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VRG Journal September 1993


Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Frozen Convenience Foods

By Suzanne Havala, M.S., R.D.

How many times per week do you cook dinner from scratch? Granted, there are some of you out there who are truly conscientious. You fix and freeze healthfully-prepared, individual portions of food that you can pull out of the freezer during the week and heat up for a quick meal. Or you actually do make dinner from scratch every night. I commend you. However, there is also a large contingency of kitchen-averse veggies out there who prefer to take a few short-cuts. They use some of the myriad of frozen convenience products that are out on the market today.

What is a frozen convenience food? We're talking about ready- made entrees or other items that can make up a substantial portion of a meal. Examples include frozen pizza, burritos, all-inclusive frozen meals (akin to the TV dinners of yesteryear -- an entree with a couple of side dishes), singular entrees, such as lasagna, etc. (Vegetarian burgers and dogs were discussed in the January/February, 1993 issue of Vegetarian Journal.)

There are hundreds of products on the market, not only in natural food stores but increasingly in neighborhood grocery stores as well. We won't attempt to review all that is available, but a little discussion about some of the considerations in choosing these products may be helpful. We've sampled a few products, and we invite you to send us any comments you may have about products that you have tried - good and bad -- so that we can share this information with readers in a future issue of Vegetarian Journal.

When Choosing a Frozen Convenience Product -- Consider the "Basic Four":

  1. nutritional value
  2. taste
  3. convenience
  4. cost


It's hard to assess the nutritional merits of products that don't give nutrition information on their labels. Taj Gourmet Foods makes a line of frozen Indian meals, sold in natural foods stores, that are delicious, such as the Mutter Paneer. Unfortunately, the nutritional content of the dish is a mystery.

In cases where no nutrition information is provided on the label, you may need to use subjective measures to make an assessment. Looking at the list of ingredients, and knowing that ingredients are listed in order of their predominance in the product, can also help. If oil is listed somewhere near the top, then the item is probably high in fat. Another option, of course, is to write the company for nutrition information. (The May/June, 1993 issue of Vegetarian Journal includes an article on label reading.)


Just as you may kiss a few toads before finding a prince, you may have to taste a few duds before finding a good product. Of course, taste is subjective - what one person likes another may reject. So experiment with new products. Expect to be disappointed now and then, but the chances are good that if you are open to trying new products, you'll find some new favorites. A couple of recent duds (judging is subjective - you may feel differently) were two Tumaro's products, Blue Corn Tamales and Black Bean Burritos, both found in natural food stores. The tamales were microwaved according to the package instructions, but the filling was dry. The black bean burritos were also prepared according to package directions. One was microwaved and one was oven-baked in foil. It was nice that the tortillas were made from whole wheat, but they were tough and tended to fall apart. The filling was an interesting mix of black beans, vegetables, and rice, but overall the product was sub-par.

On the other hand, a Jaclyn's product, Grilled Tofu in Black Bean Sauce, was very tasty. The tofu was chewy and tasted good, and the black bean sauce mixed well with the brown rice and mixed vegetables (green beans, carrots, and corn) that were included in the meal. The dish was well-seasoned and not bland. A Jaclyn's spokesperson also recommends trying the Salisbury Steak in Mushroom Sauce -- it's made with seitan.


Let's face it: buying ready-made foods is usually more expensive than making a meal from scratch. We pay for convenience. Convenience usually means being able to reach into the freezer for a ready-made item that needs only to be heated in the microwave, conventional oven, or on the stove -- and can be ready in minutes. For those who like to use a microwave oven, most frozen foods can be ready in anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes. A conventional oven or stovetop cooking can take longer.

Frozen products may also be convenient if they can be heated and even eaten right out of the same package. Some packages that contain more than one serving of a food can be resealed easily, to protect the flavor of the remaining serving. One note: there was a packaging problem with the Jaclyn's Tofu with Black Bean Sauce. The product began to thaw on the way home from the store, and by the time it was put into the freezer, black bean sauce was leaking out of the package and onto the kitchen floor. The plastic covering over the serving container was not intact, and the sauce leaked right out of the cardboard package.


How much are you willing to pay for convenience? Jaclyn's makes Fat-Free Pizza. A box of 9 rectangular slices (total of 24 ounces -- about the same amount as a medium pizza) cost over $6.50 at a Charlotte, North Carolina, natural food store. The pizza is plain, made with soy cheese, and is pretty typical of frozen pizza in taste. Microwaving is not recommended, so the pizza had to be heated in a conventional oven. The crust was good -- thin and crispy -- and the cheese melted fairly well. It could have used more tomato sauce. The flavor of oregano was predominant. This pizza, like many other frozen varieties, would serve as a good base upon which to add more sauce and additional toppings. It passed the day-old-leftover-cold pizza test well, too.

But cost is a factor to consider. How much more would a fresh, home-delivered pizza cost than what you would pay for the Jaclyn's (or another brand) pizza? The Jaclyn's Tofu with Black Bean Sauce was $4.25 at another Charlotte, North Carolina, natural food store. Although the dish included sides of rice and vegetables, many people could probably eat more than the portions given in this product and would perhaps add bread and a dessert to the meal. The total cost might be as much as you would pay at a restaurant for a similar meal.

In the next issue of Vegetarian Journal we will review alternatives to dairy products including non-dairy cheese, yogurt, sour cream, etc.

Scientific Updates

A Review of Recent Scientific Papers Related to Vegetarianism
By Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.

