There maybe a pilchard casserole in your future
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.