McCain launches additive-free frozen foods

McCain Foods unveiled an additive-free product line Wednesday and will continue revamping its frozen foods to remove most of the chemicals whose long, tongue-twisting names make up a good part of the ingredients list of many products.
McCain Foods unveiled an additive-free product line Wednesday and will continue revamping its frozen foods to remove most of the chemicals whose long, tongue-twisting names make up a good part of the ingredients list of many products.

"Not surprisingly, people said they didn't like sodium carboxymethyl cellulose or sodium tripolyphosphate," said Heather Crees, vice-president of marketing for McCain Foods Canada, in an interview with CBC News. "I affectionately say our goal is to remove the -ates, the -ites and the -ides.

"This is a complete revamp of the lineup. We've done it on our pizza products, Pizza Pockets and potato products. And there is a commitment there that we will do it to our complete retail lineup."

McCain Foods began the effort to change its frozen foods 18 months ago and to date has spent more than $10 million on research and development to find new ways to maintain taste and preserve products without having to raise prices.

"I can tell you it wasn't an easy process," said Crees. "There were times when we didn't know if we could do it. My job was to ask for the impossible. They'd come and say, 'We're trying, but we don't know if this is going to work'."

She used Pizza Pockets as an example of one product the research team struggled to rid of preservatives.

"It's a great example of something that historically had lots of unpronounceable ingredients, and one of the toughest to get out was mono- and diglycerides," said Crees. "The other example, just talking about Pizza Pockets, we were able to add flax to that. And that allows us to deliver a fibre claim."

Trend toward wholesome food driving changes

McCain's revamp comes during the emergence of several trends, including the desire to eat more home-cooked meals, which is constrained by the reality that most working families don't always have the time to make meals from scratch.

"Overwhelmingly, we hear from consumers that, 'I use [prepared food] because I have to, but I never quite feel as good as I know that I should'," said Crees, who has two sons, age seven and four, respectively.

Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist and host of The Parenting Show, a weekly call-in advice show on Roger's Cable, knows all about rushing around while trying to make time for cooking healthy meals.

"I'm someone who enjoys cooking and being in the kitchen, and even with all that, I still need the plan B," said Schafer, who was a moderator at the Pantry Summit, held in Toronto. "I support community agriculture, and yet I know I have a 14-year-old who is not going to open up the food box and make a meal."

A top concern for Schafer is the disappearing family supper. Less than 50 per cent of Canadian families eat supper together, compared to 80 per cent to 90 per cent of families in Italy and France.

"As a psychotherapist, I really want to remind people that we need to get back to the dinner table," Schafer said. "Most of us don't have lunch together once the kids hit school age, so lunch is gone. Breakfast is waning. If we don't hold on to dinner, I think we're in serious dilemma."

Part of the reason for that is the time crunch that families face, rushing from work to home, picking up kids at daycare only to rush them off to sports and other organized activities. And somewhere in between, feeding everyone.

According to Statistics Canada, people spent 45 minutes less with their families on work days in 2005 than they did almost two decades earlier.

"If we can make dinner healthy, fast and convenient, I think we can hold on to this concept of the family dinner," Schafer said. "We're not going to stop having two-income families. We're not going to stop having Kumon classes and karate.

"Do I recommend packaged food seven days a week to feed a family? No. Can I say to a packaged food company, 'We're eating your stuff, so you better make it healthy'? Yeah. And I think they're starting to listen."