October 2012 Issue

Healthier Frozen Foods
By Maura Keller
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 10 P. 36

Not all frozen foods are created equal. Healthful choices certainly are available. Here’s some advice on how to help your clients find them.

As consumers rush through their hectic lives, those with an interest in healthful eating often seek convenient, quick-to-prepare frozen foods that offer similar nutritional content as nonfrozen natural foods or that help meet other dietary needs. And frozen food manufacturers are responding to that market demand.

In addition to better-quality foods, says Rachel Begun, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, consumers can find more organic, gluten- and allergen-free, ethnic, and non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO) food options in the freezer aisle.

“[Some] brands are also focusing on sustainability, incorporating sustainably caught fish and seafood and grass-fed beef into their meals,” Begun says. “It’s important to note that the terms ‘organic,’ ‘non-GMO,’ and ‘gluten-’ and ‘allergen-free’ don’t necessarily equate to an improved nutritional profile. The improved nutritional profile comes from using high-quality, all-natural ingredients, and forgoing highly refined and artificial ingredients.”

The change to healthier frozen food also may be a response to slowing sales. According to Mintel International, frozen meal sales were down two years before 2011. Despite the decline, frozen foods are a billion-dollar category consumed by 72% of the American population.

“Some believe that this decrease may be due to the unhealthful image projected by TV dinners,” says Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, of Whole Nutrition Services in New York City. “Regardless of why the decline has occurred, food manufacturers are responding by trying to meet the expanding dietary demands of the American public. A few of these modifications include adding items that are lower in sodium, gluten free, allergen free, and more sustainable. The brand Organic Bistro, for example, seems to have been born out of a necessity for organic frozen foods. Stouffer’s also now manufactures a Farmers’ Harvest line that suits the more health-focused consumer by advertising key ingredients like sea salt, olive oil, and vegetables.”

Matthew Gillespie, director of trade and sales planning at CedarLane Natural Foods, Inc, says manufacturers of natural frozen foods are constantly designing their products to remove unhealthful attributes while incorporating “functional” ingredients to boost certain health claims. “Examples of this are using low-fat cheeses to reduce fats and cholesterol and utilizing more spices to compensate for a reduction in sodium,” he explains. “Many products are swapping out high-fructose corn syrup or cane sugar for agave syrups, unsulfured molasses, or evaporated cane juice sweeteners. Adding all-natural probiotics for digestive health and using fruits, nuts, grains, and spices that are believed to improve brain, bone, or cardiovascular health by increasing protein, fiber, and antioxidants are some of the steps manufacturers are undertaking to attract and sustain new consumers.”

CedarLane takes a Mediterranean approach to reformulating comfort foods that are traditionally high in fat and sodium, such as lasagna, enchiladas, and omelets, to make them healthier. “We’ve done this by making noncompromising decisions about using these ‘better-for-you’ ingredients,” Gillespie says. “We do not use GMO ingredients in our products and always use all-natural ingredients whenever we can’t source organic derivatives.”

According to Cipullo, Amy’s Kitchen now also offers a low-sodium line of frozen meals containing only 190 to 390 mg per entrée, including choices such as black bean vegetable enchiladas and vegetable lasagna.

For pizza, there are many lines that currently advertise the use of whole grains. DiGiorno’s Harvest Wheat Thin Crispy Crust Supreme contains 4 g of fiber per slice. Marie Callender’s offers many products that have fewer than 500 kcal as well.

“Just remember, low calorie does not mean the food is healthful or less processed,” Cipullo says. “In fact, it’s often best to avoid the super-low-calorie options or add a side dish to avoid dissatisfaction or hunger following the completion of the meal.”

As Cipullo points out, with the obesity epidemic and the rise in childhood prediabetes and diabetes, manufacturers also have begun to target parents in search of convenient frozen food options or individuals who are trying to lose weight. Frozen food brands such as Earth’s Best, Plum Organics, and Kidfresh focus their marketing efforts on parents and children, touting nutrient-rich foods that are free of artificial colors and preservatives.

“For individuals who are trying to lose weight and/or prevent diabetes, manufacturers such as Weight Watchers and South Beach offer lower-carbohydrate meals like Smart Ones,” Cipullo says. “Based on the Diabetes Prevention Program, using meal replacements as part of a weight-loss plan is effective.”

And as more and more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease, finding they have gluten sensitivities, or choosing to lead a gluten-free lifestyle, frozen food manufacturers are taking notice. “These consumers are looking for great-tasting, delicious options to fulfill their needs,” says Laura Kuykendall, director of marketing for Glutino.

Glutino has more than 80 gluten-free products, including frozen bakery items and frozen meals, such as pizza. It offers several personal-size pizza options, including pepperoni pizza with a brown rice crust and topped with a blend of cheeses. Other pizza offerings include chicken pizza with barbecue sauce, spinach and feta cheese pizza, and a two-cheese pizza.

RDs and Frozen Foods
While dietitians’ first recommendation is fresh, wholesome foods, there’s no doubt that consumers are embracing frozen foods as time and budget savers. Given that, more healthful frozen foods make sense.

