Defining vegetables

A few months ago, Kraft Foods made a big announcement: Their loved-by-children macaroni and cheese dinner would soon include a half serving of vegetables in the form of cauliflower. To be clear, only one line of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is made with cauliflower. So how exactly does the vegetable make it into the box? Kraft “freeze-dries cauliflower and pulverizes it into a powder, then uses that powder to replace some of the flour in the pasta.”

The Chicago Tribune recently ran an article touching upon some important questions raised by Kraft’s recent innovation:

First, does processing vegetables impact their nutritional value? Is anything lost when Kraft’s machines pulverize that cauliflower? The chart below, based on USDA data, compares the antioxidant potential of three types of cauliflower and shows that processing cauliflower does result in changes.

These changes appear to be minimal, but keep in mind that the comparison is still between three types of whole cauliflower. A better example with more data points is tomatoes:

This second chart reveals that cooking tomatoes might improve their antioxidant potential (surprise!), but that significant processing of this vegetable would seriously deplete its healthfulness. We don’t have such detailed data for other vegetables, but it’s not inconceivable that heavy processing would result in losses in nutritional quality.

That brings us to question number 2. What defines a vegetable serving? Is it antioxidant content? Is it vitamin or mineral content? Is it enough if the ingredient was originally a whole vegetable? Should processing be factored in? This question (and its sub-questions), surfacing as food processing becomes more prevalent, merits our attention.

Finally, folding vegetables into pasta noodles isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon (consider spinach fettuccine), but this is the first time these products are being framed as ways to get vegetables into the diet. Do products like Veggie Kraft Macaroni and Cheese inadvertently condone the loss of whole vegetables from a child’s diet? Does hiding vegetables prevent kids from learning about, appreciating, and eating whole vegetables? Or are we so far from getting kids to eat vegetables that pulverized cauliflower is acceptable?

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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