quarter of the U.S. total.

As Brown said, "My, we've come a long way."



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