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A marketing ploy: sneaking those veggies into packaged foods

A Kraft product image shows its vegetable pasta and cheese dinner. In it lurks cauliflower.

Associated Press

A Kraft product image shows its vegetable pasta and cheese dinner. In it lurks cauliflower.

It looks like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and Kraft says it tastes just like the original. But a new ingredient is lurking inside this version of the American family dinner staple — cauliflower.

Don't tell the kids!

Kraft Foods Inc. is the latest large food manufacturer to try hiding additional veggies in packaged foods, an effort to ride a renewed interest in healthy eating to fatter profits. It's a slowly growing trend, and it's one that is dividing food industry experts.

In June, Walmart and Target stores started stocking Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Veggie Pasta nationwide, alongside boxes of the traditional recipe and other alternative versions, including organic and whole grain. Every neon-orange one-cup serving of the new recipe packs a half-serving of cauliflower.

Kraft joins brands such as ConAgra Foods Inc.'s Chef Boyardee, which includes enough tomato in some of its canned pasta to claim half a cup of vegetables per serving, and Unilever's Ragu pasta sauces, which claim to have two servings of veggies for every half cup of sauce.

In the Kraft product, the company freeze-dries cauliflower and pulverizes it into a powder, then uses that powder to replace some of the flour in the pasta.

"We know moms are always looking to please their kids and wanting to not make meals a big ordeal, insofar as being able to get them to eat their food," said Alberto Huerta, who oversees the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese brand at Kraft. "Mom is looking for ways to sneak veggies into her kids' diet."

In Canada, the cauliflower-based pasta has been available since March. It immediately became one of the faster-selling versions of the dish, Huerta said.

Kraft's move is a variation on a theme espoused by several recent — and highly successful — cookbooks. Missy Chase Lapine is the author of the "Sneaky Chef" series of cookbooks, in which she promotes a system of color-coded, pureed fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables that can be mixed into foods such as macaroni and cheese (yams or cauliflower), spaghetti (carrots and sweet potato) and brownies (baby spinach and blueberries).

"The ideal, of course, is you steam up some local, organic, freshly picked cauliflower, and your child eats it outright with a little mist of olive oil, happily," Lapine said.

But like Kraft, Lapine takes a practical approach.

"Food is only healthy if you can get someone to eat it," she said.

Harry Balzer, who tracks Americans' eating patterns for the NPD Group, a market research firm, says parents are making genuine attempts to get healthier foods into their kids. Fruit now makes up 6 percent of kids' diets, the largest share since he started tracking kids' consumption 30 years ago.

But vegetables, which peaked as a percentage of kids' diets in 1984, remain a sticking point. They're a hassle for parents to buy and keep fresh, they're not seen as snack food, as fruit is, and they're rarely served alone. And when they are offered, many kids simply aren't biting, the analyst said.

But Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University's department of nutrition, food studies and public health, said nutrients are lost when vegetables are freeze-dried, and people are also losing the benefit of a greater volume of less calorie-dense food in a meal.

"Oh, what will they think of next?" Nestle wondered. "What a silly idea."

A marketing ploy: sneaking those veggies into packaged foods 07/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 10, 2011 5:30am]

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