Representative photo: ja ma/Unsplash.
Chennai: A startup called Lean Green – which aims to sell ready-to-cook frozen vegetables in India’s National Capital Region (NCR) – is being led by women in an effort to make India’s currently lopsided farm-to-fork chain a more level playing field. But equally importantly, the startup’s impending birth also points to the under-utilisation of the potential of frozen foods in India to improve access to good nutrition.
Founders Priya Kumar and Aditi Rathore have assigned all key roles in their enterprise to women, and in all, 70% of their employees are women. In addition, Lean Green also pays its farmer-suppliers double the market price, at a time when farmers have been protesting to have the government maintain a minimum sale price. It plans to sell chopped okra, cauliflower, broccoli, garlic, corn and peas grown by around a dozen women farmers near Bagru, Rajasthan. The vegetables are sourced, quality-tested, then chopped, peeled, graded, blanched, frozen, packaged and transported, and later stocked in cold-storage facilities in Delhi.
Kumar and Rathore say they had the idea to launch Lean Green when they saw millennial households in urban India struggle to prepare home-cooked meals during the pandemic, with neither domestic workers nor food-delivery companies for help. And according to them, a market survey they conducted found that 95% of those responsible for preparing cooked meals in households were women.
“Ready-to-cook vegetables are convenient and suited to the new age, busy lifestyle as they save the drudgery of peeling and chopping. They are healthy, hygienically sourced, last for 12-18 months” – a longevity that they hope can help curb waste – “and have to just be stored in the freezer,” Kumar told The Wire. “Unlike traditional bulk freezing methods, [the one we use] involves quick freezing of individual pieces of the product that helps retain nutrition, taste and texture.”
Rathore, who hails from Jaipur, said that the biggest takeaway from their groundwork was that women had a fleeting presence in the frozen-food business.
“The men to women ratio is skewed in both established and small vendor companies. We decided it wasn’t enough that we venture into this industry – that a sustainable and more impactful move to challenge gender dynamics would be to encourage women employment especially in those profiles where they are likely to be underpaid,” Rathore said.
Rathore’s reading was that men and women farmers could perform equally well if the latter had access to the same tools, resources and skills. And as it happens, Rathore and Kumar experienced some of the discrimination firsthand themselves, when they had to deal with the industry’s more important members who mostly belonged to “family-backed male domains”. She said they had trouble convincing stakeholders at factories as well as farmers, and were often quoted “exorbitant rates”, but they persisted.
“Cooking is time-consuming and we want to make the experience breezy for everyone. My father is still sceptical about my solo visits to the factory, located a two-hour drive from the city,” Rathore said.
While Kumar has previously worked in business development and operations in the hospitality industry, Rathore has an MBA from the ESSEC Business School in France, and where she became familiar with ready-to-cook frozen vegetables.
According to Rathore, “This is the first time in the Indian domestic market that pre-chopped, ready-to-cook frozen vegetables are being offered as their only precedents have been peas and corn.”
“The frozen vegetables industry has around five dominant players even as the non-vegetarian sector has several competitors.”
“While the country has readily accepted non-vegetarian frozen food and preservative-laden potato chips in the last decade, the scope for ready-to-cook vegetables hasn’t been adequately explored,” Kumar said. A part of the resistance, she continued, is rooted in an entrenched assumption that frozen vegetables “can neither be fresh nor healthy” – and this she says isn’t true.
Though the Indian frozen food market has been projected to grow at a CAGR of more than 16% from 2018 to 2023, experts say freezing technologies, transport and cold-chain logistics don’t yet have the capacity to mobilise the food chain.
“The first step to address food insecurity is to control waste, and cold storage facilities are the way forward,” Eram S. Rao, an associate professor in the department of food technology, Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences, University of Delhi, told The Wire. “India is the second largest producer of vegetables and fruits, yet we process only 5-6% of it.We are behind even smaller countries like Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia.”
Rao vouched for freezing technologies, especially cryogenic freezing, and said that micro, small and medium enterprises could take advantage of them as long as they follow the standard operating procedures, “hygiene and manufacturing protocols laid down by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India”.
Instead, Rao continued, most companies these days skip freezing spices and condiments before they are ground, and as a result volatile compounds are lost. “The other important aspect is robust packaging that prevents spoilage, contamination and ensures safe storage. Finally, timely transportation from the farm to the consumer’s table is crucial,” she added. “A major roadblock is the massive trust deficit when it comes to frozen food.”
Dos and don’ts of frozen foods
But the roadblocks aren’t to be sneezed at. “Freezing does not kill microorganisms but puts them in a state of suspended growth and activity,” according to Rao. As a result, this state needs to be maintained — which in turn needs a sustained power supply. “The blunders usually happen at dairy stores, where shopkeepers tend to turn off refrigerators in the night to save electricity.”
Some others also turn up the refrigerator temperature in winter, allowing microbes to resume growing and putting food products like ice creams at risk of contamination by Escherichia coli bacteria. But over the years, many frozen-food manufacturers have caught up, with help from technology, to ensure the produce is frozen at its peak nutritional value and ripeness.
Contrary to a popular misconception that packaged foods are laden with preservatives, it’s possible with a combination of technologies and science to freeze vegetables without additives. “One must scrutinise the ingredient label of a package and if preservatives, artificial flavours or food colours, among other chemicals, find mention,” Rao said, “steer clear.”
According to a study comparing the nutritional value of fresh, frozen and canned vegetables, published in 2007, spinach loses 100% of its vitamin C content in seven days when stored at 20º C, 75% when refrigerated and 30% when frozen. Carrots, on the other hand, lose only 27% of their vitamin C content when stored for a week at room temperature. Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-Davis and the Frozen Food Foundation, revealed that the nutritional value of water-soluble vitamins – B2 and C – in frozen vegetables was the same or sometimes more than their fresh counterparts.
Ishi Khosla, a clinical nutritionist in New Delhi, said that once food thaws, it should be cooked thoroughly and not refrozen. “The produce is most nutritious when it is harvested, and from then, there is a progressive loss of nutrition,” she told The Wire. “Freezing does slow the process of degradation of nutrition.”
She also admitted there’s a marginal decline in nutritional value once a food is frozen, and that it varies. Produce that’s frozen to preserve its protein, carbohydrate, fat and vitamin content could, say, instead lose its phytonutrients and antioxidants. If customers are particular about colour and texture, the produce will have to be blanched before freezing to inactivate unwanted enzyme action. However, blanching leads to nutrition loss.
Finally, the importance of time and convenience also make frozen vegetables better than processed foods. Fresh foods are only marginally better than their frozen counterparts, according to Khosla, and in fact have an advantage when it’s hard to ensure fresh food is stored properly. “Instead of relying solely on frozen vegetables, they can be sensibly used as adjunct to fresh produce, whenever necessary,” Khosla said.
“If fresh isn’t available, frozen is a viable alternative. The principle should be to consume a diverse diet that is fresh, seasonal, local and organic to get nutrition on a consistent basis.” And during a pandemic, “the consumption of greens is far more important and vegetables in any format are better than none at all.”
Nalini Ravichandran is based in Chennai and has written for The Wire, Mongabay India and Culturico. Previously, she was with The New Indian Express, Chennai, and Mail Today, New Delhi.