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Question Who invented frozen food?


Several individuals, but most credit Clarence Birdseye.

USDA scientists flash-freeze and store berries for later evaluation of their suitability as a frozen product. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of course, frozen food has always existed in climates that were cold enough for the food to freeze. Many people developed innovative food-freezing techniques, including Enoch Piper, William Davis, and Daniel E. Somes. However, Clarence Birdseye is credited with inventing in 1924 the quick freezing method, which produces the type of frozen foods that we know today.

While working as a fur trader in Labrador, NF, Canada, Birdseye discovered that the fish that he and the local Inuit caught froze almost immediately after being pulled from the water. He was delighted to discover that the fish was just as delicious when thawed out months later. From this experience, he theorized that food must be frozen very quickly in order for it to retain its taste and texture.

Mrs. Choate and her canned and frozen foods.  Alleghany County, NC, 1978. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Birdseye was right. Before quick-freezing came along, foods were frozen at a fairly slow rate. This caused large ice crystals to form, which ruptured the cell membranes of the food. When the food was defrosted, the ice crystals melted and water would leak out, taking with it the food’s flavor and texture.

Birdseye developed two methods for quick freezing foods, both of which employed the innovation of packaging the food beforehand. In the first technique, the package was held between two metal belts that were chilled to -40°F to -45°F using a calcium chloride solution.

Frozen Food Lockers, San Antonio, Texas. 1982. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In the second and more popular technique, the packaged food was held under pressure between two hollow metal plates that were chilled to -25°F by the evaporation of ammonia. Using this method, a two-inch-thick package of meat could be frozen to 0°F in about 90 minutes, while fruits and vegetables took about 30 minutes.

Birdseye’s quick-freezing process actually ended up creating 168 patents! These covered not only the freezing technique but also the packaging, type of paper used, and related innovations.

Fun Fact: March is National Frozen Food Month!

While mother keeps handy her war ration book two, daughter examines the frozen foods which require removal of point stamps. United States, Office of War Information, 1943. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Published: 11/19/2019. Author: Science Reference Section, Library of Congress

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