“We should never stop encouraging patients to eat fresh, wholesome foods,” Begun says. “However, we can’t ignore the fact consumers are going to continue eating frozen meals—whether for convenience, lack of culinary skills, or portion control. Let’s give these consumers the skills and recommendations they need to make the smartest choices possible.”

Cipullo stresses that RDs need to recognize that a frozen meal can be a quick and viable alternative when someone is short on time and/or ingredients. “Whole fresh foods or whole frozen fruits and/or veggies are still an RD’s top choice, yet the availability of easier and healthier frozen meals may help Americans to consume smaller portions and less processed foods by offering a substitute for takeout or fast food,” Cipullo says.

In other words, it’s possible to avoid products with long ingredient lists of added sugars, fillers, and additives that are unknown to us. “Thanks to brands like Kettle Cuisine, Plum Organics, and others that eschew the use of preservatives and artificial ingredients, there are plenty of frozen meals available that are just as healthful and satisfying as the recipes that come from one’s kitchen,” Cipullo says.

Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, corporate dietitian for SUPERVALU, says some frozen food items carry the Heart-Check Mark from the American Heart Association, the Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council, and the fruit/veggie icon from the Produce for Better Health Foundation as well as FDA-approved health-related content and facts up front.

Kirchherr says it’s important to note that the FDA, like with sodium, fat, and other nutrients, doesn’t define carbohydrate terms. This is especially true with ice cream products. “So when providing guidance to clients, be sure to point this out so they know to read the packaging for how that manufacturer defines carbohydrate terminology that may be used on the box,” she says.

Guidelines for Clients
Cipullo has created guidelines for RDs to share with their clients to help them make better choices when choosing a frozen product:

• If you’re aiming for sustainable practices, think about the packaging and cooking method. Choose packaging and trays made of recycled or compostable materials. If an item is organic, check whether it’s made in the United States, as other countries don’t use the same organic standards.

• Select a meal with 350 to 500 kcal. You may be tempted by meals that boast less than 200 kcal per serving, but that barely constitutes a snack. Such low-calorie meals won’t provide a substantial amount of energy or the necessary vitamins and minerals your body needs from a meal—and you’ll be more tempted to indulge in a high-calorie, low-nutrition snack later. If you choose a low-calorie frozen meal option, be sure to supplement it with vegetables, dairy, and/or a healthful fat.

• If the ingredient list for a particular product features more unknown, scientific-sounding words than identifiable wholesome foods, this indicates you may be dealing with a highly processed, low-fiber entrée. Choose a frozen meal with a short list of ingredients and no added sugars.

• Limit unhealthful fats. Find frozen entrées with no more than 2 g of saturated fat and no trans fat. Know that just because a label indicates 0 g of trans fat, this doesn’t mean there’s none in the product. Food manufacturers are permitted to claim that a product has 0 g of trans fat per serving as long as their product contains less than 0.5 g per serving. To determine whether a product does contain trans fat, be sure to read the ingredient list. If you see “partially hydrogenated oil,” for example, then the product contains traces of trans fat and is therefore not the best choice. Instead look for frozen entrées that use olives and olive oil and/or canola oil, for example, to get a dose of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Choose wild fish for omega-3 fatty acids.

• Sodium content is probably the worst and most common offender in most frozen foods, and even the healthier brands tend to harbor high levels. The average healthy person should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Many packaged meals nearly exceed this, with 1,000 mg per serving or more in many cases. To avoid this, read labels carefully and select items that contain no more than 600 mg of sodium. Speed up the process by seeking products claiming “low sodium” or “no sodium added.”

• If you’re going to eat a frozen meal for dinner, try to make sure it contains all the components of a healthful home-cooked dish. Look for entrées with at least 1/2 cup of fruits and/or vegetables, about 1/2 to 1 cup of whole grains, and a protein source equaling 14 to 21 g. If your favorite frozen entrée is low in fruits and veggies, you can always add a side salad or slice an apple to serve with it. Also aim for 5 g of fiber or more in your entrée, and consider adding a low-fat dairy source to help balance the frozen meal by providing calcium.

In the future, experts predict that more frozen food companies will offer consumers options that are organic, allergen free, and good for you. “The message to focus the diet on fresh, whole foods is everywhere,” Begun says.

Consumers are listening, but they also want convenience. Healthful options allow consumers to have their convenience and eat it too with little or no nutrition trade-off. Begun says consumers can feel good knowing that when they do reach for the right frozen food option, there are much better choices than even just five years ago.

— Maura Keller is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.


Healthful Frozen Food Pioneers
These brands are a sampling of those that could be considered pioneers of healthful frozen food for their work in helping to shift the industry’s focus to sustainability, organic ingredients, shorter ingredient lists, and options such as lower sodium, higher fiber content, and/or hypoallergenic choices including gluten and dairy free: Amy’s Kitchen, CedarLane Natural Foods, Dr. Praeger’s, Earth’s Best, FreshDirect, Kashi, Kettle Cuisine, Kidfresh, Kids Organic, Lean Cuisine, Organic Bistro, Peas of Mind, Plum Organics, and Weight Watchers Smart Ones.

— MK