Convenience Foods – how convenient are they really?

by G Venkatesh

Convenience foods are prepared or packaged by a manufacturer that need little or no further preparation before being consumed and can be used at any time, quickly and easily as by thawing or heating. Convenience foods sold as ready-to-eat dishes or products that are stable at room temperature are often sold in portion controlled, single serve packaging designed for portability. Convenience foods are driven heavily by the trend towards more convenient food preparation and consumption which is a result of busy lifestyle and ageing population. these foods must be tasty and high quality, while meeting consumer expectations in terms of ease of use, safety, variety, packaging, nutritional value and product appeal. Consumers are attracted due to their ease of use, variety and all season availability.

These Foods are convenient for people who cannot spend much time in food preparation as well as for people with little or no culinary skills. Those who cannot hire a cook are also tempted to use manufactured foods. Food on the go has become the answer to a rushed life schedule. In the age of rapid development women are foraying into the outside world. This leaves little time for her to relax and unwind. Keeping this in view, the markets are flooded with food products that do not require much time and energy for preparation. These foods have already undergone some processes required during cooking so that actual time and energy required for cooking is reduced.

Mrs. Vanaja Ganapathy, a senior citizen who got married at the age of 17 years and is an expert in South Indian dishes says, “I am not too open about consuming convenience foods. One is not too sure whether such foods preserve the freshness of vitamins and minerals in vegetables. However, on the positive side, it can be a boon during emergencies. Consumption of these types of convenience foods on a regular basis can certainly be detrimental in the long run”.

With increase in dual incomes in India, the popularity of convenience foods is definitely on the rise. But a healthy food seems to be more of an oxymoron. Are these kind of foods a direct result of western influence? Gaurav Ramdev , Associate Category Manager , MTR foods , Bangalore begs to differ. He says,” The popularity of convenience foods is a result of the changing lifestyle in India. Decades ago, our grandparents did not have the choice of convenience but today in the Technology Age, when everything is so easily available off the shelves, the attraction to convenienced foods is a sign of the changing times”.

The Pitfalls

As per Tony Dumbreck, Managing Director of Global Crumb Produce , there are two distinct directions in the market place. One is real food that is part of our life and signifies the living to eat concept. The other is about speed, which is function over food, eating to live. The first one compromises time, the second compromises quality.

Mostly convenienced foods in the market today are laden with saturated fats, sodium and sugar and provide little nutritional value. Advertising gimmicks like ‘fat free ‘, ‘low fat’, ‘low calorie’ etc have to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is important to read the label carefully. Consumers check the expiry date of such products but do not bother to read the label. They are also ill advised about product integrity issues.

Product integrity is all about whether what is written on the pack label is inside the pack (be it sodium/sugar/calories/ saturated fats/ Trans fats etc). As a consumer, one can never be sure that what he/she is buying as a convenience food has any nutritive value at all.

In UK baked beans is projected as a healthy food. However, a 400 g tin of baked beans was found to contain 20 g sugar and a good deal of salt. Consumers need to understand that soup powders, pickles and other ready to eat foods are loaded with salt to extend the product’s shelf life. From the health aspect, we have to keep our sodium intake limited to 2400mg per day. Low intake of sodium is essential for controlling ailments like Hypertension. Some food manufacturers do produce processed foods with low sodium content or potassium substituted for sodium. But in a world where commercial interests precede everything else one can never be too sure.

Manufacturers are concerned that if taste of each product is not optimized by adding salt, the foods will not sell. These foods are dependent on significant amounts of salt for their palatability. Salt also acts as an appetizer and enables the masking of undesirable effects of food processing.

Some manufacturers have naturally occurring sodium in their product. No extra salt is added. Says Gaurav, “The grouse of sodium or salt content in convenience foods has now become outdated. For instance, MTR believes in giving solutions to the customer by adopting the best technology possible. We use retort pouches that can preserve the food in its original form for a year or so. The packaging is such that it obviates the need for adding preservatives. This ensures that we provide the best foods that are tasty, healthy and high on nutritional quotient. The processes used for making convenienced foods are such that they retain the goodness and freshness of the ingredients. This ensures the right quality and taste. In a scenario where people are running against time, the convenience foods helps them in cooking up a delicious and nutritious meal in the shortest time possible.”

The packaging industry has also benefitted as they offer variety of packaging formats that are designed with easy open features, portion control or multipack layouts.

Another senior citizen Mrs Muthulakshmi Sankaran opines , “ I do not rate these types of foods high because they can’t match the taste of fresh home cooked food. The time lag between the date of processing, date of packing, date of sale and date of consumption is far too long. Some convenienced foods are too oily and spicy. There is no point in consuming such foods unabashedly and then rushing to the gym to lose the extra flab”.

Adayar Anand Bhavan, a well known eatery in South, also sells snacks , pickles and chutneys that are made in house. Their products are priced at a premium because they have a certain brand reputation. Their products are of high quality but not necessarily healthy. Buy a bottle of “tomato thokku” (tomato paste) or “Tamarind paste” (for preparing tamarind rice) from them and you can actually see the extraneous amount of oil that they have used in the preparation.

The convenience foods tastes great when you are hungry and we eat them quickly albeit absent mindedly. They contain all the ingredients that your body does not need – typically high in calories, fat , sugar, salt etc.  theses foods can certainly be part of a well balanced diet but they can never substitute the latter.  Another flip side is that large portions of fast foods encourage over eating.

