To meet the escalating consumer demand for healthier products, food and ingredient manufacturers are rushing to accommodate by squeezing more nutrients into every food category. Yet, these smart developers are acutely aware of the daily conflict within consumers between “health foods” — read: vegetables and fruits — and indulgent foods.

To bridge that gulf between what consumers say they want and what they veer toward, on-trend product developers have adopted a “stealth-health” approach to increasing produce content in products. Research chefs, food technologists, culinologists, and product developers are tasked with turning out an expanding array of better-for-you products without compromising on flavor, texture, or the eating experience.

In spite of decades of prodding by dozens of health authorities and spokespersons, Americans are still failing to get enough fruits and vegetables into their daily diets. In fact, the Global Burden of Disease Study, released last month by Ashkan Afshin, PhD, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, attributed some 11 million annual deaths worldwide to “unhealthy diets,” noting that said unhealthy diets are “a larger determinant of ill health than either tobacco or high blood pressure.”

According to the study, “not eating enough fruit” was linked to 2 million of those deaths. The plant-centered Mediterranean Diet was cited as showing the best results for a healthy populace, with countries such as Israel exhibiting the fewest deaths attributable to bad diets. Among Afshin’s many conclusions, eating more produce was specifically recommended to address the health crisis.

Consumers often claim they are unsure about how to prepare vegetables and don’t know which ones give the best nutritional value per serving. But whether or not consumers truly are confused about how to attain their recommended daily requirement of vegetables, product makers have a great opportunity in providing flavorful and even indulgent products that can provide quantifiable amounts of produce in each serving.

The “Choose My Plate” model issued by the USDA suggests that we fill half our plate with fruits and vegetables. The USDA recommends that we consume those vegetables whole, cut, dehydrated, pureed, canned, or dried, and that we eat a variety of vegetables starting with green, leafy vegetables. The USDA states that people should eat three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit — 5 a day — every day.

Yet, according to the CDC, only one in 10 adult Americans (12.2%) are meeting daily fruit intake guidelines, with only 9.3% getting the recommended total of five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.


Kids First

The crisis is especially critical for children. Despite all the efforts of government agencies, including changes to the Food Pyramid and “My Plate,” as well as school nutrition initiatives and incentives, kids are still falling short of the daily recommended servings.

“Studies show that six in 10 kids are not eating enough fruit, and nine in 10 kids are not eating enough vegetables,” says Wendy Reinhardt-Kapsak, MS, RDN, president and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. For decades, the group has been at the forefront of promoting increased produce consumption through its famous 5-A-Day program.

Reinhardt-Kapsak notes that it’s more “fun” (thus more effective) to incorporate fruits and vegetables into foods that folks —especially kids — already love and enjoy. “By introducing fruits and vegetables in or with meals we know they already eat, not only does it help them explore creativity and perhaps experience the true flavors fruits and veggies can provide, but it also creates lifelong habits,” she explains.

Teton Waters Ranch Burger with Mushrooms
Home economics tricks such as using extenders for ground beef can be leveraged toward sneaking vegetables into food by incorporating flavor- and texture-enhancing mushrooms.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: Teton Waters Ranch, Inc./Jennifer Olson Photography (

Manufacturers always are striving to incorporate fruits and vegetables into items for the kid food space, as with veggie pasta and vegetable purées for babies. However, it’s challenging to put a full serving of complete produce into a single portion of many food items due to portion size limitations and costs. The challenge is compounded when a product’s serving size is so small that including a serving of vegetable might compromise or ruin the organoleptic characteristics of flavor, texture, and color.

Niki Mann, associate director of R&D for K-12 and commercial chains for Tyson Foods Inc. focuses on protein first, especially when developing products for school meals. “It is sometimes challenging to get a full 3oz serving of vegetables in a 5oz chicken patty while also getting a full serving of protein and grain,” she explains. “The addition of soy as a good way to increase protein in products. It’s a good alternative because of the many forms available— developers can use a soy isolate, concentrate, or textured concentrates. This also is helpful because it allows developers to create products in kid-friendly shapes. And, soy is a reasonably priced, economical protein to use.”

