The end of March also brings a close to National Frozen Food Month – a holiday organized by the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, Inc. that celebrates a culinary craze dating back to the ’50s.
Even after the month is over, freezer food will still cover supermarket shelves and fill shopping carts. Luckily, as today’s brands reflect current organic and dietary trends, the frozen meal’s image now extends beyond a Swanson’s salisbury steak.
USF dietitian Kimberly May said in an e-mail that students should choose their food purchases by focusing on four nutritional concerns: calories, fat, sodium and genetically modified organisms (GMO).
May recommends less than 600 calories, 500 milligrams of sodium and 5 grams of saturated fat in a frozen meal. Healthy Choice’s and Smart One’s product lines “usually meet (these) guidelines,” she said.
GMOs include processed ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and should be avoided when possible. Non-GMO Shopping Guide, a Web site advocating against GMOs, warns that among other companies, Healthy Choice meals may still contain GMO ingredients.
USF’s convenience store, located next to the Andros dining hall, has its own frozen food section.
Stocked items include pepperoni Hot Pockets, which contain 550 calories and 32 percent of a day’s recommended fat in a single serving, as well as microwavable burritos, personal pizzas and other quick-fix foods.
But the store also provides Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice products, as well as tofu scrambles from Amy’s Kitchen – a frozen food company that makes dinners with organic, non-GMO ingredients.
A Lean Cuisine spaghetti with meat sauce meal has 320 calories and 4 grams of fat – significantly less than a Hot Pocket.
Nelson Cifuentes, a junior majoring in biomedical sciences, said he buys frozen dinners mainly because it provides dinner with only four or five minutes of microwave reheating.
“It’s especially convenient for us college students who don’t have time to cook,” Cifuentes said.
He doesn’t consider nutrition when buying frozen foods.
“That’s just me,” Cifuentes said. “I don’t mind (carbohydrates) and all. I just work out and hope everything balances out.”
Outside of traditional frozen meals, May said she recommends frozen Ezekiel bread – which Publix carries in the Greenwise section – as a healthy alternative to a loaf of buttered bread.
Making frozen food wholesome does not have to involve prepackaged products. May said putting ripe fruits and vegetables on freezer shelves is an “incredible way” to capture their healthy components.
“Since fruits and vegetables lose their nutrients over time, freezing them can help retain their nutrients and phytochemicals,” May said.
May said purchasing local produce could increase health benefits, since those crops don’t stay on trucks for several days.
Melissa Sharrock, a senior majoring in history, said she had never thought of freezing her leafy greens, but she said she buys “a lot” of frozen vegetable products.
“I don’t technically know if they have preservatives or anything,” Sharrock said. “But I try to stay away from mashed potatoes or other fatty foods.”
However, Sharrock said she believes frozen vegetable manufacturers, like Green Giant, could advertise their ingredients’ origins better.
“I guess if they labeled more clearly ‘genetically modified’ and didn’t just say, ‘Weight Watchers: six points,'” she said.
May said making the healthiest purchases in a growing frozen food market requires students to study the packaging.
“Consumers really have choices for both nutritious and less nutritious items,” May said. “Although most of those items are not nutritious, there are several healthy options, too.”