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The Best Things Since Sliced Bread

Some “new and improved” grocery items are actually good for you

When it comes to making junk foods even more convenient and irresistible, the food industry has shown no lack of ingenuity. Take hot dogs. Hardly an elaborate dish to prepare, they now come fully assembled in “bakery-fresh buns,” thanks to a product called Oscar Mayer Fast Franks. Jimmy Dean sells three flavors of Pancakes & Sausage On A Stick (original, chocolate chip, and blueberry), with the promise that they are “not only filling, but easy to eat and enjoy.” And why grill when you can heat up a batch of Tyson Breaded Steak Fingers? The deluge of food products from the “dark side” goes on and on.

But there is a brighter side. In recent years, some inherently healthful foods, like fruits and vegetables, have also gotten makeovers. Some have become more convenient to cook or eat. Others taste better. Still others aim to be more nutritious. To learn how these transformations stack up in the eyes of dietary experts, we surveyed faculty, staff, and alumni of the nation’s leading graduate school of nutrition (indeed the nation’s only graduate school of nutrition), Tufts’ Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Dozens of nutrition mavens responded. Here are some of their favorite wholesome advances—the best things since sliced bread.

Clean Greens
Woe is the lonely salad spinner: the hands-down choice in our survey was bagged, prewashed salad greens. Sarah Sliwa, N08, a project manager for the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the Friedman School, thinks this invention has done wonders “to make the consumption of vegetables as easy as chips and salsa: open a bag, open a jar.”

Earthbound Farm, an organic grower in California, started selling bagged salad in 1986. They found that baby lettuces were more resistant to decay than cut mature lettuces, and worked on ways to harvest greens in their infancy.

The market opened up in 1989, when Fresh Express introduced a special plastic packaging that allowed cut salads to stay fresh as they were shipped around the nation. The science keeps improving, although, for competitive reasons, producers are secretive about their washing and bagging processes. The greens must be kept cold and eaten within about 15 days of harvesting.

Consumers don’t seem to mind that bagged lettuces can cost twice as much as a head of lettuce. “Though they are more expensive,” said Janet Forrester, an associate professor in the department of public health and family medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, “they save me money in the end because I am not always throwing out unused ends or the first three layers of a head of lettuce.”

Grains, Grains Everywhere
Whole-wheat bread has always been a nutritional powerhouse. The transformation here is that you no longer have to go to a health food store for a wide selection.

“I remember just five years ago it was like an Easter egg hunt to find a supermarket that sold 100 percent whole-wheat bread,” said Heather (Case) Rafferty, N97, director of brand and marketing services for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “Now whole-wheat breads and tortillas can be found in almost every supermarket.” Others praise the proliferation of whole-grain varieties of pizza dough, pita bread, English muffins, buns, bagels, rice, pilafs, and couscous. Whole grains provide fiber, along with B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, and selenium.

But even though the shelves are teeming with whole-grain breads, old habits die hard. Manufacturers have been experimenting with ways to woo consumers away from their soft, mild white loaves. ConAgra foods spent eight years and millions of dollars developing Ultragrain, a whole-grain wheat flour, introduced in 2004, that has a taste, texture, and color similar to refined flour. Sara Lee uses it in hot dog buns, bagels, and whole-grain white bread. Some hope these undercover whole grains will help white bread eaters embrace the brown stuff. Others doubt that highly processed breads with additives like dough conditioners and high fructose corn syrup will ever make the grade nutritionally, even with the whole-grain designation. “I prefer grain products that have only two or three ingredients on the label,” said Sandra Bouma, N82, a nutritionist and registered dietitian at the University of Michigan Hospital.

The rule of thumb when label-checking is to make sure the whole grain—whole-wheat flour, for example—is first on the ingredients list.

Whole-Wheat Pasta
If there was a casualty of the carb wars, it was pasta. Followers of the Atkins and South Beach diets shunned spaghetti as a glycemic nightmare. The industry responded with higher-protein, higher-fiber, whole-wheat pastas. The trend gained momentum in January 2005, when the federal dietary guidelines urged everyone to eat more whole grains.

Almost 100 new whole- and multigrain pastas were launched in 2005, up from 11 in 2001. They range from whole-grain-laced products that look and taste like white pasta to dark and toothsome 100 percent whole-wheat pastas. “We switched to this type exclusively, and the kids didn’t flinch,” said Deanna Campbell, N91, a registered dietitian in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Whole-wheat pasta has two to three times the fiber of traditional pasta and more micro- nutrients, such as folic acid, magnesium, and vitamin E. But to get the most nutrition, you have to read the pasta box carefully. Most quality pasta is based on hard durum wheat, which has more protein and gluten and less starch than other wheat. If the bran and germ are removed, as in most “white” pastas, the flour is called semolina. If the whole kernel is used, the label should read “whole durum wheat.” Some of the newer pastas employ a mix of the two flours, or they may feature oat, barley, spelt, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and protein-rich legumes, including lentils and chickpeas, all of which are nutritionally superior to semolina alone.

Thanks, Dr. Atkins.

OJ with Calcium
If you are going to include juice as one of your daily fruit servings, it’s hard to go wrong with orange juice. It typically contains more vitamins C and A, B vitamins, and iron and potassium than other juices. For many people, OJ is now also a go-to source for calcium.

Minute Maid was the first company to market a nationally branded calcium-fortified orange juice, in 1987, the same year the National Academy of Sciences increased its calcium-intake recommendations to help stem osteoporosis. Today, calcium-boosted products account for one-third of fresh, refrigerated OJ sales in the United States, according to The Nielsen Company.

