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Can America eat itself to good health? Packers see fat profits in thin foods.

Can America Eat Itself to Good Health? Packers See Fat Profits in Thin Foods But just what is wholesome nowadays, anyway? High on the list is almost anything low. Beware of apples, some sensationalists say, as the sweet red fruit hasn't been as suspect since Eve's day. Then there's the modern Grapes of Wrath saga...All so very confusing.

With much of American society on a health kick these days, food processors are being jogged into re-thinking product line formulations. And lo and behold, it's low everything that seems to be fetching high prices at the checkout counter. Strolling through just about any supermarket, it is hard to miss the barrage of foodfare touting low calories, low fat, low cholesterol and low sodium.

Even brewers, vintners and distillers are getting into the act, pouring low-alcohol beer, wine and spirits to an increasingly sober public. And of course, cigarette makers have been pushing consumer hot buttons for years with product claims of low tar and low nicotine.

Farewell Age of Aquarius; this is the dawning of the Age of New Temperance!

"America's interest in foods has changed radically over the past 15 years," said Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Back in the 1970s, anyone who whispered that whole wheat bread, yogurt and skim milk offered health benefits was dismissed as a `health food nut.' No more."

With contemporary demographic realities painting the United States gray, an aging population has been weaned from the carefree, "live for today" lifestyles of the go-go 1960s and '70s. But the maturing baby boomers have not forgotten some of the slogans of yesteryear chic, especially the one that declared: You are what you eat.

And if the sags, wrinkles, aches and pains of approaching middle age are not reminders enough to prompt re-examination of one's supermarket shopping list, then maybe proclamations from the U.S. Surgeon General and other government health officials are.

"They've all said that our diet is pathogenic," summed up Jacobson, "that it's contributing to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and probably even certain types of cancer. Those diseases account for about one out of three deaths a year."

The calls for better nutrition have been heeded by millions of people, and food industry leaders have been responding. Here are some examples:

. ConAgra has introduced a 10-recipe line of frozen dinners called Healthy Choice. Its packaging contains recommendations for daily intake of sodium, fat and cholesterol, while also explaining how the product stacks up against those guidelines.

. McDonald's and other fast food restaurant chains are doing less frying in saturated beef fat and coconut oil. In addition, menus have been supplemented to feature salads and baked potatoes.

. No-cholesterol items like Egg Beaters With Cheese from Fleischmann's and Tofutti's Egg Watchers have been formulated.

. Pillsbury, Lance, Frito Lay and other companies have switched from using palm-, palm kernel-and coconut oil to alternative oils that are much lower in saturated fats.

While a case can be made that a number of food processors have been opportunistic in extolling product health claims that are not fully documented (i.e. eat a certain brand of high fiber breakfast cereal and avoid getting cancer), others have been very straight-forward about the limitations of their offerings.

The Healthy Choice pack, for instance, clearly spells out that it is no remedy or cure for what ails you. Nonetheless, said ConAgra Chairman Charles M. Harper, "This is not just for heart attack victims, this is food for people to stay healthy."

Harper, who was himself the victim of a heart attack three years ago, has been a major force behind the creation of the line. "Sodium I used to love dearly," he said, adding that a mixture of non-salt flavorings has succeeded in making Healthy Choice a palatable choice as well. "To make it taste good--that was the toughest thing..."

Of course, manufacturing healthier meals is not altogether an altruistic endeavor. The low calorie category, which has seen sales grow rapidly over the past five years, is estimated to now be worth some $1.5 billion.

The Healthy Choice recipe was created to meet the dietary recommendations of the American Heart Association. Its Chicken Parmigiana dinner contains 290 calories, 65 milligrams of cholesterol and 320 milligrams of sodium. Only 15% of its calories are derived from fat, and an additional 6% come from saturated fat.

In comparison, a like product offered by a competitor has 380 calories (43% of which comes from fat), and 890 milligrams of sodium. Breakouts on saturated fat and cholesterol levels were not available.

But while the mega-manufacturers like ConAgra (which boasts annual sales of some $10 billion) are reformulating traditional meals popular in mainstream America, the more orthodox health food recipes are also finding their way into the frozen food case thanks to small entrepreneurs. In addition to natural pizza products and tofu, non-meat burgers are being packed from coast to coast.

Gardenburgers from Wholesome & Hearty Foods, Portland, Ore., are among the latest joining the parade of substitutes. Back east, Amana's Restaurant in Providence, R.I., has rolled out -- what else -- Amana Burgers. A bit pricey at $3 per box of four quarter-pound patties, comparison shoppers will note that it's more expensive than real beef. The ingredients are all of the "good for you" variety: wheat, carrots, peanuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, green peppers, onions, tamari, garlic and water.

Revolutionary `Naturalean'?

For those red meat lovers unable to acquire a taste for vegie-burgers, a company from Australia claims to have just what the doctor ordered. Chapman Meats Limited of Mayfield, New South Wales, has licensed a process said to produce 96% fat-free beef, mutton, lamb, pork and chicken. It is further claimed that cholesterol is cut by 30%, and that a hamburger made from "Naturalean" processed ground beef will have half the calories of a similar sized portion of red salmon. And to boot, no proteins, amino acids, vitamins, minerals or essential polyunsaturated fatty acids are lost in the process.

The details of Chapman's fat separation technique are proprietary. However, it is known that meat is first stripped from carcass bones and then finely minced. Next, meat protein is converted into a soluble form. The fats remain insoluble and thus can be efficiently separated. The entire procedure is conducted at temperatures below 2 degrees centigrade, without the aid of chemical solvents or binders.