Recently we had ordered 4 portions of garlic bread and 1 large size veg pizza that cost us Rs 791 but our hunger wasn’t satiated. No doubt the pizza was home delivered, the packaging was great, the taste was good but consumption of the pizza made us hungrier. A typical veg pizza contains the regular suspects – onion, tomato, capsicum, cheese. Fiber rich beans or Vitamin A rich carrots are never part of the menu for pizzas – Why?  Homemade soups from fresh vegetables are any day better than ready-to-eat soup powders that are available in the market that are exorbitantly priced. A kg of tomato costs Rs 20 but a packet of soup powder costs something like 35-45 Rs with ingredients that may not necessarily have nutritive value.

Once upon a time these typs of foods consisted largely of readymade or easy to make versions of food stuff which were difficult to produce from scratch. Eg. Gits Gulab Jamun mix , Rava idli mix etc. But now, companies puree fresh garlic or tomato and pack it in jars. Lemon juice is available in a concentrated form. It is so easy to squeeze a lemon but when we are pressed for time, we have excuses not to do so.

Bangalore based Madhulika Sharma who works for an IT firm says, “In the name of convenience, manufacturers are innovating with products that only make people more and more lazy. Look at items like Ginger garlic paste, tamarind paste. Is it so difficult to grind chutney powders at home? I was appalled when one of my colleagues told me that a food manufacturer in Chennai has come up with a chutney powder that when mixed in water can be served with idlis, dosas and medu vadas. What next ? Sambar and Rasam in a can ?” she questions.

When manufacturers speak of value added products it indicates that they are adding cost to things that the consumer has been buying happily for years, by creating convenience. But does the convenience outweigh the cost.  Nobody is that time poor to make the consumption of convenience food a regular habit. Such foods end up giving the wrong signal to children that time spent cooking is time wasted. The craze for all things instant disconnects communities. Everything now is so fast – we all demand things instantly, from instant internet access to instant food.  If one cannot prepare a simple food at home there is no point in having a kitchen either.

Interestingly, we managed to speak to Ms Sunita Pattnaik who handles PR and media coordination in Cargill Foods. She feigned ignorance about convenience foods but when we pointed out to her that there is information on these type of foods published by Cargill in the net, she admitted that Cargill supplied ingredients for convenience foods.

Vigilance – the need of the hour

It is also important to know the total fat content, saturated fat content and cholesterol in the foods. Eating foods high in dietary fibre is a key to controlling cholesterol. The bad thing about saturated and trans fats Is that they add up quickly when you have more servings.  Trans fatty acids should not be consumed when you are at a risk of developing high cholesterol in your blood stream. Margarine/ partially hydrogenated vegetable oil/ vanaspati / fried foods all these are high in trans fats. Use of these in foods can endanger the health.

Choosing unrefined foods such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread and buns , cereals is a good way to kick up your dietary fibre intake. Fresh fruits , vegetables , dried beans, lentils, split peas , nuts and seeds offer matchless nutritive value. In the US and UK markets, health conscious consumers have pushed manufacturers to launch new foods in the market like veggie burgers, soy crumbles or textured vegetable protein, soyanut butter and soy based cheese alternatives. Foods high in fibre will make us feel fuller longer and prevent between-meal snacking. Reading food labels for serving size is an effective measure towards weight loss.

The Final Word

Recent proliferation of Indian convenience foods in US like frozen samosas, tikka masala, Gujarati Khandvi & dhokla, South Indian uthappam, idli and upma, parathas and ready to eat rotis are sending a clear message that there is a market for these type of foods. Food manufacturers while cashing in on the same should not eschew the nutritive aspects in such foods. Interestingly, the majority of this kind foods sold in US are made in India.

Packaged foods are becoming popular for bachelors who are lapping up heat-and-eat meals on a regular basis by turning a blind eye to the deleterious long term impact. Two of my vegetarian colleagues who were sent to China subsisted on convenience foods for a week. In such cases, The foods are certainly a blessing.

Master Chefs in Western countries are known to be handsomely rewarded for endorsing convenience foods. The situation in India can‘t be any different. However, it is important for the chefs to endorse the healthier options.

What we need is a stricter health regulation in India. In a country like India, it is almost impossible to enforce legal regulation on these matters. FDA authorities can conduct surprise checks and audits but then it is like asking for the moon. The only solution is self regulation and vigilance. Consumers need to understand that the onus of selecting the right food is entirely on them. Finally, consumers have to be discerning to know what is good for them.

The best technique is to prepare food from fresh ingredients, personalized to one’s taste and cooking habits. Cooking cannot be commoditized. Convenience foods are ok during an exigency but nothing more than that. These foods may appear convenient and inexpensive for a busy lifestyle but the truth is that they can be expensive in the long run when they lead to obesity and lead to lifestyle ailments.

Choose convenience foods in moderation and consume bountiful portions of whole grains, frozen fruits, vegetables and other whole unprocessed foods. The one question that you need to ask yourselves is – Should I choose convenience over nutrition and health aspects? Is it wise to compromise on health and longevity in favor of convenience?

In US as convenience began to become more popular the food industry shifted their focus to a healthier version of everything convenience. Salt, dyes and preservatives were reduced. Still the convenience foods are sacrificing health for speed.  In the long term the time you lose from excessive salt intake may not be worth it. The time and energy we appear to save in the short term does not surpass the time and energy we lose in the long term.

The food manufacturers have to make convenience foods a part of a healthy weight management program. There are certain foods that may meet standards for nutrition and flavor, however when it comes to taste, the consumer has the final word. The true convenience foods are water, fruit, vegetables and nuts. There is a lot of variety here. One has to just open the mind to the possibilities.