How Healthy is ConAgra’s Healthy Choice?

Very healthy! Or at least that’s what new research, sponsored by ConAgra, has shown. Here’s the press release:

ConAgra Foods announced today new research that shows people who ate Healthy Choice(R) really did get healthier. Participants in the 24-week study, on average, lost 18 pounds – all as fat – trimmed their waistlines by about three inches, and lowered their cholesterol by 12 points. Leading cardiologist Dr. James Rippe, founder and director of the Rippe Lifestyle Institute, led the research team that conducted the study, which was presented during the 2009 Experimental Biology Conference April 18-22 in New Orleans, La.

get it all here…

Excuse us while we scratch our heads. How can The Rippe Institute conduct a truly objective study when it is being heftily paid by a company with a vested interest in a specific outcome?

Reading into the study, the people eating Helthy Choice got healthier because they were forced to excercise, eat only fruits, vegetables, lean meat and dairy, and whole grains. Oh, and one Healthy Choice meal once a day. How can the weight loss be attributed specifically to the frozen meal?

This press release is part of a huge rebranding of the Healthy Choice empire, including the introduction of new products, reformulation of some existing lines, and new packaging. ConAgra is estimated to be spending close to $100 million on this effort, including National TV Ads starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and web activities.

What you need to know:

While frozen dinners have made some headway over the past few years in terms of nutritional content, they still lag far behind home made food on several fronts:

1. high levels of salt – in the clip above, Julia Louis Dreyfus is stuffing herself silly with Sweet Asian Potstickers containing 600mg of sodium. That’s a quarter of the daily maximum value.

2. high levels of sugar – 19 grams or 4 teaspoonfuls. Hey, is this dessert?

3. too many ingredients* – here’s what’s inside the Sweet Asian Potstickers:

Vegetable Potstickers: (Filling [Cabbage, Vermicelli {Mung Bean, Water}, Baked Tofu (Tofu [Water, Whole Soybeans, Nigari], Tamari [Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol, Wheat], Natural Flavors, Spices), Bulgur Wheat, Precooked Rice, Water Chestnuts, Green Beans, Onions, Carrots, Soy Sauce (Water, Wheat, Soybeans, Salt), Sesame Oil, Evaporated Cane Juice, Salt, Xanthan Gum, Spice], Wrapper [Wheat Flour, Water, Corn Starch, Soybean and/or Canola Oil]). Cooked Whole Grain Brown Rice, Water, Sugar, Carrots, Red Peppers, Sake, Rice Vinegar, Scallions, Corn Starch, Wheat, Soybeans, Spices, Sesame Oil, Garlic Puree, Salt, Locust Gum

To be fair, most of the list above is actually understandable, and there are no freaky additives or preservatives in this dish. So when the food scientists want to, they can dish out healthy fare…

* We could not find the ingredient information on the Healthy Choice website. The customer support group did reply promptly to our email, though.

What to do at the supermarket:

If you really really can’t prepare your own food, and must grab something from the Frozen Dinner Aisle, take a look at health brands such as Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine first. The brand does not automatically promise you’ll get a nutritious dish, but it improves the chances.

Proceed to check the ingredient list, scanning for unpronounceable chemicals, and then look at the sodium count. It should be in the neighborhood of  400-500mg or less. The sugar count should be lower than 12 grams. Usually the calorie count will be decent, because manufacturers know that’s the only number most people look at.

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  • suze

    Frozen dinners are not the healthiest thing you can eat, but Healthy Choice at least uses whole wheat instead of white pasta and rice, they could be worse, but yeah, the sodium and sugar in almost any frozen dinner is out of control. I try to avoid all processed stuff in general..but sometimes ya just gotta, and occasionally will eat a Lean Cuisine, etc..but prefer brands like Amy’s or Kashi. The worst part about them, is most of them really don’t have much flavor..they’re kinda blah. I always load them up with a ton of extra veggies and some spices.. :O)