Advocates of "Naturalean" give it high marks for retaining authentic meat flavor and texture. Sir Gustav Nossal, director of Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, has publicly endorsed the Chapman technique in no uncertain terms:

"It has the potential to revolutionize the eating habits of millions of people around the world. Such products will have a favorable impact on the diet of diabetics and heart patients, as well as encourage better eating habits among ordinary people."

Meanwhile, the search is on for an acceptable fat substitute that imparts the desirable taste of fat savored by many people. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently reviewing the merits of Simplesse -- a fat substitute made from proteins found in egg whites and milk, which are generally recognized as safe. Produced by the NutraSweet Co., it is described as all natural, low in calories and cholesterol-free.

Other promising new ingredients which have yet to be adequately tested, according to consumer watchdog groups, are Olestra and Sunnette. The latter, an artificial sweetener, received FDA approval last year.

The implications for better health resulting from the integration of such ingredients into the food chain are promising.

"Just imagine," said Jacobson, "the cake of the future might be made not just with artificial colorings, flavorings and preservatives, but also with artificial sweeteners, artificial fat, artificial salt, and lots of fluffy cellulose to provide bulk and add some dietary fiber.

"Soon ice cream and sour cream may contain much less fat and calories. They would no longer be junk foods...But there is a small danger that some people will greatly decrease their consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods that provide nutrients not found in ice cream or sour cream."

Fruitless Hysteria

Jacobson's remarks were made prior to the "Chilean Grapes of Wrath" and "Apple-Alar" media assaults which sent shoppers scurrying away from supermarket produce aisles in March. As near panic set in, the director of California's Department of Health Services called the blacklisting of apples from school lunch programs "reactionary and premature." Kenneth W. Kizer stated:

"Our fear is that a toxic bogeyman has been created...When we send a message to our kids that apples aren't safe, what are they going to eat? They're going to eat Twinkies and Zingers."

The controversy was triggered after Alar -- the trade name for daminozide, a chemical used to make apples crisper and more colorful -- was branded as a possible carcinogen by an anti-insecticide lobby calling itself the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). A well-coordinated public relations blitz, which enlisted Hollywood celebrities the likes of actress Meryl Streep, succeeded in creating mass anxiety in the marketplace. Retail stores and bulk buyers such as school districts overturned the proverbial apple cart in their boycotts of a fruit that used to be considered as wholesomely American as, well, mom's apple pie.

The debate flared after a television segment on CBS's "60 Minutes" program aired during late February. Among its messages was that it was incredulous that the Environmental Protection Agency had not banned Alar outright since it had been identified as a suspected cancer-causing agent. It was suggested that the nation's pre-school children were being unnecessarily exposed to the effects of Alar. Reportedly, youngsters consuming large quantities of fruit and fruit juice faced an increased cancer risk.

In reality, Alar has already been phased out of use by most apple growers in the U.S. In Washington State, which accounts for half of the nation's production, no more than 7% of the acreage is sprayed with-the non-pesticide growth regulator which principally acts to keep fruit on trees longer.

Not surprisingly, the International Apple Institute remains steadfast in its belief in the old adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. It was quick to quote scientific experts who have calculated that one would have to consume 28,000 pounds of apples daily for life to attain a dosage level that might induce tumor growth.

The Institute issued a statement calling "completely without basis" any claims that daminozide has been a known carcinogen for 16 years. Dismay was expressed regarding what it called "errors, blatant omissions of key information and pure sensationalism..."

"There is absolutely no imminent health risk in eating apples or apple juice or apple sauce or any other apple product," said Charles St. John, a spokesman for the Washington Apple Commission, which has a grower-financed $14 million annual budget to promote apples worldwide.

Individual growers are also letting their voices be heard: "It's not illegal and not in any way harmful to anybody's health," said Marv Sundquist, co-owner of an orchard near Yakima, Wash. "There are so many other things we consume every day that have so much greater risk than this would have."

The Chilean grape hysteria broke out after FDA inspectors discovered trace levels of cyanide in just two red seedless grapes out of the millions of crates that were in distribution at the time. The dosage was only strong enough, however, to give a small child no more than a tummy ache. Allegedly, fearing a terrorist plot unfolding from leftists seeking to destabilize the regime in Santiago, the U.S. government moved to temporarily halt all Chilean fruit imports. Japan, Canada and a number of European countries followed suit. After it was realized that the scare was much ado about nothing, President George Bush lifted the ban. By then an estimated $240 million worth of good product had been trashed in an episode that threatened to undermine the Chilean economy.

Professorial Perspective

University of California Professor Ronald Steel, who recently returned home after a year abroad, offered some thought for food-fearing Americans. Commenting on what he sees as an extreme national obsession with protection against any form of risk, he found little to admire in today's crop of oat bran-brandishing citizens attempting to eat their way to eternal life.

The academic observed: "Since I've been back I've been warned by eminently respectable newspapers that eating virtually any product made from corn will probably give me liver cancer (via Aflatoxin), that red apples are almost

certainly poisonous, and now I'm told that ingesting just about anything from Chile might well strike me dead... It is enough to make one yearn for a double cheeseburger with French fries and a few Chilean grapes for dessert. That would be a real act of defiance."

Indeed so. But don't forget that just a single cheeseburger is apt to contain 10 to 15 teaspoons of fat. And, according to the Center for Science for the Public Interest, that's enough fat as some people should consume in an entire day.

PHOTO : Tofutti's Egg Watchers is formulated for those who want something scrambled for breakfast

PHOTO : but can't afford raising their cholesterol count. Retail price is $1.99 for two 8-ounce pa

PHOTO : ckages.
COPYRIGHT 1989 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on food and health
Author:Saulnier, John M.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1989
Previous Article:Marketplace knocks notwithstanding, 'fresh guys' are stubborn in defeat.
Next Article:Prof contemplates '2001, a food odyssey': he's seen the future, and it's eat and run.

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