by Kathy Humiston, Newsletter Writer
The words “convenience foods” conjure many different things for different people—everyday food, special treat, junk food or occasional kitchen lifesaver. Beginning in the mid-20th century, packaged, prepared foods exploded on the American grocery scene, but their origins date back much further. Did you know Jell-O was invented in 1897? Campbell’s introduced its tomato soup in 1932 and Kraft brought us the boxed “Kraft Dinner” in 1937 for a mere 19¢. Following World War II, the technology was in place to produce such items more cheaply for general consumption, and with the advent of television advertising, the race for America’s freezer and pantry space was on. In 1954, the C.A. Swanson Co. rolled out the first frozen, multi-item TV dinner, selling it for 98¢.
The typical American grocery store today carries at least 15,000-25,000 items, and a large percentage could be classified as convenience products—something that is ready to eat out of the package or within 30 minutes. These products are found in every aisle, and there is something designed to appeal to everyone. Over the past few decades, however, our lifestyles have changed radically and many of these products have become problematic. Most of us are far more sedentary than our ancestors and daily consume at least as many calories as they did. We work longer hours, often at a computer, and our leisure time is frequently spent in front of a television screen. Instead of regular meals of wholesome, home-cooked food, today we can reach for a can, box or frozen entrée and eat on the couch, in the car or anywhere we choose. Convenience foods can have particular appeal to single folks or small households—sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth the effort of cooking “real food” for only one or two.
Paying the price
We pay for convenience foods in many ways once we’ve passed the cash register though. Most of these products provide less than optimal nutrition; high sodium and fat contents, low fiber, and lots of empty sugar calories are the typical profile. Many are loaded with preservatives, fillers and artificial colors and flavors. Coupled with our relative inactivity, convenience foods can be part of a recipe for major health problems. The recent increase in our population of conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease can be linked directly to factors like diet and exercise. These problems have become prevalent among children as well as adults.
Is there such a thing as healthy convenience food?
So is it possible to eat convenience foods and eat well? Or at least not disastrously? The answer is a qualified yes. Healthy convenience food can be found—and shopping at the
Co-op is the first step in the right direction.
The definition of healthy
What is healthy food? The FDA definition for labeling a food as “healthy” requires a product to be low in fats, cholesterol and sodium. Additionally, it must contain ten percent of one or more of the following: Vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber. “Meal-type” products, such as frozen dinners, must have ten percent of two or more nutrients. The sodium content cannot exceed 360mg for an individual food or 480mg for a “meal-type” item. The current recommended dietary allowance for sodium is no more than 2400mg per day—about one teaspoon. This includes sodium found in foods as well as added table salt. To this list of healthy restrictions you might choose to add that a product should contain only recognizable ingredients, no additives or preservatives and be minimally processed to be considered healthy.
Reading the labels
The next step in choosing convenience foods wisely is to become a label-reader. Be sure to check the serving size listed on the label, as well as the number of servings per package. Many of us have been conditioned to supersize our portions without even realizing it. For example, the “little” bag of chips in your lunch may actually contain two or more servings and a 20 oz. soda is really two and one-half servings! Pay attention to the number of calories per serving too. A product containing 300-500 calories per serving is considered a meal; fewer calories constitute a side dish or snack.
There are some ingredients to watch out for when checking labels. Cottonseed and palm kernel oil are widely used in convenience foods and notoriously unhealthy. Be aware also of partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats. Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose and other refined sweeteners can contribute to the development of diabetes. It is wise to avoid refined white flour and cornstarch for the same reason. Select products that do not contain artificial colors, sweeteners or preservatives.
Fruits and vegetables
The ultimate healthy convenience food is probably a banana or piece of citrus fruit—all you need to do is peel and eat—no utensils, no cooking, no water or other ingredients required. If you are willing to put in a little more effort, the Produce department is a good source of other healthy convenience foods too. Virtually all fruits are eaten raw, requiring a brief scrub and maybe peeling before you can enjoy them. Some, like pineapple, need a little more work but are still quick energy sources. Choose three or more favorites, slice them into a bowl and you have created a convenient fruit salad—no dressing required.
Many vegetables need fairly minimal preparation. Bagged or loose salad mixes benefit from a quick rinse and then are ready to go. Carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers can be peeled or scrubbed and eaten raw. And of course a hot, baked potato can be topped with steamed vegetables, canned chili or other beans and/or cheese to give you have a pretty easy and convenient meal. For the ultimate in convenience, pick your fresh veggies from the salad bar. They will cost a bit more per pound, but you can choose exactly the quantity you need and everything is prewashed and precut, ready for salad, the wok or the steamer.
The deli is a source of many dishes that are ready to eat or require only heating for your enjoyment. The menu includes salads, soups, sandwiches, entrees and more. Here you need to read ingredient labels to get an idea of the probable fat and salt contents of foods. Remember that simpler dishes are usually, but not always, healthier.
