Boxed In Pre-packaged Diet and Health Foods Offer Convenience, But Proceed With Caution

With time constraints facing nearly everyone, finding time to prepare and eat healthy meals and to exercise becomes increasingly difficult. And in response to that, more and more diet plans, once merely trademarked suggestions for eating and exercise habits, are absorbing space on grocery store shelves with their own lines of prepackaged foods in keeping with the nutritional guidelines touted by varying plans.

Diet and food plans such as NutriSystem, founded in 1972, and Jenny Craig, founded in 1983, were some of the first to provide pre-measured, pre-packaged foods to participants that extended beyond diet shakes or snack bars, and to take the formulation, packaging, marketing, and sales of a full line of foods head on. For years, the handful of companies that provided food for purchase as part of a diet plan served as one diet option in a sea of weight-loss and weight-management plans. Today though, popular diets including Weight Watchers, South Beach, and The Atkins Diet, as well as smaller, start-up companies across the country, have all developed their own lines of foods.

Some are so expansive they could fill a home’s pantry on their own without any help from the competitors. These lines include everything from salad dressing to strawberry ice cream, and plenty in between — breakfast cereals, breads, soups, condiments, proportioned meals, and a myriad of snack options.

They provide consumers with convenience and, usually, improvement over diets heavy in junk food and meat. But dietitians warn that such lines of food may lull consumers into a false sense of security and an abdication of control over their diet to the product makers.

“Good nutrition isn’t that difficult,” said Sheila Sullivan, registered dietitian at Baystate Medical Center. “I tell my patients, ‘You can do this yourself. Eat something from each food group and eat in moderation. If you want to bring one of these products with you to work so you don’t eat junk, that’s fine, but remember to bring a piece of fruit or some yogurt with you too.’”

Life’s A Beach

Take, for instance, the ubiquitous South Beach Diet, a diet plan developed by Dr. Arthur Agatston that began with a simple diet plan and cookbook in 2003. South Beach has since morphed into a multi-million dollar phenomenon, including several companion cookbooks and eating guides published in several languages, as well as a partnership with Kraft foods.

The diet, described by Kraft South Beach Diet as a weight-loss plan that encourages people to eat foods rich in proteins, dairy, whole grains, and healthy fats (olive and canola oil, for example), can be followed without purchasing any prepackaged or name brand foods, but can now be augmented by Kraft’s line of ‘convenience foods,’ as they are termed, designed to make following the diet more simple and to offer more choices while managing weight.

Kraft South Beach Diet products are one line that signals a growing trend rather than a waning one in the diet world – that of an increased amount of convenience foods aimed at the average consumer.

In fact, Howard Brandeisky, a spokesperson for Kraft South Beach Diet, said the line is now in the process of expanding to include a greater choice of foods such as entrees and meal replacement bars and snacks.

“The South Beach Diet and Kraft South Beach Diet foods offer the variety and convenience dieters, or people who just want to eat right, need to succeed,” he said.
Regardless of the level of success a given diet plan or food line can truly offer, however, one constant remains: the response of the food industry to a ravenous consumer need for healthy foods and weight-control products that also provide ease and convenience.

A Balancing Act

According to Sullivan, striking a balance between convenience and wellness can be tricky.

“When patients tell me that they’re eating a lot of those prepackaged meals and snacks, I worry, because often they’re nutritionally incomplete,” she said. “They often lack calcium, and can be high in sodium. Many of them are also skimpy as far as portion goes, so I’m afraid people will still be hungry and make poor food choices later in the day.”

She added that with the melding of diets with more products for sale at the store comes some added confusion for people trying to maintain healthy, balanced diets.
“People think there’s a formula they have to put together and that only people from Weight Watchers and South Beach can do it,” she said. “They don’t feel empowered to do it themselves.”

Sullivan said grabbing a microwaveable meal or a snack bar before heading off to the office isn’t necessarily a poor choice – it’s better than eating junk food and far better than going long periods of time without eating at all. But because many prepared foods give consumers the illusion of providing a quick, comprehensive serving of nutrients, she said she is beginning to see a certain apathy develop among her patients toward making sure their meals are balanced.

Having Your Cake …

In short, Sullivan said most pre-prepared foods are not unhealthy, but it remains the duty of the consumer to read labels and make food choices based on eating the best balance of nutrients each day. She said the trend in the food industry toward creating and marketing more healthy food lines can be a positive one, which brings a greater range of options to consumers who might have previously not sought them out.

Such is the mission of Lee and Donna Goldman, co-owners of CuliNika Foods, based in Highlands Ranch, Colo., one of many smaller food companies receiving an added boost from the health and wellness trend within their industry.

CuliNika was launched in 2005, with the tag line ‘Easy Gourmet the Healthy Way.’ According to the Goldmans, all of their products are made with simplicity and good nutrition in mind. They require only the addition of water or oil, are dairy, cholesterol and trans fat free, low in fat and sodium, and contain no artificial sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup.

“Our mission is to improve the health of humanity with ‘Easy Gourmet the Healthy Way’ foods,” said Lee Goldman. “And we think that mission is being accomplished.”

CuliNika recipes were developed by chef Ron Pickarski‚ an award-winning chef (he competes in the quadrennial International Culinary Olympics, for example, and has medaled seven times) with specialties in gourmet vegetarian cuisine, and research and development of all-natural, low-fat products.

“After seeing our own families face health challenges such as heart disease, strokes, cancers and diabetes, we determined we wanted to have better and healthier eating choices for their

four children and ourselves,” Goldman added, noting that he and Donna began providing meals and snacks for their family based upon good nutritional guidelines, avoiding added animal fats, artificial ingredients, excessive sugars and other items that do not promote healthy eating habits.

CuliNika’s products are a good example of many smaller food lines that are succeeding – they focus on one food niche, in this case sweets and snacks, and that eliminates a lot of the confusion more extensive food lines can create.

Items such as cookie, pancake, brownie, and bread mixes dominate the CuliNika product list, a move toward providing ‘home cooking’ type offerings that would appeal to families, especially children.

Sullivan said healthy options like CuliNika products can indeed be a good addition to a balanced diet, and smaller companies like CuliNika and others specializing in nutrient-rich or more natural foods are receiving an added boost from the attention to better health nationwide.

… And Eating it, Too

Still, the dietitian is hard-pressed to abandon her caution that good nutrition starts with the consumer, not the company.

“Have a little of everything, from each food group,” she offered as a last piece of advice. “And everything – everything – in moderation.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at stevenson@healthcarenews.com