There maybe a pilchard casserole in your future

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches, apple-less pie, vegetarian hamburger, pilchard, tofu, and textured vegetable protein. Maybe they aren't words that inspire mouthwatering culinary images. But Americans -- whose budgets aren't as haute as they like their cuisine -- are stretching their food dollars and their imaginations with similar additions or substitutions in their diets. And they're coming back for seconds.

How can a nation raised on red meat and apple pie take the thought of, say, textured vegetable protein chunks disguised as "pepper steak?" Or maybe sunflower butter instead of the all-American staple, peanut butter?

"If the price of food went high enough I could get used to anything," offered one taste tester surveyed by the Monitor after sampling imitation bacon and pecans and substitutes for tuna and peanut butter.

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Industry officials agree, saying inflation is the pressure-cooker that will encourage an American appetite for cheaper forms of food. And, they say, industry already has begun to respond with new foods and imitations of old ones: products that are lean on cost, rich in nutrition, and not too bad in taste.

For example, take pilchard. Ten Monitor testers did, and seven thought it tasted similar enough to tuna to substitute for it -- even though pilchard has a stronger fish flavor than tuna. Packed in water and priced at only 59 cents for a 7-ounce can -- 20 cents less than the cheapest brand of tuna and almost $1 less than the top-of-the-line tune -- pilchard is likely to become a part of their diets, several said.

Pilchard, a South American staple, has already found a niche in diets around Boston, where the Star Market chain advertised it as an alternative to tuna.

"We sold out in three days the stock we expected to last a month. And it's still one of our No. 1 sellers," says Janet Englund, a Star Market representative.

Not all new foods and substitutes get the raves pilchard did from marketer and consumer alike. But much like the classic case of margarine, born of the high prices caused by Word War II shortages and viewed at first as a cheap imitation butter, many new products will become popular additions to the American diet, says Howard Mattson, director of the Institute of Food Technologists. He points in particular to vegetable-based proteins that are expected to eclipse animal proteins as a cheaper, often more nutritious, products.

"Food technologists are always looking for another [case like] margarine," he says. Consequently, consumers can already find cheaper substitutes for everything from hot dogs to steak, cheese, nuts, milk, and coffee.

Here are some price comparisons of new products versus "the real thing":

* Oscar Meyer bacon is 12 cents per strip, while soy-based Lean Strips are about 7 cents a strip.

* Mellow Roast coffee, a regular grind mixed with grain, is priced at 20 to 25 percent less than name-brand coffees.

* Vegetable oil spread sells for 43 cents a pound vs. 99 cents for Mazola corn oil margarine and $2.19 for a pound of butter.

* Oscar Meyer all-beef franks are $2.09 for a pack of 10 -- Louis Rich turkey dogs cost $1.29 for 10.

Economic appeal alone isn't always enough though, according to A. S. Clausi, director of technical research at General Foods. "People do not accept strange foods readily. Eating is a very personal experience and people are hesitant about chomping into something strange," he explains.

Yet when manufacturers respond by forming new substances into a familiar form -- like General Foods' soy-based Lean Strips, which have been made to cook, smell, taste, and look like bacon down to the very pore structure -- "It sounds somehow plastic" to the consumer, as if it really isn't natural, he says.

But Doug Snyder of the marketing department of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Company, a food ingredients manufacturer, says: "We're not trying to fool anybody. These products are really food in and of themselves."

He refers to soy protein products -- a gold mine of cheap protein that promises to play a large part in new foods. Textured soy protein, originally developed by ADM labs, runs "between 10 or 12 cents a pound on an equivalency with meat," he says.

"Soy," adds Howard Mattson, "comes as close to meat as any protein around." And food economist say that combined with other vegetable proteins, soy can provide most human needs for protein.

Monitor tasters tested an experimental line of 100 percent vegetable protein dinner entrees developed by ADM. Among five who watched the powdery chunks of herbs and soy cook into convincing versions of "sweet and sour pork," "chicken almondine" and "pepper steak," one taster observes that the original dry product unappetizingly resembled dog food. But after eating the entrees, all agreed that they tasted good enough to eat again. The price? About 40 to 75 cents a serving.

"Sometimes, though, people just don't want to buy a substitute that appears inferior to the real thing. So, why not make a whole new food?" suggests Judi Trujillo of the American Soybean Association. "After all, pizza and yogurt weren't foods [to Americans] once. Yogurt was at one time strange and now it's in the lunchboxes of America."

Tofu is a "new" product that until recently has been unfamiliar to Americans, except as an unidentified cheese-like substances they found in oriental food.

Tofu, a soy protein staple in the Orient for thousands of years, has been heralded as "the yogurt of the '80s" in the US. Although still just a cottage industry, tofu production increased by one-half last year, according to industry statistics. Consequently, says Ms. Trujillo, some big food manufacturers are eyeing the versatile product as a new food line.

Tofu, a soft, bland substance made from curdled soybean milk, picks up the flavor of whatever it's cooked with. It can be fried, baked, frozen, or eaten raw in main courses, side dishes, desserts, or as an extender.

One so-called new food that hasn't gone over well at the checkout counter is sunflower butter. When peanut crops were low last year, and peanut butter, when found, was as high as $3.50 for a 16-ounce jar, Star Market quickly introduced sunflower butter at $1.99 for 16 ounces.

Peanut butter connoiseurs testing sunflower butter in the Monitor's survey were unimpressed. Most said they would rather pay the price for the peanut product than the sunflower spread. But others who like the sunflower seed flavor said they wouldn't mind adding the spread to their menus.

Judi Adams of the North Dakota Sunflower Commission notes that consumers may learn to accept sunflower butter as a food in its own right and not as an imitation of peanut butter. The council is promoting sunflower spread with some of the most discriminating palates -- schoolchildren's. The council's selling points in a drive to get school food services to buy sunflower spread is that it is 15 percent cheaper and has less fat than peanut butter.

Efficiency is a part of the new food technology. Star Market says it has had much success with its extra-value-blend hamburger -- a mix of 70 percent lean ground beef and 30 percent soy protein extender. "You can stretch 30 pounds of meat to 40 pounds and it sells for 20 cents a pound less than regular ground beef," a spokesman says.

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