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Are Convenience Foods Healthy?

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While convenience foods are getting more appetizing, appealing and in some cases even nutritious, many ready-to-eat ‘healthy’ products are often loaded with sugar, fat and salt.

Here’s all you need to know about convenience foods and how healthy they really are.

You think you’re being a good parent when you insist Aranya finish her bowl of cereal every morning before rushing off to school. For good measure, you slip a couple of granola bars into her lunch box, (pop one into your own too) and sneak in a packet of ‘roasted’ bhel for the bus ride home. And since deadlines keep you at work till late, dinner is typically a bowl of noodles or pasta. Sound familiar? It’s no better if you’re single; 7 p.m. and after a hard day at work, with only the oily office canteen food for sustenance, that samosa looks awfully appetizing.
Chances are most of your meals come from a box than off your cooker. Shopping and cooking from scratch is fast becoming a rarity, what with ready-to eat Indian meals, frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, vegetable cutlets, cup-a-noodles, heat-and-eat soups, instant risotto, frozen pizzas…the list’s endless. And food manufacturers are getting more innovative and inventive in the different types of convenience foods they offer!. You don’t even have to get off the couch and a four-course meal is ready and waiting at your doorstep. And if you’ve noticed convenience foods are looking more appetizing and appealing, you’re right, they are.
But savvy consumers like yourself need to educate yourself to identify the wheat from the chaff. Dietician Naini Setalvad says that all ready-to-eat foods shouldn’t be branded unhealthy simply because they come vacuum packed and sealed. “Many of them are actually quite healthy,” she says, adding that savvy gourmets need to look for products that contain good quality carbohydrates, whole cereals, grains and fiber. “Convenience foods are a fact of 21st century living,” she says.
Studies conjecture that the average amount of time spent preparing food has slipped from two hours in 1980 to just 20 minutes today. While many of us here do have part-time domestic help, many women end up scrambling to rustle up a meal for the family after a long day at work, and the urge to reach for a ready-mix spaghetti or pizza sauce or curry paste is often too irresistible to resist.  
But problems occur when seemingly savvy shoppers fall for products that are touted “healthy” but in fact aren’t and most of us fail to see the disadvantages of convenience foods. For instance, did you know that some cereals are as bad as if you were eating five chocolate chip cookies at one go, as one research has shown? The British Food Commission says that cereals which contain chocolate chips and nut crisps are often packed with sugar and fat. Unhealthy breakfast cereals include Choco Pops, Frosties and Fruit Loops. Lots of sugar and kids love them, but they don’t do much good. On the other hand, muesli, bran flakes and toast are healthier options because they contain a lot more fiber and much less fat.
Aranya would be much better off if she ate a fruit instead of a “healthy” granola bar if the food watchdog is to be believed. In fact, one cereal bar has more calories in it from sugar (or honey) than a chocolate. Besides, unlike chocolate, the ingredients tend to stick to teeth, making it a bigger problem than sugar coated cereals where the sugar dissolves in the milk.  The Food Commission tested 18 different bars and found all of them had much higher levels of sugar than recommended at breakfast. Granola bar manufacturers, however, prefer to hide behind the fact that the bars also provide “essential vitamins and minerals.”
While it wouldn’t be fair to call for a ban on all convenience foods because some are fairly nutritious and easy, consumers would do well to learn to read food labels and avoid foods with a high fat, sugar or salt content. Even then, an occasional binge of some old-fashioned, no-holds barred junk food isn’t going to harm. Setalvad   says the occasional burger or chocolate chip ice cream won’t cause an instant cardiac seizure.  “Their impact on your health will depend on how much you eat and how often you eat them.”
All convenience foods aren’t necessarily “junk”. For instance, frozen fruits and vegetables like peas can be better than fresh versions because they’re processed immediately after picking. On the other hand, fresh foods reach markets a day or two after harvest, a delay that reduces their nutrient value. Moreover, convenience foods such as smoothies, low-fat yoghurts, quick cook pastas and rice are all healthy. 
Danger, however, lurks in “convenience foods” that are filled with a host of preservatives such as MSG and benzoates that can trigger a number of diseases. They also acerbate lifestyle-related conditions such as diabetes, blood pressure and obesity. In fact, doctors advise pregnant women and lactating mothers to stay away from processed foods which tend to be nutrient deficient.
Cold chain deficiencies, where food is repeatedly defrosted and frozen because of outages and edibles past their expiry date carry their own dangers. Health coach  Kinjal Kapadia says a popular range of ready-to-eat Indian meals that claim to be preservative-free, low calorie and low-fat could actually be a veritable hotbed of bacteria, parasites, viruses and toxins due to poor storage conditions. “Contamination can occur at any stage—during growing, harvesting, processing, storing and shipping—even before the food product is cooked,” she says.  
Greater choice has wrought its own unique set of dilemmas. While manufacturers need to ensure food safety on their part, consumers are equally responsible for assuring themselves about the hygiene and quality of the food they eat. Kapadia says we need to be educate ourselves about choosing healthy over junk options, always reading food labels and learning to read between the lines. “For instance, a fat free gelato is not necessarily sugar-free too or vice versa,” says Kapadia.   
She says w, many unscrupulous manufacturers print erroneous information on food labels, and she advises her patients to always go for reputable brands where food labels can be relied on. For instance, there’s a slew of “diet options” in the market with many them claiming to be “roasted.” Kapadia says most of them are in reality deep fried and unless the calorific value and fat content is mentioned clearly on the packaging, they shouldn’t be bought.
Under fire by most nutritionist is the ultimate convenience food much loved by collegians and harried employees, instant noodles. Last year more than 100 billion servings of instant noodles were eaten worldwide, but Setalvad says that the single-serve variety is high in carbohydrates but low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Besides, the manufacturing process that requires them to partially fried adds high levels of saturated or trans-fats. And serving it up in an instant broth adds hefty doses of MSG and sodium. More like poison-in-a-cup. 
Kapadia says noodles should be only an occasional treat, and then too with lots of vegetables to add fiber since they are made with maida (white refined flour), unless the label specifically states ‘whole wheat flour’. In fact, Kapadia says that any product that mentions wheat flour as an ingredient, “whether it’s noodles, biscuits or cookies, actually contains maida and not whole wheat flour.”  So called “atta” noodles and pastas too don’t contain the atta we make chapattis with at home, but actually a mixture of wheat fiber and maida which can legally be called an “atta” product. 
Kapadia says most food additives (not to be confused with adulterants) aren’t inherently harmful. “From a rational point of view, the use of additives in food is acceptable provided it serves a useful purpose such as maintaining the nutritional quality of food, making it more attractive to consumers and enhancing stability to reduce food wastage,” she says.
Ultimately, we come a whole circle. Back to what our mothers taught us. Lots of fresh produce and old fashioned home cooking. Then an occasional oily biryani or granola bar won’t do much harm. 
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