If there’s one desire most of us have in common, it’s that we have more time in the day. Our busy lives, juggling responsibilities at work and home, as well as looking after ourselves, doesn’t necessarily bode well for eating healthy, freshly prepared meals.

The result: the amount of time adult Americans spend eating, where eating is the main activity they’re doing, fell by five percent from 2006 to 2008 and 2014 to 2016. So it’s no surprise, then, that the confectionery and snacks market is currently worth almost $300,000 million.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also putting a spotlight on convenience food, since it has affected the imports of fresh food across borders and the availability of foods in grocery stores, and consumers have wanted to limit how often they go to the store to buy groceries.

This is where food hacks come in; shortcuts, ways around having to slave over the stove for hours every day. Increasingly, these food hacks are aligning with growing awareness of the benefits of a healthful diet.

In particular, research has found that people place a lot of importance on a food’s “naturalness.” One review of 72 studies found that food products that aren’t perceived as natural may not be accepted by most consumers. However, the researchers say people often have conflicting interests; they want to save cooking time, as well as wanting to eat natural foods.

This conflict, the researchers say, poses an opportunity for the food industry, where brands can combine production processes, ingredients, packaging, and marketing in a way that presents food as natural.

But is this possible? Do food hacks really allow us to eat healthily when we’re busy, or is such a thing too good to be true? The founders of these health-forward plant-based food brands argue a happy medium (at least) is possible.

Kathryn Bernell, founder and chief executive of reBLEND, was a time-strapped graduate student struggling to eat a healthy diet when she came up with the idea of a blender-free smoothie.

“I had no time to assemble a smoothie in the morning and wanted to create a shortcut for those times when life gets in the way of eating right,” Bernell says.

When it comes to the war against processed foods, Bernell says reBELND is nowhere near the battlefield – but staying strong on this principle wasn’t easy.

“From day one, I’ve fought tooth and nail to only use whole food ingredients (no concentrates) and to never cut corners with any added sweeteners or artificial preservatives. We‘ve worked tirelessly to deliver the highest quality product with the lowest amount of interference. But the mass majority of products rely upon concentrates or flavoring, which made it increasingly difficult to hold my line on using whole ingredients only.”

Bernell understands that convenience and health is a balancing act, and that the two are often up against each other. But, she argues, the end result of a smoothie isn’t worth the half an hour it takes to make it and clean up afterwards.

ReBLEND, she says, is aimed at people who don’t have the appetite for a full smoothie, busy parents looking to give their children a hit of nutrients with their breakfast, and professionals with limited time, who all “genuinely want to do something that’s good for their bodies and the world around them, but sometimes can’t figure out where to start.”

One of the reasons on-the-go snacks get a bad reputation is because, even when they purport to be healthy, they often contain healthy-sounding sugars, such as honey and syrups, which research suggests have the same effects on our bodies as table sugar.

Anne Klassman, chief executive of Undressed, says her snack bars came from a struggle to find savory snacks to eat outside the home. Each bar is free of gluten, soy, and dairy, and non-GMO.

“Nearly every bar on the market is sweet, loaded with added sugar and can be confused as dessert,” Klassman says.

Klassman says Undressed uses minimal processing, and each bar contains a full serving of vegetables. Like Bernell, Klassman didn’t find the process of creating her product easy, but she persevered. But while it doesn’t contain the processed foods or sugars of some convenience foods, this food hack, she says, isn’t intended to be a fresh salad replacement.

For other plant-based food-hack entrepreneurs shunning the sugar, the challenge was creating a different version of an already popular product.

Tekla Back, founder and chief executive of KEHO, believes cutting down on carbs and sugar is one of the solutions to reducing obesity, but that it can be especially challenging for consumers if they don’t eat meat.

Back describes KEHO as “real food made into real snack food” that gets its flavor from herbs and spices.

The range consists of four savory bites: “Curry in a hurry,” “Tex mex moment,” “Pizza to go,” and “Thai me over,” each made with nuts, freeze-fried vegetables and oils, as well as the herbs and spices.

