July 8, 2008

Healthful Meal Choices Showing Up at 7-Eleven


It's not every day that you'll spot Sharon Jacob, a dietitian at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, shopping for lunch at a 7- Eleven.

But we had asked her to join us in hunting for healthful foods at convenience stores. Sure, that may seem like trying to find great rib-eye at a vegan market.

Times are changing, though, and so are convenience stores. We had noticed that there seemed to be a trend in these stores of offering more nutritious foods, such as fresh fruits and salads.

"I'm really surprised," Jacob said. "There's a lot more selection than there used to be."

She was standing in front of the store's new Fresh to Go cabinet. There were plastic cups of yogurt topped with sliced apples and granola alongside trays of freshly cut melon and berries. Her eyes grew big as she picked up a cup of fruit.

"Look at this," she said. "This cup has fresh kiwi and mango. Come on. I would have never dreamed of finding something like this at a convenience store when you invited me on this shopping spree."

According to Margaret Chabris, a public relations director for 7- Eleven, the company started offering a smaller version of the fresh food program about 15 years ago. That was about the time Jason Yada, a fresh-food manager with 7-Eleven, started with the company.

"We didn't have near the selection that we do now," he said. "We just launched the Fresh to Go label in mid-May with this expanded refrigeration section. Over the years, we found that customers were wanting quality, fresh conveniently packaged food that had great taste and good value. It's been a huge success. Our fresh-foods- program sales grow each year."

Competing stores have taken notice, too. The Corner Store has Deli Express, and Circle K has Take Away Cafe, both offering a variety of sandwiches. What sets 7-Eleven apart from them is the fact that its sandwiches are in the case for only two days.

"Other stores are using modified atmospheric packaging so the store can leave the sandwiches in the refrigerated section for seven days," Yada said.

Another push that puts 7-Eleven ahead of its competition in the fresh-food category is sophistication. The store offers sandwiches on artisan breads and gourmet salads. We liked the Chicken Cranberry Walnut salad that abounded in a fresh baby-lettuce blend and was ready to be tossed with a delicious raspberry vinaigrette -- reasonably priced at $3.99. You would think that food from a convenience store would be pricey, but most of the Fresh to Go items are priced less than $4. And they come packaged with plastic utensils for noshing on the go.

But you'll need to remember to stay focused when you walk into a convenience store, because there's more than just healthful foods on the shelves.

"This is hilarious," Jacob said picking up the store brand's Big Burrito for $2.99. "Look at this. It has more than a day's worth of calories. And that's for just one meal. If you were to have the burrito and a 64-ounce regular Super Big Gulp drink, you'd add another day's worth of calories -- 1,120 calories. It's easy to see how the weight can add on if you eat like this."

She suggests putting on blinders when walking the aisles of a convenience store.

"They put all the chips, cookies and candies in the front of the store on the end caps," she said. "You have to get past those temptations. We are visually cued, and when we see food when we're hungry, we just reach for it without thinking about the fat, sodium and calories."

Yada is looking at changing this stumbling block.

"We are testing some whole, fresh fruit stands that will be put on the end caps instead of having chips there," he said.

So there's hope for better visual cues to come. But for now once you're out- side the specially designated fresh-foods sections, you'll have to search a little more diligently for more healthful choices at the convenience store.

"You have to look for string cheese or beef jerky," Jacob said. "Though these foods are high protein, the problem with processed foods is the sodium. Nuts would be a good choice, too."

As we walked around the store, she pointed out light tuna salad in cans, dry cereal in disposable bowls, canned soup with pop-up lids and Teddy Grahams.

"Teddy Grahams would be a better choice than, say, Oreos," she said. "They're low in fat and have a little fiber. And having a bowl of dry cereal is better than driving through a McDonald's."

Regardless of where you're making your healthful food choices, pay attention to servings in a container.

"Sometimes a container will have the nutritional information for a serving, but the container holds two servings," she said. "So you need to double the calories and other nutrients if you consume the whole package."

So the next time you fill up your car at the convenience store, take a look to find something healthful to fuel yourself. It's easier than you might think to find a goodfor-you lunch or snack.


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