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The frozen food case.

Meat and potatoes. A generation of Americans ate them, and a generation of companies put them into their frozen meals. Swanson Turkey and Mashed Potatoes. Salisbury Steak. You remember.

June Cleaver would have been embarrassed to serve her family a TV dinner, not because they were loaded with fat and salt (who knew?), but because she wouldn't have wanted anyone to know that she didn't cook them herself.

Well, today the Beaver is in his 40s, he and his wife both work...and neither minds popping a plastic tray into the microwave. But the salisbury steak of his youth has given way to pasta primavera, the fried chicken has become mesquite grilled, and the pot pies have turned into black bean burritos.


We set out to find every frozen entree and dinner that's low in fat and sodium and that has a decent shot of vitamins A and C. We uncovered more than 50.

That's a huge improvement over the old days. But there's a catch. Most of the so-called "dinners" aren't anything of the sort. They've got only 200 to 300 calories--about as much as a fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt or a plain bagel.

Food companies love 'em, since they sell for not much less than higher-calorie meals. But you're better off with a 400-calorie dinner that fills you up with low-fat, healthy food. If you like these lower-calorie meals (snacks, really), make sure you eat an additional serving of whole grains and vegetables with them.

Here's how we picked our "Best Bites":

1. No more than 20 percent of calories from fat. We found 173 of them, many below ten percent of calories from fat. That translates into no more than seven grams of fat in a 300-calorie dinner. We even found two entire lines (Weight Watchers Smart Ones and ConAgra's Life Choice) that averaged less than ten percent of calories from fat.

2. Less than 200 milligrams of sodium per 100 calories. That knocked out more than 100 contenders. One of the worst offenders was Weight Watchers super-low-cal Ultimate 200 line.

3. At least 40 percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances (USRDAs) for vitamins A or C (or A and C combined). The levels of vitamins A and C in a frozen meal are a rough indication of the amount of.vegetables it contains (vitamin A often signals carrots, while C may mean tomato sauce). Except for ConAgra's new Life Choice line, few frozen meals had even a single serving of vegetables.


Best Numbers: Ultra Slim-Fast Mesquite Chicken Best Tasting: Any Tyson Healthy Portion Meal

Most tasted like bad airline food.

But Tyson's pieces of grilled chicken breast were tender and juicy, the (tiny) portion of vegetables was cooked just so, and the rice, pasta, or potatoes tasted homemade.

We can't say the same for any of the others, though. Lean Cuisine fans will be disappointed to hear that only one of its 18 chicken dinners (Sweet and Sour) was low enough in fat and sodium.


Best Numbers: Life Choice Vegetable Enchiladas Best Tasting: Amy's Vegetable Lasagna

Meatless meals don't come with a "healthy" guarantee. Only 12 of 101 vegetarian dishes met our fat, sodium, and vitamin requirements.

The most intriguing line is Life Choice, which was designed for heart attack survivors by ConAgra, the folks who make Healthy Choice. (It's being test marketed in Denver and San Francisco.)

Each meal (they range from 130 to 390 calories) averages just 1 1/2 grams of fat. Yet the two we tried (Vegetable Enchiladas and Black Bean Burrito) had plenty of flavor... and at least a half-cup of vegetables each.

The vegetable (vitamin) requirement knocked out the two macaroni and cheeses (Healthy Choice and Weight Watchers) that were "Best Bite" low in fat and sodium.

The best-tasting vegetarian dish was Amy's Vegetable Lasagna. Not bad for something made with mostly whole wheat pasta.


Best Numbers: Healthy Choice Shrimp Marinara Best Tasting: Healthy Choice

Shrimp Marinara

If seafood is so healthy, why did only three of the 41 meals we looked at qualify for a "Best Bite"?

Because companies like Mrs. Paul's, Gorton's, Oven Poppers, and Booth have taken a terrific food and buried it in fatty and salty sauces. Not a single one of their meals made it to our chart. Oven Poppers Crab Stuffed Sole Dinner, for example, has 26 grams of fat-- more than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

Taste was nothing to drop anchor for, either. Healthy Choice Lemon Pepper Fish somehow managed to take out all of the flavor but leave in the fishy aftertaste.


Best Numbers: Healthy Choice Extra Portion

Fettucini with Beef Best Tasting: None

The meat is always stringy and the sauces are all bland. How bland? Le Menu has to add beef flavor to its Healthy Salisbury Steak.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Brand-Name Comparison
Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Buyers Guide
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:The ultra mega vita guide.
Next Article:The cancer men don't talk about.

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