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Convenience food, or tertiary processed food, is commercially prepared food designed for ease of consumption. Products designated as convenience food are often prepared food stuffs that can be sold as hot, ready-to-eat dishes; as room-temperature, shelf-stable products; or as refrigerated or frozen products that require minimal preparation (typically just heating).
These products are often sold in portion controlled, single serve packaging designed for portability. Convenience food can include products such as candy; beverages such as soft drinks, juices and milk; fast food; nuts, fruits and vegetables in fresh or preserved states; processed meats and cheeses; and canned products such as soups and pasta dishes.
Modern convenience food saw its beginnings in the period that began after World War II Many of these products had their origins in military developed foods designed for storage longevity and ease of preparation in the battle field. After the war, many commercial food companies were left with surplus manufacturing facilities. These companies developed new lines of canned and freeze dried foods that were designed for use in the home. Like many product introductions, not all were successful—convenience food staples such as fish sticks and canned peaches were counterbalanced by failures such as ham sticks and cheeseburgers-in-a-can.
Packaged mixes are convenience foods which requires some preparation and cooking either in the oven or on the stove top. Common examples are cake mixes, macaroni and cheese, brownie mixes, and gravy mixes.
Packaged mixes such as an alfredo sauce mix be lower calorie but may contain fillers, preservatives, and trans fats. A homemade version made with cheese and milk will contain more protein and calcium and less carbohydrate and sodium.
Critics have derided the increasing trend of convenience foods because of numerous issues. Several groups have cited the environmental harm of single serve packaging due to the increased usage of plastics that contributes to solid waste in landfills.
Salt is an essential nutrient, but sodium, usually in the form of salt, has been linked with high blood pressure. A single serving of many convenience foods contains a significant portion of the recommended daily allowance of sodium. Manufacturers are concerned that if the taste of each product is not optimized by adding salt that it will not sell as well as competing products. Tests have shown that some popular packaged foods are dependent on significant amounts of salt for their palatability.
In response to the issues surrounding the healthfulness of convenience and restaurant foods, an initiative in the United States, spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama and her "Let's Move" campaign, to reduce the unhealthy aspects of commercially produced food and fight childhood obesity, was unveiled by the White House in February 2010. Mrs. Obama has pushed the industry to cut back on sugars and salts found in many convenience foods, encouraging self-regulation over government intervention through laws and regulations. Despite Mrs. Obama's stated preference on self-regulation, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it was looking into quantifying the guidelines into law while other groups and municipalities are seeking to add other preventative measures such as target taxes and levies onto these products. In response to the attention, in April 2010 a coalition of sixteen manufactures all agreed to reduce salt levels in foods sold in the United States under a program based on a similar effort in the United Kingdom. However, the initiative has met with resistance from some manufacturers, who claim that processed foods require the current high levels of salt to remain appetizing and to mask undesirable effects of food processing such as "warmed over flavor". The coalition expanded its mission in May 2010 by announcing that it intends to reduce the amount of calories in foods. By introducing lower calorie foods, changing product recipes and reducing portion sizes, the coalition stated that it expected to reduce the caloric content of foods by more than 1.5 trillion calories in total by 2012.
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