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Frozen promises.

Watch out, Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, Smart Ones. A growing number of "natural" or "organic" frozen-dinner lines are moving into your territory, and not just in natural food stores. They're also in the supermarket, sandwiched between the Stouffer's and the Swansons.

Are consumers better off with these healthy-sounding alternatives? Not necessarily. Here's a quick, line-by-line guide to help you size up the "greener" frozen dinners, as well as South Beach and other freezer-case fare for dieters.

Don't Let It Be

"Wholesome. All Natural. Delicious," say boxes of Linda McCartney meatless meals.

It's not clear what makes these dishes "natural." Some of their ingredients (like xanthan gum, wheat maltodextrin, yeast extract, whey protein, and dextrose) sound like the same not-in-your-pantry additives that you'd find in any frozen dinner. The grains--rice or pasta--are refined in six out of the eight entrees. And the lack of preservatives is nothing special for frozen foods, since freezing prevents spoilage.

And don't assume that "wholesome" is a synonym for "healthy." Two of Linda's dinners have 6 or 7 grams of saturated fat (a third of a day's worth). The Macaroni & Cheese hits 11 grams. And while the Fire-Grilled Vegetarian Chicken & Vegetables and Portabello Mushroom Barley Pilau are low in sat fat, each has more than 900 mg of sodium (more than a third of a day's limit). That's hardly "wholesome."

Worst of all are the Cheese Enchiladas with Mexican Style Corn Risotto. At first glance, it looks like you're getting 250 calories, 6 grams of sat fat, and 570 mg of sodium. Look again. That's for one enchilada plus half the risotto. Eat both enchiladas and the whole side dish and you've downed the equivalent of a Big Mac.

Whole Lotta Bad Stuff

Some people mistakenly assume that anything sold under the Whole Foods roof is healthful. Oops.

Its Whole Kitchen line of frozen meals may have no artificial flavors or colors, but beyond that it's a crap shoot.

The Chana Masala, Mattar Paneer, Aloo Ghobi, and Pad Thai with Tofu, for example, live up to the chain's reputation. In contrast, the (600-calorie) Butter Chicken and the (720-calorie) Thai Red Curry with Shrimp each has about half a day's sat fat. And the Vegetarian Teriyaki hits 2,130 mg of sodium.

The other Whole Foods store brand, 365 Organic, ought to be called 365 Cheese. The Cheese Lasagna and Cheese Cannelloni each has more than half a day's sat fat, while the Vegetable Lasagna and Macaroni and Cheese aren't far behind. And the Cheese Cannelloni and Vegetable Lasagna approach half a day's sodium.

When it comes to frozen entrees, Whole Foods' store brands are closer to Whole Day's Worth of Sat Fat or Salt.

Salt Beach Diet

Arthur Agatston, the cardiologist who wrote The South Beach Diet, had the right idea when he advised dieters to limit bad fats and bad carbs. But he missed the message on salt, the nation's number-one blood pressure booster.

Why else would he allow Kraft to squeeze roughly 1,000 mg of sodium into each South Beach Diet entree? Since most people need around 2,000 calories a day, blowing 1,000 mg of sodium on a 250-to-350-calorie entree is likely to send even careful dieters over a day's sodium limit (1,500 mg if you're middle-aged or older and 2,400 mg if you're younger).

It's not as though dieters need the salt. Recipes in The South Beach Diet book aren't loaded with it. And competitors like Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, and Smart Ones typically stay well under 1,000 mg. Until Kraft does, walk on by. And don't stop until you've also passed Life Choice, another lower-carb line. It curbs carbs but lets salt and sat fat get out of hand.

Deadwood

Organic is good. Vegetarian is good. But Moosewood's line of organic vegetarian entrees needs some work.

While four of the seven varieties--the Spicy Penne Puttanesca, Pasta e Fagioli, Moroccan Stew, and Southwest Cornbread & Red Beans--don't go overboard on saturated fat, the other three are weighed down by butter, cheese, and cream cheese.

Who needs a 390-calorie Macaroni & Three Cheeses that dispatches 8 grams--40 percent of a day's worth--of sat fat to your vegetarian arteries? It's a Quarter Pounder in drag.

Fairfield Farm Kitchens makes both Moosewood and Organic Classics (think of it as a non-vegetarian Moosewood). The good news: if an Organic Classics dish is low in saturated fat and/or sodium, the front of the package will say so. The bad news: only three of its nine varieties are.

Needs a Change

"With our certified organic foods, everything is grown without conventional chemical fertilizers or pesticides," say the Seeds of Change packages. "So all we do is healthy for you as well as the planet."

We can't speak for the planet, but it's hard to see what'so healthy about getting roughly half a day's saturated fat from a bowl of Creamy Spinach Lasagna, Macaroni & Cheese, Mushroom Wild Pilaf, or Seven Grain Pilaf.

A few Seeds of Change dishes are low in sat fat. But only one--the Teriyaki Stir-Fried Rice--keeps both sat fat and sodium under wraps. Looks like Seeds of Change needs a change.

Lane Violation

Cedarlane is here to help you with your lower carb lifestyle!" says the company's Web site.

The help comes as seven "Carb Buster" entrees. "Artery buster" is more like it. The Chili Relleno Pie, Four Cheese Quiche, Spinach and Feta Enchiladas, and Vegetable Lasagna each helps in the form of roughly 500 calories and a day's worth of saturated fat (about 20 grams). Thank goodness the low-carb craze is losing steam.

Cedarlane's regular line has its own issues. The Low Fat Garden Vegetable Lasagna and Three Layer Enchilada Pie list only about 200 calories, 2 or 3 grams of sat fat, and less than 600 mg of sodium on their Nutrition Facts panels.

But those numbers apply to only half of the petite 10-ounce box, which is clearly meant for one person. That's legal, since the FDA allows companies to use a 5-ounce serving for "mixed foods not measurable with a cup." Still, Stouffer's, Lean Cuisine, and Smart Ones give numbers for their entire 10-ounce packages of lasagna, which they say are one serving.

Is Cedarlane hoping no one will notice that its labels' numbers apply to just four or five mouthfuls?
COPYRIGHT 2005 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL FEATURE
Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:1053
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