Eating Right After a Heart Attack

If diet can reduce risk of heart disease in a healthy person, could it also reduce the risk of death after a heart attack? Researchers in India set out to answer this question. They studied 406 predominantly male patients who were assigned to either a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts, and fish or to a standard low calorie, reduced fat and cholesterol diet. The diets were started within 48 hours after the subjects had a heart attack. The subjects on the near-vegetarian diet had higher intakes of fiber, polyunsaturated fat, vitamin C and vitamin E. Their dietary cholesterol, calories, and saturated fat were lower than the other group's.

After 6 weeks, those on the near-vegetarian diet had a larger decrease in blood cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides and greater weight loss than did subjects on the more traditional diet. These differences were accompanied by fewer fatal and non-fatal repeat heart attacks and a lower rate of sudden cardiac death in the 6 weeks after the first heart attack in subjects eating a diet rich in cereals, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and fish.

Both groups got about 28% of calories from fat. Those on the near-vegetarian diet averaged 128 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day; the others averaged 266 mg per day. Dean Ornish, M.D., has successfully used a diet with close to 10% of calories from fat and almost no cholesterol in treatment of severe heart disease. We can only wonder if a similar diet would have been even more helpful for the 12 subjects of this study on vegetarian diets who died within 6 weeks of their first heart attack with less rigorous dietary changes. For more information see: Singh RB, Rastogi SS, Verma R, Bolaki L, Singh R: An Indian experiment with nutritional modulation in acute myocardial infarction. Am J Cardiol 69:879-85, 1992.

Diets High in Calcium, low in Animal Protein Reduce Risk of Kidney Stones

In 1986, more than 2 billion dollars was spent on the treatment of kidney stones. About 10% of men and 3% of women will suffer (and from what I've heard, suffer is a mild term) from kidney stones at some time.

Since kidney stones are commonly composed of calcium oxalate and calcium phosphate, conventional wisdom says that to prevent the formation of calcium-containing kidney stones, dietary calcium should be reduced. Until recently no studies had been done examining the validity of this advice. Dr. Gary Curhan and co-investigators at Harvard studied more than 45,000 men for four years. They asked the subjects about their diets at the start of the study and then saw who got kidney stones over the next four years (505 men). Those men who had the highest intake of dietary calcium (over 1050 milligrams daily) had almost half the risk of having a kidney stone compared to men with the lowest dietary calcium (under 600 mg per day). The authors speculate that increased dietary calcium may reduce the absorption of oxalate. Oxalate is also a culprit in kidney stone formation. If less was absorbed, less would be available to form stones.

Readers who want to reduce their risk of kidney stones should not rely on calcium supplements. In the Harvard study, they did not have the same protective effect as did dietary calcium, for unknown reasons. Dairy products are not necessarily the best way to prevent kidney stones. In this study, high animal protein intakes were found to increase risk of kidney stones. Since dairy products are so high in animal protein, it seems sensible to rely mainly on non-dairy sources of calcium to reduce risk of kidney stones.

In addition, those subjects who had high potassium intakes (potassium is found in many fruits and vegetables) and generous fluid intakes also had a lower risk of kidney stones. An editorial in the same issue of New England Journal of Medicine points out that vegetarians have a reduced risk of kidney stones. The editorial also recommends that anyone with calcium oxalate-containing kidney stones drink enough water to keep urine volume above 2 liters per day, limit oxalate rich foods, and limit animal protein. For further information see: Curran GC, Willett WC, Rimm EB, Stampfer MJ. A prospective study of dietary calcium and other nutrients and the risk of symptomatic kidney stones. N Engl J Med 328:833-838, 1993. Lemann J, Jr. Composition of the diet and calcium kidney stones. New Engl J Med 328: 880-882, 1993.

Diet of Breastfeeding Women Affects Incidence of Allergies in their Children

Swedish researchers studied infants to see if their mothers' diets while breastfeeding affected the infants' incidence of allergy. All infants studied were from families with a history of allergies (rashes, asthma, runny noses). Half of the mothers were placed on diets free of eggs, cow's milk, and fish for the first three months of lactation. The other half had no dietary restrictions. All infants were started on cow's milk after six months and on eggs and fish after nine months. At four years, those children whose mothers had avoided cow's milk, eggs, and fish had fewer and less severe allergic-type rashes than the other children. No difference was seen in asthma or other respiratory symptoms. It would have been interesting to see if a longer period of avoiding cow's milk and other foods by mothers and infants would have reduced the incidence of respiratory symptoms and if this would have had an even greater effect on other symptoms. The researchers state that "we still believe that it is too early to advocate ... avoidance of [foods] during lactation to families with [allergies]". They recommend further studies. While one small study does not prove that this type of diet is effective in reducing allergic symptoms, since a diet free of cow's milk and eggs can be nutritionally adequate, it seems reasonable to recommend such a diet to breastfeeding women with a family history of allergy. For further information see: Sigurs N, Hattevig G, Kjellman B. Maternal avoidance of eggs, cow's milk, and fish during lactation: Effect on allergic manifestations, skin-prick tests, and specific IgE antibodies in children at age 4 years. Pediatrics 89: 735-739, 1992.

About this document:

These articles were originally published in the September/October 1993 issue of the Vegetarian Journal, published by:

The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463, Dept. GR
Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-VEGE

The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism and the interrelated issues of health, nutrition, ecology, ethics, and world hunger. In addition to publishing the Vegetarian Journal, VRG produces and sells cookbooks, other books, pamphlets, and article reprints. For more information, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to the above address. Subscriptions to the Vegetarian Journal are $20 per year. All contributions above the $20 subscription are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law.

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