Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good Things Come in Packages ... Did I say that?

This week, I was invited to a friend's house for a Healthy Pantry dinner party. Healthy Pantry is a company that sells easy-to-prepare meals that are still relatively healthy (some organics, no GMOs, no nasty preservatives or HFCS, etc.).

Now, I'm probably the worst nightmare of anyone who gives a party like this. I'm far too cheap to buy anything, I love to cook, and I know how to cook. But I went, partly to support my friend, and partly because I was interested in looking at the business model. As it turns out, I came away with some surprising insights about Americans and food.

I am certainly an American, myself. Heck! I was born in the heartland ... in Missouri! Still, my palate was never typically American, maybe because my mother is a world traveler, and we ate (at home and out) foreign foods, many of which have since come into fashion (Middle Eastern, African, Latino, Asian and Caribbean foods). Maybe it's because I grew up in New York City, where walking a few blocks puts you square into another country. So, I've always had very broad tastes, and I tend to prefer my savory meals to be just that ... savory, not sweet. I also enjoy a good amount of spice, though any self-respecting Jamaican would pummel me in a spice-off! I didn't grow up on white bread, Kraft Mac n Cheese and Hellman's Mayo, so I never developed tastes for those sort of things. To the contrary, I was accustomed to rye bread, spicy mustard, and mostly fresh foods. In fact, making the transition to a mostly whole foods, fresh diet was hardly a transition at all for me. I forget sometimes that I'm the oddball in this country, and I think other people would want to eat like me, if only they would see the health benefits. Maybe not.

In sitting at a table filled with mostly health-minded people who wanted to do right by their families, and who were not afraid of words like quinoa or agave, I saw that even though the intention was clearly there, intention and taste have very little to do with one another. Intellectually, health-minded people want to eat healthy foods, but when they encounter healthy foods, they don't often inspire them to salivate or ask for seconds. Whether we like it or not, culture or media or family have conditioned us to like certain kinds of foods. Many of the people sitting around this table were really looking for ways to eat the sort of stuff that is the cultural norm - foods marketed to us by the big food processors - but they didn't want to pay the health price for the indulgence. That's not a completely unreasonable request ... certainly, it's human. I've even done it myself (see my taco recipe).

I'll give some examples. A number of the foods that were presented to us that night were too sweet for my taste (pineapple-turkey meatloaf, quinoa chili, wild salmon patties). Now, these did not contain sugar, and they were actually quite healthy in their ingredients. But the Healthy Pantry people clearly know the American palate, and they know we tend to favor sweet things, and we tend to shy away from spicy foods. So, the chili, which was supposed to be spicy, was flavorful, but not at all spicy. And the pineapple-turkey meatloaf, which was simply sweetened with a pineapple chutney (may actually contain some cane sugar ... I didn't see the label), was excessively sweet for me. But everyone else seemed to love everything. In fact, I was the only Scrooge there who didn't buy a single thing!

So, the question that remains is, does eating a healthy diet require a taste revolution? Or can we have our sweet meatloaf and eat it, too? I don't have the answer to that. Based on information I gathered at the party, and on the company's website, eating food from the Healthy Pantry is a vast improvement over the standard American diet, and yet it asks virtually nothing of you in compromise. It's really very clever. It is truly giving people what they want, without any guilt. You get whole grains, you get quality proteins without much fat, and you get some of the essentials nutrients often lacking in American diets, like omega 3s. The only thing you don't get is fresh produce, but as they said at the party, you can always throw together a side salad for that (or steamed broccoli, or stir-fried veggies, or grilled asparagus ... am I getting carried away?). For those who are looking for some healthy changes in their diets, but don't have the time to cook, and can't afford a personal chef, Healthy Pantry might be a good solution for you, especially if your tastes match their flavor profiles.

For the serious environmental foodie, or for the slow food advocate, any packaged food will certainly break the rules. There are ethical considerations in eating foods transported from the other side of the world, or even the other side of the country. There are some health considerations in eating foods that are processed at all, even if minimally so (mostly in that what isn't done in your own kitchen can't be known, and so there is risk involved). There are also the economic advantages that cooking from scratch allows. But I think that Healthy Pantry is still a strong step in the right direction for many people who are concerned about their health.

1 comment:

Marcia said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I have never heard of Healthy Pantry. But like you, I'd probably not buy anything - because I'm cheap, and my tastes have changed so much that I don't prefer the standard American diet anymore.