Can packaged foods unlock healthy eating? Some Minnesota companies think so

It feels like a paradox: packaged food that’s labeled “all natural.”

Yet several Minnesota-based food companies are chasing health-conscious consumers with, for lack of a better term, processed foods.

Can healthy and convenient coexist? Laura Meemken, founder of organic and allergy-friendly boxed meal company All Clean Food, thinks so.

“We need easy, healthy and delicious — all those things have to be true,” Meemken said. “People pick us up for the convenience but return because of the flavors.”

Her experience as a therapist who specialized in nutrition and mental health showed her that eating healthy needs to be easier to reap sustained benefits.

“It has to be approachable,” she said. “If we don’t enjoy the food we’re eating, we’re not going to eat it.”

The term “processed food” carries stigma, but the act of turning agricultural products into food creates nearly everything at a grocery store aside from raw produce.

The most widely used processed-food classification system comes from Nova. Categories range from minimally processed — shelled nuts or dried grains — to ultraprocessed, which leaves few if any whole ingredients fully intact.

Ultraprocessed can mean a Big Mac and fries as well as nutrient-packed multigrain bread and energy gels used by elite athletes. All Clean Food falls somewhere in between the extremes of processing.

“It surprises people to know these are real ingredients, that you don’t have to have over-processed ingredients for it to taste good,” Meemken said.

A debate at the Institute of Food Technologists conference last month focused on whether the world should eat more processed food.

“Ultraprocessed foods in the right circumstances and conditions are actually quite good for us, good for local economies, good for our bodies and good for the public,” argued author and futurist Amy Webb. “Some of it is bad. Some of it is the result of evidence-based research by food science and investment into emerging food technologies.”

But a study at the National Institutes of Health showed that when offered the same amount of calories and nutrients in processed versus unprocessed foods, people will overeat processed foods and quickly gain weight. The reasons why are still being studied.

“Should we, a nation that is already over-consuming most of our calories coming from ultraprocessed foods, eat more?” the study’s lead researcher, Kevin Hall, said. “Just logic suggests … the answer is no.”

There was agreement that some processed foods are essential and have lessened global hunger in the past century; even nutrition scion Marion Nestle conceded they are “the most important nutrition concept since vitamins.”

“Processed foods provide an ample supply of calories and nutrients to a population to sustain them,” Hall said. “What we can’t ignore are the unintended consequences.”

Convenient foods can be a bridge

Researchers recently discovered a curious trend: The more restrictive a diet becomes, from omnivore to vegetarian to vegan, the more processed foods are consumed.

“Not all vegetarian diets necessarily have health benefits, because of potential adverse effects of (ultraprocessed foods) on nutritional quality and healthiness of diet,” the study found.

Yet on average, research shows those strictly following a vegetarian or vegan diet are much less likely than omnivores to be obese or experience Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure.

Making plant-based foods more convenient and full of flavor can be a bridge for those cutting down on animal products and seeking those health benefits.

“We want to teach people how to actually create center-of-the-plate items with plants that come with a punch of flavor,” said Wicked Foods CEO Pete Speranza. “Let’s keep the sugar, salt, fat and all that, let’s just do it with plants.”

Edina-based Wicked has built its brand around plant-based frozen entrees and meal kits, growing sales to $40 million in about four years.

Though the brand is still working on its Minnesota retail debut, it has a regional US presence at Kroger stores and remains popular in England, where it began.

Speranza, a former General Mills executive, said primarily consumers choose Wicked because of the environmental impact of going plant-based.

“That’s the number one reason people try it,” he said. “They think of it as buying power and how to shape the way we do things, and that’s very true.”

Plant-based foods without sacrificing flavor

Though many consumers see the label “organic” and think “healthy,” what it is meant to connote is how the food is produced, not that it is nutritionally superior. (Advocates would argue that foods free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are inherently healthier for humans and the planet.)

The USDA Organic seal is increasingly found on processed foods that highlight flavor and convenience.

Freak Flag Organics in Minneapolis sells bone broths and vegan pestos that, like Wicked, don’t skimp on the fat and sodium.

Annie’s, which General Mills bought in 2014, is one of the largest organic consumer brands in the country. A new line of oven-baked mac and cheese kits promises to “help cut down on prep time without sacrificing a delicious meal.”

“It’s critical that our innovation efforts consistently reflect and support the busy, everyday lives of families,” General Mills chief brand officer Doug Martin said in a statement.

All Clean Food is introducing a line of gluten-free pastas later this year, and within the next few years Meemken aims it to be a national brand.

As allergy, diet and climate concerns collide, Meemken said, she expects more competitors.

“My hope is that brands like ours move into that shelf space and show consumers that you can have a boxed meal that you have in your cupboard that is not full of strange preservatives and lab-created ingredients,” she said. “We can get that out of the grocery store. And we can replace it with real food.”

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