Companies come up with ways to make veggies more lovable

New York TimesMay 6, 2014 

BAGGED SALADS

Pre-mixed salad moves down the assembly line for packaging and transport to customers at Earthbound Farms plant in Yuma, Ariz. Vegetable growers are making their produce easier to cook with by doing the prep work themselves: washing, trimming and combining varieties in the same package.

ALFRED J. HERNANDEZ — AP

For years, the government has been urging Americans to eat more vegetables for better health, with little to show for the effort. Consumption has been stuck at barely half the recommended amount. Now, from private enterprise, come two very different strategies. One aims to make vegetables more attractive and easier to use. The other would actually make them less visible, slipping them into other foods.

The problem

Not quite 5 percent of Americans younger than 50 are getting the recommended amount of vegetables, and only 10 to 25 percent of older adults achieve this goal, says the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of experts that helps set federal nutrition policy.

The goal

The government’s recommendation varies by sex and age but calls for roughly 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day. (And no cheating with raw spinach or other bulky greens; 5 cups of those items are needed to meet the goal.) The Harvard School of Public Health goes even further by ruling out potatoes.

The benefits

According to two long-running Harvard studies, people who ate at least five servings of produce a day had about 30 percent lower risk of heart disease than those who ate less than 1/2 serving. Federal trials have also found significant reductions in blood pressure and LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol. And some vegetables may help to protect against cancers of the mouth, larynx, esophagus, stomach and cervix, according to a science review by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Making them cute …

The food industry’s effort to make vegetables more attractive and less threatening started with baby carrots and moved on to baby greens. But bigger works, too. Bejo Seeds is developing a sweet, 10-pound kohlrabi that is easier to peel and cut into crunchy little snacks.

… And convenient …

Vegetable growers are making their produce easier to cook by doing the prep work themselves: washing, trimming and combining varieties in the same package. The newest entry is bags of thinly shaved Brussels sprouts. While the prepped versions can cost twice as much as regular vegetables, there’s less for a shopper to discard. And they are often packed in breathable bags that help extend freshness.

… And compelling

Wegmans, a family-owned grocer in the Mid-Atlantic region, is pioneering other enticements to draw shoppers to its sprawling produce sections. Its 84 stores have farmer meet-and-greets, cooking demonstrations and counters where workers prepare fresh vegetable mixes for stir-fries and other produce-heavy meals that can be made at home. It still sells plenty of junk food, but by promoting vegetables, “hopefully one day we can eliminate the worst of that,” said Nicole Wegman, senior vice president for perishable merchandising.

Ready to inject

Since 1928, Green Giant (now owned by General Mills) has been an ambassador for processed vegetables like canned peas and frozen corn. Its newest product takes convenience to a new level: Veggie Blend-Ins, introduced this year, are plastic pouches filled with squash, carrots or spinach, each cooked, pureed and ready to be added to other, presumably less-healthful foods.

Spiking a snack

General Mills has promoted its Blend-Ins with recipes that mix the vegetables into some of its other products. But the results might not do much for Americans’ vegetable deficit.

The nutritional math is trickier if you follow the company’s suggestion for “Brownies With a Boost”: add a spinach Blend-Ins to the family size of its traditional Betty Crocker Fudge Brownies mix. Nutrition experts say the small amount of spinach (about a teaspoon a brownie) may encourage people to eat more brownies by giving them a “health halo.” A General Mills spokesman conceded that the recipe is no nutritional panacea but said, “For baked goods, it’s about making them better for you through the introduction of some amount of veggies, but also by providing an opportunity to replace some of the fat.”

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