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June 17, 2010

Is Stouffer's "Good Enough" to Prevent Eating Disorders?

There's an article in the March issue of Women's Day called "Why the 'Good Enough' Family Dinner is Great". (Yes, this is a little bit old - I found it while cleaning up my 'magazine stuff to blog about' pile.) The author, Paula Spencer, talks about having "on-your-own night" with her kids on really busy days: "OYO Night means each person gets free reign to rifle the pantry for the meal of his or her choice, so long as it passes muster as reasonably nutritious and I don't have to prepare it". She then raises the question of whether OYO Night is, well, good enough:

Does it count as a family dinner - the kind that researchers are touting so highly these days? Study after study shows kids who dine with family are healthier, less likely to be fat, less likely to smoke or drink or use drugs. They do better in school and just plain feel happier. Eating with parents teaches kids conversational skills, manners and values. Who wouldn't want to serve up all that to a child?

From where I sit, the answer is yes, we had a darn good family dinner. After all, we're family (even if we weren't all present). We dined well (even if our plates weren't identical). We had lots of positive interactions (I didn't even raise my voice when the milk spilled!) Call it the good-enough family dinner.

I'm not knocking proper meals. In fact, I aspire to them, and manage to pull them off more often than not. But I suspect that your kitchen, like mine, too often serves as a bustling way station passed through between work, school, and 1,001 errands and activities.

Keep those good intentions but toss your guilt...The secret to a good-enough family dinner is to put the emphasis on good food, good company and your good example.
Spencer goes on to give some tips for creating a good good-enough family dinner, but it was a little hard for me to read them because as soon as I turned the page I was distracted by the huge Stouffer's ad wrapped around the rest of the article.

Let's take a closer look at this ad, shall we?
Can you give your daughter a better body image by setting the table? Studies show that teen girls who have family dinner 5 times a week are 33% less likely to develop eating disorders.
Hey, that's funny, I was just reading a magazine article about how great family dinners are. But I'm really busy and I don't always have time...
Stouffer's Easy Express. Ready for the table in under 20 minutes. Make dinner happen on any night.
That sounds perfect! It's so lucky that this giant ad was coincidentally paired with this article. I always think it's interesting to see what magazines can get away with in terms of the relationship between advertising and editorial content, especially since the FTC started cracking down on bloggers for similar stuff.

After noticing the cozy ad/article pairing here, the next thing I thought of was one of the blog posts from the whole Nestle Family drama awhile back. (Nestle owns the Stouffer's brand.) There's a series over at PhD in Parenting where Nestle answers some of the blogger's questions about their products and business practices, and one of the exchanges is about the sodium content of Stouffer's meals:

You told the bloggers that Stouffer’s meals contain no preservatives and they tweeted about it. I assume they misheard you, since most of the Stouffer’s meals seem to have a sodium content of between 25% and 40% of the daily recommended allowance for an adult in one serving. If my 2.5 year old were to have one serving of your Family Vegetable Lasagna, she would be getting 100% of her recommended daily sodium intake from that one piece of lasagna. Salt/sodium is a well-known preservative. Please explain (a) why you would characterize Stouffer’s as preservative free and (b) why you feel it is appropriate to market foods with dangerously high sodium levels to families.
I definitely recommend reading the entire thing, but I'll try to just sum it up so this doesn't get crazy long. Basically, Nestle's answer was some rationalizing about how technically there isn't enough sodium in their products for it to officially qualify as a preservative, and anyway, there really isn't that much sodium in our products. This is my favorite line:
Our product development teams, who are trained in both food science and the culinary arts, use sodium for flavor and seasoning –which is an important feature of our Stouffer’s recipes.
They also put their own spin on the hypothetical lasagna scenario from the question, claiming that a toddler would actually only get 32% of their daily recommended level of sodium from a Stouffer's meal. Unfortunately for Nestle, the blogger's response shows how they fudged their numbers:
According to the USDA Food Guide, which Nestle references above, for toddlers (1 to 3 years old) the maximum daily intake level of sodium to avoid adverse affects is 1500mg per day. In its answer above, Nestle mentions that the recommended sodium level for toddlers is 1500mg per day. That is not correct. The absolute maximum a toddler should be getting per day is 1500mg. The recommended sodium level for toddlers is 1000mg.
She goes on to argue that while Stouffer's is certainly not the only brand with "dangerously high sodium levels", that doesn't mean we should ignore the fact that their products are far from a "healthy alternative". And she compares nutrition info to show that a Stouffer's frozen dinner really isn't much better than going to McDonald's.

I don’t love feeding my family processed food. But as a busy working mom, I do throw a frozen lasagna or frozen pizza in the oven more often than I would like. But I do read the labels. I try to find the best alternative among the ones out there. I think even the best still have a ways to go in terms of reducing the levels of sodium and saturated fat. I think it is possible to make a tasty nutritious frozen meal with less fat and less salt. The thing is that to make something tasty, you need to either include salt (which is cheap) or include more tasty ingredients like great vegetables (which are expensive). Replacing the salt with other tasty but healthy ingredients would decrease profits. That is the real issue here. It is cheaper to keep you addicted to their foods by adding more salt, than by adding nutritious foods.

... I think there is plenty of room to improve. Not just for Stouffer’s, but for the whole industry. Our sodium levels are twice what they should be and more than 3/4 of our sodium is coming from processed foods. We need the industry’s help to reduce sodium levels or we need to stop buying their stuff.

Just to be clear, this isn't about judging people for eating frozen foods or anything like that. And in fairness to the author of the actual article in Women's Day, her tips about how a "good enough" family dinner doesn't have to be home-cooked actually focus more on "just how easy actual home cooking can be. Think of cooking as a time for health, not hassle."

My issue is with this ad using the language of positive body image and anti-eating disorders to sell a product. Because when I read things like this sodium Q&A, and combine that with everything else I know about Nestle and how they operate as a company, especially where the marketing of products to mothers and children is concerned...I just have a hard time believing that they're so deeply committed to the health and well-being of girls. Family dinners might be good for girls, but that doesn't mean that most Stouffer's food is actually healthy for them. I think that if Nestle really cares about this issue, they should change their products and not just their advertising.

1 comment:

Marika said...

You know, we had homemade family dinners (and often breakfasts and lunches) every day for pretty much my entire childhood and adolescence, and my self-image sucked, and didn't start getting much better until I moved out. My brother has done several illicit drugs and both of our conversation skills suck.

Eating together isn't what makes kids less likely to have image issues or do drugs or whatever, a loving, trusting, supportive family is, and it sucks when a company tries to market their product as fixing much greater problems than it really can.

That said, marketing is marketing. This is what they do, and their message could be a lot worse.