By Michele of Frugal Granola, Contributing Writer

Whether you’re traveling, eating out with a friend, or picking up some convenience food for lunch boxes, do you know if you’ve made a healthy choice?

At first glance, many meal options appear healthy, but some added ingredients may be a surprise. Convenience food or restaurant developers have deliberately designed scientifically-adjusted fast food flavors and textures of their foods to appeal to customers and to remain memorable and desirable.

Fast food restaurants and packaged food companies typically serve foods which have been processed to offer irresistible flavors and easy-to-eat textures.

From salty-sweet chicken dinners and frosted cinnamon buns, to vegetable oil-laden dressings and syrupy iced drinks, menu items are full of ingredients that trigger emotional and mental responses to the pleasure of taste.

Fast food restaurants’ offerings are intentionally designed to appeal to cravings for certain flavors, aromas and textures, instead of merely satisfying hunger or providing nourishment.

Former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. David Kessler, observes in his book Your Food is Fooling You:

“Food companies make these foods with very large amounts of three ingredients- sugar, fat and salt… These three ingredients, when put together in the right amounts, make us eat more… Instead of satisfying our hunger, these foods train our bodies and our brains to want more. And food companies, including fast food chains, understand this very well. They are hard at work to make new foods that will get us to keep eating” (7).

Fast food processors use scientific techniques and ingredients to produce signature menu items when they create the ingredients which are later delivered to restaurant kitchens.

For example, consider a chicken salad from a typical restaurant menu. When initially previewing the menu, it seems to stand out as a healthy option amid the fried foods.

However, grilled meats are often presoaked or injected with sugar and salt-filled sauces and chemical flavorings, which increase the flavor intensity compared to a typical meal at home.

Later, when the processed food is served to a patron, the food is usually accompanied by sweet sauces made mostly of sugar substances such as high fructose corn syrup.

(It doesn’t sound so healthy anymore, does it?) 

In Your Food is Fooling You, Dr. Kessler explains that processors for fast food restaurants may “inject sauces into meats with hundreds of needles. This tears the meat, basically making it ‘prechewed'” (64).

Sara Ward, researcher at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill explains that “the power of sugar and fat was only slightly less than cocaine, a highly addictive drug… [and] when a food is almost as powerful as cocaine, we know it is highly reinforcing” (Kessler 40).

Fast foods with addicting flavors and a pleasing, soft texture encourage customers to quickly and easily eat more, and then crave it as “comfort food” later.

A few things to look for when you’re browsing your favorite grill’s menu or the grocery store’s snack and freezer aisles:

1. Hidden Forms of Sugar

Many convenience foods will bear healthy-looking wrappers with nature themes, gluten-free labels or diet claims.

However, inspecting the ingredient list may reveal not just sugar, but multiple forms of sweetener in a single item!

Evaporated cane juice, honey, brown rice syrup, glucose syrup, fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, tapioca syrup and more are often added to products in combinations.

2. Boneless Meats

Consider whether the meat serving is in a likely “cut” or has it been processed and reformed into a dinosaur-shaped “nugget”. Is the meat served in uniform-sized and breaded or marinated fillets or strips?

3. Sauces & Sides

That “healthy” salad may come with not only injected or marinated meat, it may also be served with sugar-coated walnuts, a sweetened vegetable oil dressing and salty dips for your side dish. Snack foods are often available with “mix-ins” or dips that sneak sugar, unhealthy types of fats and excess salt into a child’s meal, transforming healthy yogurt or veggie sticks into a less-than suitable treat.

Make an Informed Decision

Sometimes, meal options are very limited when you are on the road or at a family gathering, for example. Keeping an eye out for some of these sneaky convenience food “traps” can help you choose a preferable meal option at your next outing!

What are some questionable ingredients you have spotted in “healthy” convenience foods?


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