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The dark side of convenience food, and what the future holds for ready-to-eat meals

When it comes to nutritious, prepackaged meal options, will frozen food lead the way?

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The back of a typical cheese-and-lunch-meat meal box reads like the instruction manual to a science experiment. Included on the ingredients list are things like sodium nitrite, a compound that gives some deli meat its signature red color; butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), a chemical used to prevent certain foods from turning rancid; and calcium propionate, which inhibits the growth of mold. All told, it takes more than 53 ingredients — some natural, many synthetic — to ensure your snack pack stays “fresh” for its months-long shelf life.

Today, it’s normal to encounter lists of multisyllabic ingredients while wandering the supermarket aisle. After all, ultra-processed food sells. It’s estimated that around 60% of the average American’s diet consists of ultra-processed food, which is defined as “any food item that has undergone changes to its natural state,” be it chemical alteration or otherwise.” Our insatiable appetite for the unnatural is cause for real concern, says Ashley Lonsdale, director of culinary innovation at Daily Harvest, a company that delivers food built only on whole, organic fruits and vegetables. “At the risk of sounding completely dramatic, ultra-processed foods are killing us,” she says.

Lonsdale’s job is to bring as many whole, nutrient-rich foods into Daily Harvest’s food as possible. Over the years, she has closely studied how cutting out additives can lead to positive changes in overall health. While some food additives like citric acid are considered benign, others have been linked to major health risks such as heart disease, chronic inflammation, and cancer. In 2016, a leading manufacturer of boxed macaroni and cheese replaced the additive Yellow No. 6 — which gave its cheese that bright, golden hue — after a rise in studies linking food colorants to ADHD.

Anxiety around what’s really inside our food is amplified by the fact that even the FDA may be in the dark about how additives are affecting our bodies. The opacity around food production is, in part, due to lax regulations around what is considered safe for human consumption. In 1958, the FDA introduced a new designation called GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) that exempts certain additives from federal evaluation if they’ve been determined by research or long-term consumption to not be harmful to human health. In 1997, that law was loosened to allow companies to voluntarily self-report whether their ingredients qualify as GRAS. Critics of the change say the latest GRAS guidelines have led to little or no oversight of food manufacturers, and that big food companies ultimately benefit from being able to say their additives are safe.

It’s no surprise, then, that major consumer packaged goods companies have a vested interest in approving and using preservatives that allow them to produce long-lasting products en masse. When your business is selling food at scale, throwing away spoiled products is essentially throwing away profit. The downside for the people eating the food is that profitability and health are often at odds. It’s not easy — or cheap — to make a truly healthy shelf-stable food item that has the right texture, taste, and consistency. “That’s why emulsifiers, stabilizers, preservatives, and fillers are often used to create these shelf-stable products marketed as healthy foods,” Lonsdale says.

So what’s the solution for people who want to eat healthier, preservative-free food? According to the FDA website, “Some additives could be eliminated if we were willing to grow our own food, harvest and grind it, spend many hours cooking and canning, or accept increased risks of food spoilage.” It turns out that convenience food is convenient for a reason. Still, Lonsdale believes there’s a better way to go about preparing meals that are easy and healthy.

“Food preservation isn’t inherently bad,” she says. She’s right: For thousands of years, humans deployed natural techniques to ensure food remains edible for longer, through curing, pickling, jarring, and freezing. “The problem is the rise in chemicals as preservatives,” says Lonsdale, “and that’s really out of the need to create shelf-stable goods.” At Daily Harvest, Lonsdale and her team avoid the typical preservation pitfalls by employing a technique that allows them to use whole, farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains.

All of Daily Harvest’s smoothies, soups, lattes, and bowls are made from farm frozen ingredients, which means the fruits and vegetables are frozen at extremely low temperatures, within 24 hours of harvesting, to lock in the maximum amount of nutrients. Unlike conventional freezing, which allows large ice crystals to form and break down the food’s cellular wall, farm freezing allows fruits and vegetables to retain their structure, and by virtue, their nutritional benefits. “Farm freezing means you’re getting as many micronutrients and minerals as you would if you were eating the food fresh,” Lonsdale says. “It also allows for our food to be ready when you are, with every meal being ready in five minutes or less.” Lonsdale also explains how freezing can help curb food waste: “We’ve all been there; you’ve had a long week and you open the fridge and find that your produce has spoiled. With Daily Harvest, there’s none of that.”

Still, there’s an element of retraining to be done. After years of consuming “hyperpalatable” foods that are high in fat and sugar, bodies must relearn how to listen to themselves. The taste buds of the average American need to recalibrate to crave a variety of flavors, from the bitterness of dark, leafy greens to the pungent sourness of kimchi. “Historically we’ve relied on our bodies to tell us what to eat based on what we were craving, but because so many of our guts are compromised from eating ultra-processed foods growing up, our cravings aren’t telling us exactly what to eat,” Lonsdale explains.

Getting back to the point where we can trust our gut requires a new way of shopping. Lonsdale suggests looking at the ingredients list instead of the nutrition panel as a guide to how healthy a food product is. The shorter the list and more recognizable the ingredients, the better. “Look for ingredients made from whole foods that you understand and can pronounce,” she says.

Consumers are smartening up to what’s inside their food, but the onus ultimately falls on the companies making the products. The demand for more convenient food options continues to rise, with 55% of millennials admitting that convenience is a top driver in what they purchase, but young consumers are also prioritizing their health better than previous generations. Together, these two factors are pushing food producers to rethink how they make and market their products — and things are already starting to change for the better. “I think that companies have a lot of trust to rebuild with consumers,” Lonsdale says. “And it’s only going to come out of people demanding transparency.”

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