In many respects, increasing the vegetable content of foods has always been around. Think of adding tomato paste to a sauce, or substituting apple sauce or fruit concentrate to a baked item to lower the fat and sugar and enhance the moistness. Fruit concentrates, such as those from figs, raisins, and prunes, also have been appearing in savory sauces more frequently of late. Such purées and concentrates are often the first picks when developers think in terms of adding hidden produce to a formulation.

“Sauces have proven to be an easier avenue for bringing vegetables and fruits into formulations,” notes Rachel Zemser, CFS, CCS, MS, a food scientist and adjunct professor at San Francisco State University. “The USDA says that a serving size must be referenced or identified by a measurable amount on the package, however, so concentrates and powders must be reverse-calculated to find out their single-strength amount in the product.”


Eight to Eighty

Many companies are tuned into using the stealth-health approach when developing kid’s products. “These tend to be more neutral in flavor than products positioned for adults,” explains Emily Munday, director of operations for Culinex, LLC. However, the same tactics can be applied to creating foods for kids of all ages.

Matching the color and flavor of the desired vegetable with a complementary sweet-tasting fruit is one such approach, and it’s commonly adopted in developing foods for children. Flavor pairings such as carrot and orange, sweet potato and mango, tomato and strawberry, and spinach with green apple have been successfully used in kid-targeted products.

“We find that there is a huge desire from brand owners to increase the vegetable content in products across every category. Some want to sneak vegetables into more conventional products, but others take a bolder, overtly vegetable-centric approach that celebrates the flavor and textural qualities of vegetables without trying to hide them,” adds Munday.

New Classic Cooking, LLC’s Garden Lites brand is one of the leaders in creating veggie-rich foods for kids of all ages. “Garden Lites has mastered culinary know-how in creating nutritionally smart foods that celebrate the taste, beauty, and benefits of fresh vegetables, while also knowing how to hide them, all in an irresistible and convenient way,” says Valerie Jacklin, head of product development.

Garden Lites, already well known in the breakfast space for items such as its vegetable-packed muffins and waffles, recently unveiled a new category item — a line of vegetable breakfast frittatas — to strengthen its market position. The line prominently features its new sub-brand name, “Veggies Made Great,” on its packaging to boldly highlight “veggies as the #1 ingredient.”

The new line includes a spinach and egg-white frittata that touts tomatoes, onions, and red bell peppers, in addition to mozzarella cheese. A sister item is the vegetarian “bacon” and potato frittata. The vegetarian “bacon” is made from pinto beans, and the frittata also contains cauliflower, onions, and cheddar cheese. Two more varieties are in development.

“Our recipes are mindfully crafted with a commitment for the freshest ingredients, the most minimally processed recipes, and extraordinary taste, focusing on preserving nutrition,” says Jacklin. “A fresh zucchini comes in the door at 7:00 AM and by 3:00 PM is baked into a muffin, wrapped and packaged, and ready for the freezer.”

Garden Lites products are made in small batches and many of them boast vegetables as the first ingredient. All the products are clean label as well. “We try to create a sustainable ecosystem, with any waste being utilized, all in order to manufacture a quick-serve breakfast or anytime product that is easily understood by consumers,” adds Jacklin.


Stealth Challenge

Developing products that deliver a healthy shot of added produce is not without its challenges. “Often, adding more produce means adding more moisture, and possibly more sugars. This can be problematic, as caramelization of sugars can occur during the processing that can lead to undesirable color and flavor,” notes Charlie Baggs, president of Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovation.

Moreover, added moisture can result in other unfavorable results, including bacteria growth, shortened shelf life, poor product consistency, loss of functionality, and, of course, impaired taste, texture, and integrity of the finished product.

Muffins Made with Vegetables
Using mild, and slightly sweet vegetables can enhance the health profile as well as the flavor profile of both sweet and savory products.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: New Classic Cooking, LLC/Garden Lites (

“Sometimes it is necessary to add other functional ingredients to a formula where a high proportion of vegetables have been added to replace other ingredients,” says Baggs. “Egg ingredients can help control moisture and add structure back to products. Starches and gums can help control moisture and add back structure and texture that might have been lost.”