“We’re savory, not salty nor sweet – just like real food. Salty foods are a substrate (potato chip, popcorn, tortilla) plus a flavoring (salt, BBQ, cheese), and sweet bars are the same – a mush of sugary pastes or dates with a different artificial or natural flavoring,” Back says.

Back believes people can combine their desire for convenience and their health-consciousness, and says the real battle is educating people on health food.

“We spend too much time on second-order false product claims like ‘calm’ and ‘focus’, and many think organic cake is better for us than non-organic cake, or don’t know that coconut nectar is actually sugar in disguise. I think we need to get back to basics, starting with removing sugar,” she says.

“Packaged food has gotten a bad rap, because what is in the pack is often not real food. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Unlike Klassman, Julian Hearn, chief marketing officer of Huel, does market his products as a meal replacement. He co-founded Huel in 2014, after he struggled to prepare and purchase nutritional meals when he was busy.

“I wanted to create a complete meal in a convenient format that contained the ideal balance of protein, carbohydrates, fibre, fats, and vitamins and minerals. Huel powder was designed on a spreadsheet, not in a kitchen, to meet the body’s energy and nutritional needs.”

While evidence suggests eating more plant-based meals is better for the individual and for the planet, Hearn recognizes that following a healthy vegan or even flexitarian diet can be challenging. But he believes the term ‘processed’ doesn’t have to have negative connotations, and says there needs to be more clarity when using the word “processed,” since both canned fruit and confectionary laden with sugars are both “processed.”

“The term ‘food processing’ could be described as the transformation of raw ingredients by physical or chemical means into food,” he says. “We process foods every day when we prepare meals for ourselves, yet we frequently hear the term ‘processed food’ bandied about in a negative fashion. The extent as to which foods can be processed can vary hugely and, unless you’re consuming a food in its 100 percent natural form, you are consuming a processed food.”

But the clarity that will hopefully stop tarring all processed food with the same brush is coming; the worst offenders, those highest in trans fats, such as fast foods, are now widely referred to as ‘ultra-processed’ foods.

While Huel Powder isn’t a whole food, Hearn points out that 97 percent of it is made from seven main food ingredients: oats, tapioca, rice, pea, flaxseed, sunflower and coconut, which he says have been processed but the processing is “kept to a minimum.”

When John Redmond, founder and chief smoothie kit mixer at Better Blends developed Inflammatory Bowel Disease, his doctor advised he needed to eat a low-fiber diet. While he was given medical advice to “start the Pop Tart diet,” he wanted a healthy alternative that was low-fiber, and a dietician suggested smoothies.

“As the dietitian explained, when you blend the fruits and veggies you tear apart the fibers and seeds that would otherwise cause the irritation,” Redmond says.

When he couldn’t find anything in the grocery store that was both appealing and healthy, Redmond decided to make his own easy smoothie kits.

“There isn’t any ingredient we use in our recipes that’s processed or artificial. Just all-natural, well balanced fruit and veggie smoothie kits that taste delicious, healthy, and are good on your gut.”

Brooke Harris, founder and chief executive of Goodmylk, also started her business as a reaction to the quality of plant-based food available on the shelves, when she was sick with inflammatory and digestive issues.

“As a long-time vegan, I started to look at the ‘healthy’ foods I was consuming and realized many of the plant-based options on the market were highly processed and full of strange ingredients, which were making me sick.”

Plant-based milks, she says, was one of the worst offenders, so she started making her own at home. She enjoyed her creation so much that she founded Goodmylk, offering homemade plant-based milk in frozen and powdered form, without any of the ingredients Harris had come to see as problematic to her health.

The frozen concentrate allows customers to make plant-based milk in seconds, by simply adding water.

It’s important to Harris that she’s transparent about Goodmylk’s ingredients and communicate that while saving time is a priority, the most important thing is customer health.

“We’re making products in a category that many view as ‘health food,’ therefore it’s our responsibility to make food that nourishes our consumers. The way we do things takes more work, time and money, but we believe it’s worth it,” she says.

The sense that the extra work is worth it is shared across the entrepreneurs, who have mostly admitted that going against the grain to make healthier food options has been challenging.

But while they put in the extra work, their vision is for their customers to not have to do the same.

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