No matter how unhealthy, research shows why people buy processed food

Prepackaged, processed food is less healthy than whole foods, but new University of Minnesota research shows people still buy it, and not just for convenience.

Rilyn Eischens

Prepackaged, processed food is known to be less healthy than whole foods, but new University of Minnesota research shows people still buy it — and not just for convenience.

University School of Nursing researchers found that a lack of meal-planning and cooking skills increases parents’ odds of buying prepackaged, processed foods.

The study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior last month surveyed 160 parents in the Midwest to better understand their motives for buying prepackaged foods and to determine what could lead them to healthier options.

Parents cited time constraints as the most common reason for buying processed foods and nearly half reported they purchase those foods because their families like them. About a third said it’s because their kids are able to prepare prepackaged options.

School of Nursing assistant professor Melissa Horning — one of the lead researchers on the study — said most previously-published literature focuses on time as the biggest reason for reliance on convenience foods, but this study shows another side of the story.

“Targeting cooking abilities and meal-planning skills of parents might be a good step to actually counteract all of those reasons,” she said.

Eating prepackaged, processed foods could be linked to poor overall nutrition, Horning said, because these foods tend to be high in fat, sodium and calories.

“By eating [prepackaged foods], you are also potentially eating less of whole foods like fruits or vegetables or whole grains, and you’re also potentially increasing your overall caloric intake,” she said. “[That could] contribute to obesity in the long run.”

Additionally, Horning said not all readymade meals marketed as healthy options are actually good for you.

“You have to really pay attention to labels, and there’s going to be tradeoffs … to categorically say, ‘Oh, one brand is better’ is way too generalizing,” she said.

But food science and nutrition teaching assistant professor Renata Korczak said some of these foods, like Lean Cuisine, offer portion control and may be higher in protein and fiber, which make you feel fuller.

“I would still encourage consumers to pay attention to saturated fat and the sodium content of these frozen meals,” she said.

Horning said the results of this study could apply to other ages as well, including college students, who benefit from the convenience of processed foods.

Simple tasks like chopping vegetables ahead of time so they’re ready by mealtime can make it easier to resist the temptation of processed foods, Horning said, and frozen fruits and vegetables are another healthy option.

“Those other foods that are advertised as ‘done in five minutes’ … it’s really hard to compete,” she said.

Music freshman Katelyn Belden said convenience is important when she plans meals, but she avoids buying prepackaged foods because she knows they’re unhealthy.

Belden instead prefers making her own food with fresh produce.

For neuroscience junior Christina Garasky, convenience is a major appeal of premade meals. She eats frozen meals like Lean Cuisine a few times a week, she said.

“They’re quick and easy. When you get home after a long day and you’re hungry, you don’t want to make something,” she said. “You just want to eat.”