DALLAS — Since their debut in 1953, TV dinners have come a long way.
Instead of just turkey and gravy, the frozen food aisle today is packed with dozens of varieties of pre-made meals. They're a quick fix for millions of busy people. Sales top $8 billion annually, according to market research firm Mintel.
Concerns about obesity, heart disease, and other health issues prompted the FDA to encourage companies to improve the nutritional value of frozen meals. Many now advertise themselves as "preservative-free," having cut the trans fats, which are a common stabilizer against food breakdown.
WFAA, our sister station in Dallas, wanted to see if TV dinners really are reducing preservatives.
They purchased a half-dozen of the most popular brands and then stored them in their newsroom refrigerator for weeks. The object was to see how long it would take the meals to spoil.
Food safety guidelines are fairly specific for pre-cooked foods, including a thawed TV dinner.
"Generally, something that's been prepared should last three to five days safely in the refrigerator," said Baylor registered dietitian Megan Moore. "If you don't eat it in three to five days, I would toss it."
A month after being defrosted, only one of the meals — the one branded "Healthy Choice" — showed signs of going bad.
At two months, WFAA took the remaining meals to Armstrong Laboratories in Arlington to be tested. All five appeared fine, but bacteria and mold can't always be seen.
Test results confirmed some microscopic growth.
The "Smart Ones" and "Kid Cuisine" brands tested positive for aeromona veronii, a bacteria associated with upset stomach, but not at harmful levels, according to Armstrong microbiologist Karen Deiss.
"I didn't really see anything that would've concerned me to eat," Deiss said.
The question is, why — after two months — didn't the food go bad?
"It's really the high amounts of sodium in most every TV dinner," said Megan Moore, "Bacteria really can't thrive in something that has a lot of salt, so that is one way that they're preserving frozen dinners for such a long period of time."
According to the fine print, salt does play a big role.
The "Banquet" brand ingredient label lists salt or sodium 12 times. "Kid Cuisine" mentions it 15.
The one that cites salt the least number of times? "Healthy Choice," which spoiled long before the rest.
Experts say consumers concerned about preservatives or salt should buy frozen meals with less than 600 milligrams of sodium. And remember, when it comes to nutrition, fresh is best.