There are many whole-grain crackers available that make a great base for nut butters, hummus, or cheese. Try a rye or multi-grain flatbread or whole-wheat Quilt cracker—there are no added fats in these. Whole grain bagels and English muffins toast up warm and delicious and can be topped with a favorite spread too. Pita breads can be used for dips, sandwiches, even pizza! Spread a whole-wheat pita with your favorite marinara or pizza sauce, sprinkle on some shredded cheese, a handful of spinach leaves or any leftover steamed or grilled veggies and pop it into the oven or a medium-hot skillet until everything is hot and the cheese is melted.
Yogurts and cheeses
If you eat dairy products, yogurt or cottage cheese can be a quick meal when you are on the go. Eat them straight from the carton or add some fresh fruit, granola or nuts if you want to embellish. These foods are healthiest when they contain live, beneficial bacterial cultures like lactobacillus acidophilus or other active cultures. Choose a gelatin-free brand with little or no added sugar. Some yogurts are sweetened with maple syrup. Dairy-free soy yogurts are also available. Cheese is often a satisfying food for a snack or as part of a meal. It is high in saturated fat however, so don’t indulge too often and keep the quantity small. Dairy-free cheeses, based on rice or soy, are much lower in fat, but may have a slightly different mouth feel and melting characteristics. In general, an ounce of cheese is considered a serving and is about the size of your thumb.
Eggs are a super-quick source of protein and other essential nutrients that have had some undeserved bad press in the past. Healthy folks can consume eggs a few times per week without worrying about the fat content. Scrambled eggs cook almost faster than the toast that slides onto the plate next to them. If you have a bit more time or energy, sauté some veggies first—onions, garlic, sliced mushrooms and spinach are nice—and mix them into the beaten egg before cooking. Leftover steamed vegetables also fit in here. Old-fashioned fried egg sandwiches are fast and boiled eggs can be cooked in advance and stored in the refrigerator for a few days until you need them.
The Bulk aisle is filled with nuts, seeds, cereals and dried fruits that are instant foods. Dried soup and bean mixes can also be found there, along with pasta, couscous, trail mix and other fast foods. Nutritional information is posted on the bulk bins as producers and distributors make it available to us.
Pasta, whether fresh or dry, cooks up fast and is satisfying. Many prepared pasta sauces are available that contain only tomatoes, other vegetables and spices. Couscous, whether whole wheat or not, is very fast—five minutes of steaming and you’ve got a grain base for dinner. In the packaged grocery aisles you will also find things like canned fruits, vegetables, beans and refried beans, canned and aseptically packaged soups, canned seafood, Thai and Indian specialties, cereals and much more. Many of these products are not bad nutritional choices, but the sodium content varies widely and can be extremely high. There are ready-to-eat treats like cookies and mixes for breads, cakes and brownies too; these will require vigilant label reading to assure a healthy product!
Meat, poultry and
Fresh meat and poultry items require some preparation and cooking time and are generally not thought of as convenience foods. Some quick, frozen poultry items are widely available—breaded nuggets, tenders and burgers. Be sure to check the ingredients; in the mainstream, these items often contain by-products, fillers, and artificial ingredients. If you are shopping for deli sandwich meats, be vigilant, or be sure to buy a product like Applegate Farms, which contain no fillers, nitrates or nitrites, antibiotics or preservatives. Meatless deli slices are also available, but as with sandwich meats, sodium content can be a concern.
Seafood is often a “flash in the pan” meal and can be considered convenient for that reason. A fillet can be pan-sautéed or broiled as fast as a salad is tossed together as a side dish. Eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids a few times a week is thought by the American Heart Association to provide good protection from heart disease. This would include species such as mackerel, sardines, salmon, and anchovies, to name a few. There is some concern regarding environmental contamination in larger species, such as swordfish, tuna and shark. For up-to-the-minute advice on this topic, check out www.oceansalive.org or the Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium at www.mbayaq.org.
The Frozen Food department is where convenience food really reigns. What could be an easier path to a hot dinner than to remove an entrée from the freezer and pop it into the microwave or toaster oven? You can choose from a wide array of multi-item meals, ethnic foods, veggie burgers and other meat substitutes, and ice cream treats as well as plain frozen fruits and vegetables. There is an abundance of frozen potato products for every taste and need, as well as waffles and other breakfast fare. Relatively new in the freezers at Willy Street Co-op are packaged dinner rolls and breads that need only a short time in the oven and will leave the kitchen smelling like your favorite bakery. Frozen foods are also an area where you need to read the label—as with many other types of prepared foods, the sodium content in frozen foods can be quite high.
Finding a balance
It can be a challenge to find convenience foods that shine nutritionally in all areas. In general, if you choose a packaged, prepared food you need to be willing to make a trade-off or two in order to eat healthily. If the sodium content seems high, is it offset by high fiber, protein or another nutrient? If you plan your food for the day in advance, you can make room for a product that has a little higher salt or fat content than you might normally eat. Many convenience products can be used to form the base of a quick and delicious meal. Check out the recipe section of this issue of the Reader for some ideas to get you started. As with all things, moderation with convenience foods is key and it is good to consider food choices over the course of a few days rather than the impact of a single snack or meal.