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Shelf-stable meals: cans in drag.

What do you do if you're a canned food manufacturer and your sales are a little slow?

You dress-up your beef stew or your spaghetti and meat balls in a snazzy new high-tech microwaveable plastic container that doesn't need to be refrigerated, you call it a shelf-stable" alternative to a frozen entree, and you sell it in a smaller package for more money.

In less than five years, the product category you've created is generating sales of more than $200 million.

Isn't food marketing fun?

Not if you're the consumer who's paying frozen-entree prices for canned food. And not if the new packaging can make it easier to ingest harmful bacteria.

DOIN' THE CAN-CAN

Who's buying shelf-stable foods? it's probably a mixture of canned-food fans who like the 2- to 3-minute preparation time, parents who want something their kids can throw into the microwave after school, and people who think they're getting a frozen meal that doesn't need to be frozen.

(Some brands, like Chef Boyardee, Lunch Bucket, or Dinty Moore, don't pretend to be anything but glorified cans. Their names or cup-like containers give them away. Others, such as Hormel's Top Shelf, international Lites, and Kraft's impromptu, are packaged to look like frozen foods.)

But no matter how they've been gussied up, all shelf stable products have gone through processing similar to canned foods. After the containers have been filled and sealed in a vacuum chamber, they are sterilized at 250 degrees F in a giant pressure cooker. The result: an oxygen-less product that manufacturers say can be stored safely without refrigeration for 18 months or more.

Chef Boyardee and friends aren't so eager to tell you about the other result of the torturous processing: stringy meat, mushy noodles, mealy potatoes, and limp vegetables. The companies say they pressure cook their shelf-stable products for half as long as their cans, which makes them crispier and fresher. Our taste testers tossed out that explanation after the first bite.

IF THE FAT DON'T GET YA ...

The one good thing about shelf-stable entrees is that you won't necessarily blow your whole day's fat allowance if you eat one.

Several dozen have less than ten grams of fat per serving (which can range from 7 1/2 to 10 1/2 ounces). A handful have less than five grams of fat, and one (Impromptu Lite Chicken & Vegetables) has just one gram.

But we also found ten entrees with more than 15 grams of fat per serving. Top Shelf Beef Ribs weighed in with 22 grams. That means that 44 percent of its 450 calories come from five teaspoons of grease.

... THE SODIUM WILL Why do food processors insist on loading their products with salt?

"It tastes good," says General Foods' Daryl Brewster. "While nutrition is of growing importance:' he adds, "it's still not as important as taste. We are giving people what they've always eaten and what they want."

We found only one entree (Top Shelf Sweet & Sour Chicken) with less than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Some labels don't disclose sodium content, which can be a problem, since many entrees have well over 1,000 mg. international Lites Enchiladas Acapulco weighs in at 1,715 mg. That's more than three times the 500 mg people need for an entire day, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS Worrying about fat and salt is one thing. Botulism is quite another.

"We are very concerned with the new modified packaging," says George Jackson, chief of the Food Microbiology Methods Development Branch at the Food and Drug Administration.

"When food is packaged without oxygen or nitrogen, the organisms that normally signal us when [it] is spoiled are destroyed," he adds.

"Clostridium botulinum [the bacteria that produces the deadly toxin botulism] could grow ... and the consumer could eat it without warning."

Of course, the same is true for any canned food that hasn't been processed properly. (So far, no cases of botulism have been linked to shelf-stable packaging.)

But people have been canning for centuries, while shelf-stable technology is only about three years old. Companies may be more likely to make mistakes with the new packaging.

Also, the lids to the plastic packages don't seem as sturdy as the seams of cans. Any rupture would let air-and bacteria-into the unrefrigerated food.

STAY THE (RIGHT) COURSE _

With low-fat, low-sodium (and botulism-free) frozen foods like Stouffer's Right Course and Con Agra:s Healthy Choice now available nationally, there is little reason to choose the new non-refrigerated microwaveable entrees ... if you're eating at home.

If you bring a week's-worth of meals to a workplace that has no refrigerator, or if you have some other need for real shelf stability, you might consider our one-and-only Best Bite (Top Shelf's Sweet & Sour Chicken) or another entree with fat and sodium numbers you can live with.

But if you ever find yourself becoming too impressed with shelfstable packaging, just remember: Alpo is shelf-stable, too.

The Shelf-stable Shuffle

Our "Best Bites" have no more than 500 mg of sodium and 7 grams of fat per serving. (That usually translates into 30 percent of calories from fat or less.) Our "Worst Bites" have more than 17 grams of fat or 1,500 mg of sodium.

Because shelf-stable foods are so new, manufacturers are constantly re-formulating them, so you can't trust the fat and sodium numbers on the packages. We got our numbers by calling the companies.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Words:906
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