Putting the Chill on Calories Frozen foods packed with promises

January 20, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

They're "light." They're "lean." They're "healthy." But they're also "gourmet," "choice" and "budget." And there are a million of them out there.

They're low-cal, low-fat, low-sodium frozen dinners, and they're one of the hottest areas of competition for consumer dollars in grocery cases these days.

According to FIND/SVP, a New York-based research firm, consumers popped $1.5 billion worth of low-fat, low-cholesterol dinners and entrees into their grocery carts in 1991, the latest year for which figures are available. That's up from $850 million in 1986, and the firm estimates the category will grow to more than $2.4 million by 1996. Of all the frozen dinners and entrees sold, "healthy" items account for nearly a third.

Manufacturers say the new "light" dinners -- no one wants to give them the pejorative label "diet" -- are a response to increasing consumer concerns about health and fitness. And they're truly convenient, with freezer-to-table packaging and two- or three-step instructions.

They're the feel-good, fall-back foods of the '90s.

"Women are too busy to cook anymore," said Lori Wiersema, a registered dietitian who is clinical coordinator of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in East Baltimore. The light dinners are popular because -- even though men are buying them too -- "more women are concerned about their weight, and they generally are the ones who procure the food."

With a plethora of packaged products labeled "light and healthy," "250 calories, and "New dessert!" shopping's a cinch. "They don't have to think about nutrition," Ms. Wiersema said.

But there are all sorts of households where food chores are shared, delegated, or left to the sole devices of a busy young professional or single retiree, and they're also hopping on the light and healthful bandwagon.

In the early days of frozen "TV dinners," said Linda Eatherton, manager of communications for Kraft and its Budget Gourmet Light & Healthy line, the products were intended to be served to every member of the family as they gathered around the television for "You Bet Your Life," or "Ed Sullivan."

"They were principally designed to give the cook a break. But more and more," Ms. Eatherton said, "they're designed to fit individual lifestyles and schedules. You have to understand that the consumers who buy frozen dinners and entrees like them and want them in their diets. It helps them compensate for very busy lifestyles."

Limited fat, sodium, calories

Generally, the meals have fewer than 300 calories, and derive less than 30 percent of them from fat. (Federal dietary guidelines say no more than 30 percent of daily calorie intake should be from fat.) Most products also limit sodium to 800 milligrams or less (the suggested maximum for most people is 2,400 milligrams per day) and cholesterol to 60 milligrams or less (the recommended daily limit is 300 milligrams).

But how do they taste?

Well, Consumer Reports tested 800 frozen meals and entrees in the "light" category, and reports in its current issue: "Most of the tested entrees fell far short of food you might cook yourself, buy at a deli counter, or eat in a good coffee shop."

When The Sun tested more than a dozen "light" frozen meals, we found some that were pretty good --though no one suggested they came close to homemade. But there were also comments like: "Weird, artificial taste," "looks like plastic, no flavor," "horrid," "mushy," "bland," "colorful but rubbery," "a little flat," "gummy," "cloying," "salty," and the definitive "my mouth weeps." (See accompanying chart for winners and losers.)

Consumer Reports blamed "low-quality ingredients and sloppy cooking or processing" for taste problems, but that may not be fair to manufacturers.Keeping flavor in food

"Flavor is very volatile," said Sara J. Risch, a food science Ph.D. who is a food consultant and director of research and development for Golden Valley Microwave Foods in Minneapolis, Minn. "It's a real challenge to get flavor to stay in food."

Almost everything that happens to food -- like storing it and cooking it -- helps rob it of flavor, she says; loss of moisture is a special problem. For instance, a cake baked in the oven dries out and browns on top; that layer helps seal the cake and keep the flavor inside. Microwave cooking doesn't create that flavor sealer. Browning also doesn't occur in a microwave, except where the food comes into contact with a "susceptor," or heat strip, that raises the temperature on that spot.

Manufacturers of "light" frozen foods face a triple whammy, Ms. Risch said.

First, to make the "low-sodium" claim, they must remove much of the salt. Not only is salt a flavor itself, it helps bring out other flavors in food.

Next, the food is frozen. "In meats or vegetables, there are all kinds of cells," Ms. Risch said. "Ice from freezing causes them to burst." That damages the texture of the food and worse, moisture is lost -- carrying flavor away with it.

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