A Food Scientist’s Views on Instant Foods

How to consciously generate instant happiness!
March 2021
Zenia
A.
System Design and Management

What comes to your mind when you hear the word "instant"? 

How about "instant foods"? 

When it comes to food, people tend to relate instantaneity with unhealthy, "bad for you", or processed. All those associations were also on my mind as a consumer. However, other questions were: Why do people still consume instant foods regularly? What benefits does it provide that overpower the negative preconception? What are ways to look at instant foods?

As a food scientist working in the food-humanitarian space, I developed a new understanding of instant foods' added values. Ready-to-use (RTU) or Ready-to-cook (RTC) foods can provide convenience to consumers. They can serve as an essential food in rural places that do not have the luxury of clean water and electricity in preparing food.

As an MIT graduate student (read: a busy human being), time is a valuable commodity. We only have a limited 24 hours a day. There is work to do, materials to study, deadlines to meet, or simply a bit of vacation to enjoy after working hard. Extra time is a tradeoff we need to make in choosing convenient and ready-to-prepare foods. 

You and I should acknowledge the value of instant foods. Not only the extra time to complete our never-ending working list, but also the nourishment that would keep our bellies filled. Therefore, I would like to lay down my top four considerations in choosing instant foods for the emergency and "I need more time" days.

1. Duration of preparation 

How long would it take you to prepare the food? As the main benefit, I would usually target instant foods with 3-5 minutes of preparation time. I also often depend on the magic of the microwave, which generally takes between 1-4 minutes of cooking the foods. 

2. Nutrition content 

This factor is high in my decision-making process since I purely believe that taking care of our body and health is more important than preserving time. 

As for me, there are a few things I evaluate: 

  • Calorie: The amount of energy we need daily varies based on gender, age, and physical activity level. Generally, the recommended daily calorie intake is 2500 calories for men and 2000 calories for women (non-pregnant & non-lactating).

  • Protein: Protein has various functionalities for our bodies; one significant role is to build and repair our bodies’ tissues. Based on Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), the recommended amount is 0.8 grams of protein per kg body weight.

  • Added sugar: The lower, the better. Added sugar is the additional sugars and syrups added during food processing on top of the naturally occurring sugars in food ingredients. The purpose of added sugar is to add sweetness but not to provide more nutrients (only calories).

  • Sodium: Sodium or salt is commonly added to instant food to reduce microbial growth and enhance organoleptic attributes (taste & texture). Although sodium is added to improve food quality and safety, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended the adult consumers to limit the sodium intake to 2300 mg per day.

On top of those four nutrients, I occasionally review the amount of saturated fat, vitamins, and iron. All the nutrition information can be found in the nutrition facts label on the food packaging. 

3. Favorability 

Do you like the food? What do you think of the flavors? This factor is subjective per each consumer, influenced by one’s background, tradition, and personal experiences. Consumer preference is one substantial reason food scientists keep developing various flavors and conduct a sensory evaluation to acquire feedback.

4. Shelf-life 

How long can you keep the food? The shelf-life of a food product is affected by many factors, including the types of ingredients, the nature of the food (water activity, acidity, etc.), and food processing types. Printed on the packaging, there are three common ways to inform the expiration date:

  1. ‘Best by’: the time point when the product’s ideal flavor or quality will start to degrade. Please use your judgment before consuming the product after this date.  

  2. ‘Sell by’: the time point for the seller or retailer to sell the product.

  3. Use by’: the last date recommended to consume the product.

Based on the consumers' backgrounds and health status, other factors might need to be considered, such as allergens, kosher, halal, price, etc. Comparing similar food products in the same row or aisle would also provide consumers further insight into the product's nature.  

Exposing a bit of my secret, my convenient go-to foods are Indomie (Indonesian instant noodle), Quakers portioned flavored oatmeal, and Trader Joe's frozen hash browns. I call them my lifesavers during one of those hectic days.  

While eating an Indonesian instant noodle, my younger sister once said, "happiness can be as instant as this food". I couldn't agree more, especially as a graduate student who considers time as precious as gold. The positive and negative conceptions of instant foods are dependent on how we choose the products. Thus, understanding the factors and reasonings would help us consciously make a sound decision in selecting foods. Lastly, I would go back to my first question:  

What comes to your mind now when you hear the word “instant foods”?