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Frozen finds: a survey of light meals.

Frozen Finds: A Survey of Light Meals

They're well-educated, well-to-do, and their numbers are growing. The typical frozen entree eater is a college graduate from a household grossing at least $40,000 a year. At home awaits a microwave oven ready to zap that meal in less time than it takes to open the day's mail.

Corporate cooks are tripping over one another trying to please this heat 'n eat set, and the competition has yielded a host of new brands and new items-within-brands. But unlike elsewhere in the supermarket, therehs a revolution going on in the frozen food aisle. There, manufacturers aren't just talking light, they're cooking light.

It all started with Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, the grandaddy of light frozen meals. As recently as 1982, the line offered 10 items; now it features 24. As a slew of competitors jumped into the fray, the fat levels kept dropping. The new Benihana Lites make Lean Cuisine look greasy, averaging half as much fat per serving.

Below we highlight the lower-fat selections in the frozen meal aisle, ignoring the old-fashioned, fat-laden fare of the Fifties, such as Swanson's 4-Compartment Dinners and Banquet Family Entrees. We also skip their Eighties reincarnations, typified by Le Menu's regular line and Armour's Dinner Classics. (For comparison, however, these are included in the chart.) It's goodbye salisbury steak, hello flounder vin blanc; goodbye fried chicken, hello shrimp primavera.

Benihana. When it comes to fat, no one undercuts Benihana's Lite line. From Shrimp in Spicy Garlic Sauce to Roast Pork and Mushrooms, none of these oriental dishes get more than 25 percent of their calories from fat. Most, in fact, are under 15 percent. With two exceptions, the entrees in Benihana's Classic line also stay below the 25 percent mark, with most under 20 percent. Only Beef Szechuan and Roast Pork Lo Mein are fattier.

Despite its success in the fat department, Benihana isn't perfect. Its Achilles' heel is sodium, which hovers around the 1,200 milligram mark, and in one case -- Shrimp and Cashews -- hits 2,000 mg! That's an enormous quantity of sodium for what is really a 300-calorie "mini-meal." By the time you consume a day's worth of calories nsay 1,600 to 2,400), you're virtually guaranteed to overshoot the 1,100 to 3,300 mg of sodium recommended for a whole day.

Light & Elecgant. Elegance is in the eye of the eater, but these entrees are clearly light. Except for the Chicken with Cheese Sauce, each gets less than 30 percent of calories from fat. But the sodium levels aren't what you'd call low: Only the Beef Teriyaki, Chicken Parmigiana, and Glazed Chicken have less than 700 mg per serving.

Like many entrees (as opposed to full-scale dinners) most of Light & Elegant's line provides less than 25 percent of the USRDA for vitamins A and C, nutrients that usually come from vegetables. Supplement these and other entrees with orange or green leafy vegetables, such as winter squash and broccoli (but not summer squash or iceberg lettuce).

Armour Classic Lites. Why anyone buys Armour's standard Dinner Classics when they could choose Armour Classic Lites is a mystery. Even the light-sounding Turkey with Dressing from the Dinner Classic line is 38 percent fat.

All items in the Lite line get less than 30 percent of calories from fat and most provide more than 25 percent of the USRDA for vitamins A and C. Sodium levels are too high. The Seafood with Natural Herbs, for example, should have been called "Seafood with Salt." Thanks to the imitation shellfidh made from surimi, it packs 1,400 mg of sodium.

Le Menu Light Style. Consider the choices: You could buy Chicken Kiev from Le Menu's regular line and get as much fat as a Burger King Whopper (9 teaspoons). Or you could choose Glazed Chicken Breast from Le Menu's Light Style line and get only 1 teaspoon of fat. All of the Light Style dinners get less than 30 percent of their calories from fat. Almost all of the regular line is over 30 percent fat.

The Light Style line deserves credit for lower-than-usual sodium levels -- 580 to 810 mg. Good news for pocketbooks: Le Menu's owner, Campbell Soup Company, is cutting prices to make its line more competitive.

Mrs. Paul's Light Seafood Entrees. Mrs. Paul's (also owned by Campbell) Light entrees aren't universally lean. The Fish & Pasta Florentine is 34 percent fat and the Fish Dijon and Fish Mornay are well over 40 percent fat. But the rest of the line is under 30 percent, and the shrimp dishes are under 20.

You'll need to get your vitamins A and C, but not your salt, from other foods. Sodium levels (all in the 550 to 990 mg range.

Chun King Boil-In-Bag. Chinese food is no friend to fat. Cjun King's Beef Pepper Oriental and Chunky Walnut Chicken hover around 30 percent. The rest of the line is about 20 percent or below.

But food manufacturers can't seem to cook Asian fare without soaking it in sodium. None of these dishes drops below the 1,000 mg mark.

Stouffer's Lean Cuisine. Despite its reputation, Lean Cuisine is one of the fattiest light lines. Granted, Stouffer's regular entrees are far worse, with more than twice as much fat in an average serving. Still, it's surprising to see that about half of the Lean Cuisine line gets 30 percent or more of its calories from fat. Maybe success has spoiled this leader. In the smaller, 1982 line, only one item was more than 30 percent fat.

As usual, sodium abounds. Only Chicken a L'Orange with Rice dips below the 700 mg mark.

Not-So-Light. Despite the name, most of Budget Gourmet's Slim Select entrees fall between 31 and 37 percent fat. That still beats the regular line, in which many meals top 40 percent.

Only six Budget Gourmet dishes et less than 30 percent of their calories from fat: Sweet & Sour Chicken with Rice, Pepper Steak with Rice, Oriental Beef, Mandarin Chicken, Sliced Turkey Breast, and Scallops & Shrimp Mariner.

Despite the name, all but eight of Weight Watchers dinners contain more than 30 percent fat. If it's not Imperial Chicken, Sweet & Sour Chicken, chicken Cacciatore, Chicken a la King, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Fillet of Fish au Gratin, Lasagna, or Ziti Macaroni, it's downright fatty.

Legume Light & Natural Tofu Entrees are not as light as many others. Only three (Sesame Ginger Stir Fry, Tofu Tetrazzini, and Tofu Bourguignon) get less than 30 percent of their calories from fat. On the other hand, Legume's dishes deserve credit for being low in saturated fat, remarkably low in sodium (410 mg or less), high in vitamins A and C, and for including pasta that's partially whole grain. Overall, Legune entrees are still a good bet.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Title Annotation:includes related information; low-calorie frozen dinners
Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jan 1, 1988
Previous Article:1988's supermarket shopping quiz.
Next Article:Breast cancer.

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