Monday, August 11, 2008

Nasty Additives to Serve Your Family: Available Now in Prepackaged Foods at a Store Near You


From time to time I receive offers from PR or marketing firms hired by food companies. They hope I will try their foodstuff, give it a glowing review, and recommend it to my readers. Sometimes this works as planned and I am happy to pass along a tip on a new product for everyone to enjoy. Sometimes, however, there's misunderstanding on both sides, and well, I get a yucky product, full of objectionable and questionable ingredients that I would nohow noway recommend to anyone on this planet Earth in this lifetime.

Such was the case recently. The brand name of the product is Wanchai Ferry (from General Mills). The idea is that you, the stressed-out consumer, would go for a prepackaged Chinese dinner in lieu of either making your own or stopping to get take-out Chinese. Now, as anyone knows who does make Chinese (and I am a big fan—
Szechwan, Cantonese, you-name-it—I love Chinese and I love to cook it!), some recipes are fast and easy (egg fu yong, mabo-dofu) and some are slow and tricky with a zillion ingredients (shrimp with lobster sauce, egg rolls). If you opt for the fast and easy ones, you'd be eating your creation before you could drive to the restaurant for take-out anyway—plus you know the ingredients that are going in your mouth, which is reassuring (who uses MSG at home, anyway?).

So Wanchai Ferry assumes you would like to cook Chinese but have no idea what goes into a given dish and somehow cannot do an Internet search for a recipe, nor have the confidence to put one together if you could. The dinner kits come with uncooked jasmine rice (some of us buy jasmine rice in 20-pound sacks and usually have several of those in storage at any give time, but then again, I am maybe a weirdo about stockpiling), and packets of flavoring. You provide the meat and any extra veggies. Suffice it to say that if you have rice, have meat and veggies and maybe a few Chinese seasonings, you could make the dish yourself. But let's say you want to try it the prepackaged way.


Now, before you start cooking, you just happen to glance at the ingredients list. You have been chatted up by the PR firm, praising you for your gourmet Chinese recipes and expertise on making Chinese cooking more approachable, so you assume the package will contain fine-quality ingredients.

How about this for some of those ingredients?

  • Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil Hydrogenated vegetable oils are linked to obesity and health problems, such as heart disease. Did you know the state of California has banned trans-fats? I suggest using natural oils like olive, safflower, or canola instead.
  • High-fructose Corn Syrup There is a correlation between the rise of obesity in the U.S. and the use of HFCS for sweetening foods. I suggest using honey or agave sweetener instead.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG, listed as "natural flavors" or "hydrolyzed vegetable protein") MSG is linked to obesity, is addictive, and causes allergic reactions in some people (like my husband!). I suggest using chicken or vegetable stock instead of MSG to increase flavor.
  • Artificial Colors Did you know you are eating petroleum when you use artificial food colors/dyes? And consumption of artificial colors is linked to behavior problems in children. Natural colors can be added instead. For instance, the spice turmeric makes a beautiful yellow color. Paprika adds a lovely red.

Kind of a shock, huh? For a foodie, that is.


(For examples of pre-packaged entrees that are actually gourmet—with none of the unhealthy ingredients listed above—look no further than your local Trader Joe's.)


But still, food companies insist on these heinous additives, because, voila—they make the food taste yummy and are addicting. Bad for our health, sure, but good for their pocketbooks.

Now the sender of the prepackaged Chinese dinner kits was a PR firm and not in the product development business, but my thought is that as consumers get savvier, we will look toward healthy products more often—and would be willing to pay a premium for such products. The end result is that healthy ingredients in prepackaged foods could help the bottom line too.

For my part, though, I intend to keep empowering my readers to make their own by learning the secrets, to use ingredients they know and love, and to keep things simple. You'll save money over buying prepackaged foods and your enjoyment—and your health--will benefit.

See my instructions for:

Fried Rice

Egg Fu Yong

Mabo-dofu

Goi Cuon (salad rolls)


Ginger Pork


Chow Mein


Sweet & Sour Asian Stew