Naturally calcium-rich foods include cheese, milk, yogurt, tofu, canned salmon and sardines (with the bones), leafy green vegetables, and broccoli. But many people can’t or choose not to eat dairy, and it is difficult to get adequate calcium from the other sources alone. “Not being a milk drinker,” said Laura Coleman, N87, N95, a registered dietitian who works at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, in Marshfield, Wisconsin. “I’m always trying to find alternatives to increase the amount of calcium in my diet, and the OJ”—which supplies 35 percent of the recommended daily allowance for calcium and 25 percent for vitamin D—“is a great option.”

Pre-Prepped Produce
Fruit and vegetable producers are thinking inside the bag. Shredded cabbage for making cole slaw, trimmed broccoli and cauliflower for stir fries, and peeled and cubed butternut squash have all helped win people back to the joys of cooking. But the “baby” carrot won the most hearts in our survey.

The baby carrot isn’t exactly a juvenile. It was born in 1986, when a California farmer named Mike Yurosek was looking for a way to sell misshapen but tasty mature carrots. He used an industrial green bean cutter to slice them into two-inch lengths and an industrial potato peeler to smooth them down, and was left with something cute and snackable. “I don’t even mind paying more for the individual serving bags. It is fast and easy to throw them into lunch bags,” said Melinda Maryniuk, G79, a diabetes educator and administrator at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.

After they are cut, most fresh veggies are washed in a chlorine solution to kill bacteria and rinsed in plain water. Then they are packaged with less oxygen and more carbon dioxide to slow decay. Even so, they have a shorter shelf life than whole veggies (they need refrigeration) and are faster to lose nutrients like vitamin C.

Precut fruit was trickier to bring to market. The USDA Agriculture Research Service and Mantrose-Haeuser Company spent a decade developing a calcium-and-vitamin-C coating that prevents sliced apples from turning brown and mushy. Fresh apple slices are now available at McDonald’s, in grocery stores, and in school lunches. They’ve had an enormous impact on apple consumption.

In our survey, precut fruit was not a clear-cut success. Some felt like Marla Rhodes, N96, who can see the value of cutting up melon and pineapple—fruits that are hard to deal with whole—but not fruits that come in their own natural wrappers. “Presliced apple dippers infuriate me. Why are we using excess throwaway packaging to give these to children when they can hold an apple in their hand and take a bite?” said Rhodes, who managed a community nonprofit farm in Waltham, Massachusetts. Smaller, kid-sized apples that actually have taste will do the trick.”

Designer Eggs
Eggs all but disappeared from the breakfast table in the 1980s, when their high cholesterol content was considered a no-no for health-conscious hearts. But then scientists found that saturated fat, rather than dietary cholesterol, was the bigger culprit behind high LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels, and most people got the OK to scramble again. As if to mark its return to the spotlight, the humble egg has gotten all dolled up in recent years, with some sporting extra Omega-3 fatty acids and other nutritional bonuses. Eggs with Omega-3 health claims accounted for 9.4 percent of the $2.4 billion Americans spent on fresh eggs sold at food, drug, and mass merchandiser stores other than Wal-Mart in the year ending March 24, 2007, according to Nielsen.

“We definitely appreciate sources of Omega-3s other than fish,” said Jennifer Spadano, N97, N04, a research fellow in public health nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Susan Phinney, N98, a graduate of the Agricultural Food and Environment Program who works for Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts, still uses mostly egg substitute to keep cholesterol down. But, she adds, “When I eat whole eggs, I am delighted to have the option of eggs with more Omega-3s.”

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats that appear to be heart-healthy. The most common sources are fish oil, some nuts, and some vegetable oils. So how do they get them into an egg? It comes down to what the hens are fed. Chicken feeds with flaxseed, safflower oil, algae, or fish oil lead to more Omega-3 content in the egg yolk. Tweaking the feed recipe leads to other benefits as well. Hens fed canola oil turn out eggs with up to 25 percent less saturated fat. Add a little alfalfa, algae, or marigold petal to the feed, and you’ll get eggs with extra lutein, a compound that may help prevent macular degeneration. Fiber in the feed slightly reduces the cholesterol content. Not surprisingly, hens fed vitamin E turn out eggs with extra vitamin E.

Skim Milk That Doesn’t Taste Like Water
They got rid of the skim milk with the funny blue cast a while ago, but in the last five years, some low-fat and nonfat milks have emerged that actually mimic the color and creaminess of whole or 2 percent milk.

Some milk companies add nonfat milk solids to the mix, a standard practice in California for the past 20 years. Others use condensation and filtration to create a rich-tasting but low-fat product. “They are essentially pulling some of the water out of the milk, so what’s left is more of the good things,” explained Sharon Gerdes, a technical support consultant for Dairy Management Inc., in Richlandtown, Pennsylvania. Both processes boost protein and calcium per glass. As with regular skim milk, vitamins A and D3 are also added.

These technologies are just the latest industry efforts to improve the taste and texture of low-fat dairy foods. A quarter century ago, only 14 percent of milk consumed was low-fat or skim. Today, that number is closer to 65 percent. “Improved skim milk has been around for decades, and the shift in consumption has occurred over a long time, but in terms of measurable dietary impact, it is the one with the most potential,” said Jeanne Goldberg, G59, N86, a professor at the Friedman School.

JULIE FLAHERTY is a senior health sciences writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications and the editor of Tufts Nutrition, the alumni magazine of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times.

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155