Disclosure: I have received samples of some of the products mentioned below including Bumble Bee, Cup Noodles, and Icelandic Provisions. I attended a symposium sponsored by Nestlé. Former clients of mine include Chicken of the Sea. I was not asked to write this post.
While the perimeter aisles of the supermarket have long been thought of as the healthiest place to shop, foods found on the inner aisles are changing their game—and their Nutrition Facts panels. Consumers still need to be advised to read the labels, but it’s helpful to know that healthful food trends have yielded new recipes on a growing list of boxed and packaged foods. Here’s a snapshot of some of the newest more healthful innovations.
Canned Seafood Aisle
The popularity of canned foods, canned seafood included, has waned in recent years as consumers have focused more on fresh ingredients. However, Americans aren’t consuming the recommended two to three seafood servings weekly. As such, seafood companies are stepping up and adding convenient incentives, including the following:
- On-the-go options: Bumble Bee offers snack and lunch options and kits including seasoned tuna with crackers and tuna pouches with spoons. Without the need for refrigeration, canned and pouched tuna and tuna kits make for portable, high-protein lunches and snacks.
- Flavors add excitement: New flavor varieties might entice consumers to eat more seafood. Starkist has added spicy new Tuna Creations flavor pouches in BOLD Hot Buffalo Style, BOLD Thai Chili Style, and BOLD Jalapeño. Chicken of the Sea offers Wild-Caught Tuna Medallions in pouches in Sesame Crust and Black Pepper Crust varieties.
The soup aisle can be a case study for what happens when companies tinker with consumers’ favorite recipes. Many companies are reformulating in anticipation of the new Nutrition Facts panels that will be mandatory by July 2018. While some food makers have found that more healthful recipes can boost sales, others have found the opposite.
- Sodium ups and downs: In early 2010, Campbell Soup Company announced that 60% of their condensed soups would be reformulated to reduce sodium by 45%. But by mid-2011, the company announced they were increasing sodium levels again as a result of negative consumer feedback. What may have been missed was that not all the sodium was added back: Former sodium levels per serving averaged about 800 mg, which was decreased to 480 mg and was then later upped to 650 mg per serving. Today, Classic Tomato is at 480 mg, and Healthy Request Tomato is at 410 mg. All soups marketed to kids with popular characters from Disney Princesses to Spiderman contain no artificial colors or flavors. These chicken and pasta soups contain less sodium (480 mg/serving) than their “adult” counterpart, classic condensed Chicken Noodle Soup (890 mg/serving).
- Salt substitutes lead to more “real” ingredients: While the amount of sodium in a package of Cup Noodles is rather astounding—1070 mg in Chicken flavor—it actually was higher. Last year, sodium was lowered by 23%, to be less than 50% of the DV. In the process, Cup Noodles also removed MSG and artificial flavors. Potassium chloride commonly is used as a salt substitute in food products, but it can have a negative aftertaste. In the case of Cup Noodles, the company tapped into many resources to find “salt/flavor enhancers” to minimize the aftertaste; ingredients such as green cabbage juice, onion powder, and turmeric were added to improve overall flavor.
While canned and packaged soup may not be the most healthful item in the supermarket, for many, it’s an economic reality. Food insecurity not only exists among families but also is becoming apparent on college campuses. As dietitians, we would obviously encourage people to add extra veggies to their less expensive soup bases.
“Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!” That was a famous line from a popular TV commercial. But if the last time you ate Trix was when you were a kid, then you may not recognize those colorful corn puffs now. Cereal companies are taking cues from customers and changing what’s in their boxes.
- Artificial colors erased: Last year, artificial colors and flavors were removed from Cheerios, Golden Grahams, Trix, and several other of General Mills’ most popular cereals. Consumers responded positively, and General Mills cereals posted a 6% retails sales growth at the beginning of 2016, after a 6% sales decline the year before. Kellogg Co aims to stop using artificial colors and flavors in its entire line of cereals and snack bars by the end of 2018. Other cereal companies are following suit.
- Certified Transitional Organic: Less than 1% of US farmland is certified organic, and the process of transitioning a conventional farm to an organic one is long and costly. So Kashi is championing a concept called “Transitional” to organic. The cereal maker buys transitional grains, which are certified by Quality Assurance International to ensure they are grown using sustainable practices that avoid genetically modified seed and synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
Frozen Food Aisle
Dietitians know that healthful frozen fruit and vegetable options abound in the frozen food aisle—consumers, not so much. But they may soon be aware of “freshly” frozen options. Major frozen food producers are aware that sodium content will be bolded in the new Nutrition Facts panel, and, as such, most are cutting sodium. When paired with fruit or veggie sides, many frozen entrées and pizzas can be a part of a convenient and balanced meal.
- Slashing sodium and removing artificial flavors: Over the years, DiGiorno has decreased sodium by about 10% in their most popular rising crust pizzas and simplified all their labels to include no artificial flavors. Sodium reductions have been and will continue to be done gradually over several years, since it takes time for Americans’ palates to adjust to lower-sodium recipes. Additionally, DiGiorno is helping consumers eat healthfully by providing on-pack portion guidance.
- Adding veggies, whole grains, and more: Makers of frozen entrées such as Lean Cuisine now offer more options that provide whole grains, more protein, and 1 cup of vegetables. The company also provides guidance on many packages urging people to balance their plate by adding a fruit, veggie or other healthful side to round out the meal.
While generally located on the perimeter of the store, enough innovation is happening in the dairy case that it deserves a second look.
- New cultures lower the need for sugar: Through the development of a proprietary yogurt culture, Stonyfield achieved a formula that reduces tartness. Less lactic acid is formed with the addition of this new culture, and thus less sugar needs to be added for palatability. Stonyfield’s YoKids yogurts claim to have 40% less sugar than traditional kids’ yogurt.
- Beyond Greek: Higher-protein yogurt options abound. If clients don’t care for one type of higher-protein yogurt, have them try another. Icelandic Provisions touts that a 200-year-old heirloom culture makes their skyr (a yogurtlike Icelandic cultured dairy product) rich and smooth. Antioxidant-rich lingonberries and other Nordic berries often are used to flavor this low-sugar yogurt.
While only a few food producers were mentioned here, hundreds are changing their recipes to be more in line with consumer and dietitian demands. A major driver is competition among brands—which is generally a good thing for the consumer. Check out the inner aisles of the supermarket to see what’s changed.
— Serena Ball, MS, RD, is a food writer and co-owner of Teaspoon Communications, a food-focused nutrition communications group of culinary-minded registered dietitian nutritionists. She blogs about delicious recipes and timesaving kitchen hacks at TeaspoonOfSpice.com.