Another challenge is cost. Often, replacing more traditional ingredients comes at a higher price to manufacturers. Culinologists are most often tasked with finding the most cost-effective solutions at the bench, but some of these products don’t perform as well. “Drum- or spray-dried vegetable and fruit powders are usually the most cost effective, but not always the best when trying to achieve maximum flavor, or a fresh taste. Air-dried fruit or vegetable pieces offer fresher flavor and better color. Freeze-dried produce products offers superior color and taste, but are also the most expensive, says Munday.


Form and Function

The forms of produce available to processors have grown in the past decade. Where previously, options were limited to fresh, frozen, dried, powdered, or puréed, technology has expanded the toolbox to include vacuum-dried, microwave-dried, more efficient freeze drying and other preservation forms that go farther to maintain flavor, texture, shape, and nutrient value than ever before. For most of these forms of produce, reducing water activity is a key consideration.

Dried or flaked vegetables and fruits are among the best options for many formulations when it comes to stealth produce inclusion. These forms allow for better and denser incorporation of the fruit or vegetables, without affecting the moisture content. It’s best to use them as a substitute for other dry ingredients.

By replacing a portion of the dry ingredients, fiber and nutrition content are increased, while flour, starch, and, in some cases, sweeteners are reduced. For veggie-centric products, purées and powders should be considered, in addition to vegetables with a larger dice, in either dehydrated or IQF form.

“Functional aids, such as natural flavorings or gums, might need to be included to make the product perform better after a large dose of vegetable is pushed into a single serving,” cautions Zemser. “For example, if the target is a half-cup serving of beets incorporated into a three-quarter cup serving of ice cream, the beet flavor would be overwhelming and the texture unappealing.”


I Don't See You

Coincidentally, one new company — Peekaboo Organics, LLC, makers of Peekaboo Ice Cream — has taken stealth produce for all ages to the next level by meeting just the challenge alluded to by Zemser. And they knocked it clean out of the park. Launched last year and already winning industry awards, a true premium ice cream that incorporates full servings of vegetables and fruit merges indulgence and health.

“In developing Peekaboo Ice Cream, the focus was always taste and texture,” says founder and CEO Jessica Levison. “The ice cream had to be an excellent ice cream first, and nutritious second. Because ice cream that isn’t delicious isn’t worth eating, right? I had a tiny bit of experience in this field, making hand-crafted ice cream in my Miami-based scoop shop for more than 10 years, and where I had been most inspired to create unconventional flavors by incorporating unique and seasonal ingredients.”

But Levison confesses that it wasn’t inspiration that led to Peekaboo — it was desperation. “When I had my first daughter six years ago, it occurred to me that, if it was harder to get her to eat veggies than it was to get her to eat ice cream, what if veggies — real, organic veggies —tasted like ice cream?” So Levison started, little by little, to incorporate varying quantities and varieties of vegetables into her ice cream formulations.

“I continued to increase the quantity of veggies until she discovered that her usual scoop of vanilla had run amok,” admits Levison. “From that point, I scaled back the veggies a touch, then tweaked the formula to showcase the flavor and optimize texture.”

Early in the development stage, Levison regularly tested Peekaboo flavors, without divulging the secret ingredient, on the customers at her scoop shop. “Since our conventional mint chip had been the color of cream, customers were alarmed when it slowly started turning shades of green,” she confesses. “Also, an early version of our Peekaboo Vanilla contained cabbage as the vegetable. Imagine walking into an ice cream shop and smelling cabbage!”

Levison did not just create ice cream with a hint of vegetables. Through determined engineering of the formulations, she ensured there would be real servings of produce in each pint. The chocolate with hidden cauliflower contains 10 cauliflower florets; vanilla with hidden zucchini contains 1.5 whole zucchini; strawberry with hidden carrots contains four strawberries and 14 baby carrots; mint chocolate chip with hidden spinach contains 2 cups of raw spinach, and cotton candy with hidden beets contains four beets.

“It was important to select veggies that were nutrient-dense and either mild-flavored or naturally sweet,” says Levison. “The result is a deliberate pairing of veggies that complement the primary flavor, without overpowering it. They also were chosen to enhance the color or features of the ice cream naturally. For example, if you look closely at Peekaboo vanilla with hidden zucchini, you’ll see tiny specks. Is it vanilla bean…or is it zucchini peel?” she slyly asks.

Originally appeared in the May, 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as Stealth Health.