Frozen Ready Made Meals: environmental and social impacts
The environmental impact of frozen meals is dependent on multiple factors which mainly include the ingredients, the agricultural practices used and their provenance. Although few studies exist illustrating the life cycle impact of solely frozen meals, one particular study has analysed the life cycle of ready-made meals (which includes chilled and frozen meals). The study finds that, generally, ready-made meals are worse than homemade meals across 10 out of 11 environmental factors. However, it does note that homemade meals will incur more waste considering the relative lack of storage stages across their life cycles.
The most important factors impacting the global warming potential of ready-made meals are the cooking methods used by consumers and their refrigeration at retailers. For instance, frozen meals which are oven cooked have a 6 times more global warming potential than microwaved chilled ready-made meals. On the other hand, the refrigeration of chilled meals has a larger impact than the freezing of frozen meals. This is because retailers have open refrigerators for chilled meals instead of the closed display cabinets used for frozen meals; this means open refrigerators have more refrigerant consumption and leakage.
The ingredients also incur their own environmental impacts, although these depend on the agricultural practices used to cultivate the ingredients, as well as the transportation of these ingredients to the manufacturing sites. Some have argued that fresh products tend to require air freight for transportation whereas frozen products can be shipped, which is less carbon intensive than air travel.
The health impact of frozen meals depends on the ingredients used as well as the level of processing. While vegetables may simply be cleaned and cut before being frozen and sold in bags, other foods can be more processed and will, therefore, contain unhealthy additives and preservatives. Additives such as salt and fat can help make food safer for consumption and preservatives will help increase shelf life. However, regularly consuming ultra-processed frozen meals can lead to obesity and related health issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, one study demonstrated that a 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in diets could lead to a 12% increased risk of cancer. Finally, the packaging used, specifically plastic packaging, can include endocrine-disrupting chemicals, like BPA, that leach into the meals.