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The cost of convenience.

Gobs of unhealthful fat, teaspoons of salt, mounds of sugar. Add artificial flavors and colors and you've got the recipe for many processed foods. In some cases pickles or solid shortening, for example--the very nature of the product demands salt, sugar, or saturated fat. But in others, the bad stuff comes from how we process, transport, and store food.

Food manufacturers aren't trying to hurt us. Many of them would love to market more-healthful foods that would attract health-conscious, convenience-seeking consumers. But companies are constrained by problems imposed by high-volume production, long-distance shipping, long storage periods, and the need to protect their customers from food poisoning. For example:

* Restaurant French fries typically are par-fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil at a processing plant before being frozen and shipped. (Partially hydrogenated oil produces trans fat--a major cause of heart disease.) At most restaurants, the potatoes are fried again in vats of partially hydrogenated oil, because it's cheap and has a long shelf life.

Why not simply switch to trans-free soybean oil, which we might use at home? Because it's rich in linolenic acid, an unstable fat that generates off-flavors when heated to high frying temperatures. And fries destined for restaurants are often shipped long distances and stored for months, which gives the oil greater opportunity to spoil. While some new varieties of soybeans are low in linolenic acid, supplies are still limited. So, at least for now, many restaurants are stuck with partially hydrogenated oil.

* Canned soups are loaded with salt, which increases blood pressure and the risk of heart attack and stroke. Why so much salt? It's a lot cheaper than the flavorful vegetables, chicken, herbs, and spices that you would use at home. Plus, when commercial soups are cooked at a high temperature for a long enough time to kill potentially harmful bacteria, some of the natural flavors evaporate. Salt is a cheap, convenient way to make up for the loss.

* All canned foods are cooked to within an inch of their lives at the packing plant. It's not because companies don't know how to regulate their ovens. Canners need to use a temperature high enough for a long enough time to kill any harmful germs. Out with the heat goes taste.

* People used to pop popcorn in vegetable oil. Now, microwave popcorn is the standard, and (unless it's low-fat) the popcorn is often loaded with solid fat--palm oil or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. That's because a liquid oil would be more likely to go rancid and would soak through the bag.

* Chicken used to consist of, well, chicken. But birds might not taste chickeny enough after being cooked at a high temperature and stored for a long time. That's why, when you get a frozen chicken dinner or chicken breast at a restaurant, the chicken probably has been bathed in a saltwater solution. The result: more taste, more moistness, and a heavy dose of sodium in a food that normally has little. Today, even fresh chicken breasts or whole turkeys from the supermarket often take a saltwater bath.

Fortunately, grocery stores still sell real foods and homes still have real stoves. I'd say it's time to buy basic ingredients, read labels carefully, and take greater control over what we eat.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.

Executive Director

Center for Science in the Public Interest
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:Memo From MFJ; Convenience foods
Author:Jacobson, Michael F.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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