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(Photo illustration by Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)
(Photo illustration by Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

Convenience

Frozen food is simple, yes, but is it good for you? Add to ...

The advertisement is as simple as the ingredients in the product it's promoting: a glass jar containing a few tomatoes, basil, olive oil and garlic.

The pitch for Classico tomato and basil pasta sauce is that it's made with fresh, natural ingredients, "just what you'd put in your homemade sauce."

It's no accident the company is casting its products as a natural extension of Mama's kitchen. In fact, a growing number of food manufacturers are positioning themselves as bastions of healthy home cooking, even when their products are made in industrial plants and contain more fat, sodium and calories than the average amateur chef would use. A new national report shows their efforts may be paying off as a rising number of health-conscious Canadians say they're turning to convenience foods.

The emerging marketing tactic makes sense, considering the resurgence in interest for food that is locally grown and sold in farmer's markets.

More importantly, it addresses a fact that the local food movement simply doesn't: many people don't cook. But are convenience foods as healthy as foods made at home?

"There's a bit of a paradox right now," said Sylvain Charlebois, associate director of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina. "Consumers want convenience, but they also want authenticity."

As a result, a growing number of food companies are picking up the slack by offering good-as-homemade products made with high-quality ingredients.And it appears to be working.

A new report has found the number of home-cooked meals Canadians are consuming has dropped steadily in recent years. NPD Group Inc., a global market research firm, said Canadian households consumed 380 homemade meals on average in 2009, a significant decline from 398 the year before and 423 meals in 2003.

At the same time, the report found that the consumption of frozen food rose 15 per cent since 2004 to reach the highest level in a decade. More than 75 per cent of meals and snacks Canadians ate last year were prepared in 15 minutes or less, NPD group reported.

"Consumers are definitely becoming more receptive to packaged foods," said Joel Gregoire, a food and beverage industry analyst with NPD Group. "There certainly seems to be this acceptance of frozen foods as being a viable alternative to different meal occasions."

Part of that acceptance, Mr. Gregoire said, could be due to the fact that many companies have made a conscious effort to market their products as wholesome, nutritious and having a variety of health benefits.

The NPD report found that consumers are keenly health-conscious and are more likely to choose products that appeal to them nutritionally. Two-thirds of consumers said health claims on product labels were key determinants in their decision to purchase. The majority of those surveyed said nutrition is the most important factor they consider when meal planning.

"There really is a push on the part of manufacturers to call out some of the [healthy]changes that they're making," Mr. Gregoire said. "For example, if you have less salt in it, they're calling it out."

But does a medley of promises truly make these products healthier and of a higher quality than the homemade?

Although some companies have been working to sell healthier versions of their products, convenience foods don't match up to the nutritional value of meals prepared using basic healthy ingredients, said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Canadian branch of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

Mr. Jeffery highlighted the new "It's all good" campaign by McCain Foods Canada, which showcases the company's move away from ingredients with unpronounceable chemical names in favour of recognizable ingredients.

"They're using words like 'wholesome' and 'simple ingredients' that they must recognize consumers construe to mean healthy, healthier," Mr. Jeffery said.

But many of the products at the centre of the new campaign are French fries, pizza and pizza snacks - hardly items that would be considered healthy.

For instance, a 100-gram pepperoni Pizza Pocket has 240 calories, 11 grams of fat and 440 milligrams of sodium.

Yet, on its web site, McCain suggests that Pizza Pockets and nutritionists can get along because the product is made with ingredients such as cured pepperoni and ground flaxseed, is baked instead of fried, and doesn't have artificial colours or flavours.

"They're responding to something that really resonates with consumers, the interest in healthy foods, but typically those claims are used on processed foods," Mr. Jeffery said. "They're not used on truly nutritious foods."

Other companies are also trying to win over customers with healthy, homemade appeal. Last fall, ConAgra Foods Canada Inc. made Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamers available in Canada. The frozen meals use "steaming technology" in the microwave to maintain the natural flavour, colour and texture of each ingredient. Although the meals are generally low in fat, they contain excessive amounts of sodium - between 490 and 700 milligrams a meal.

Mr. Jeffery said companies are taking advantage of lax rules around how products are marketed or promoted, a trend he says is "worrisome."

"It can allow companies to pull the wool over a consumer's eyes," he said. "It may actually lead to worse diets overall."

 

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