What's really in your ready meal?
Ready meals – they're convenient, quick and ideal for when you're exhausted from work. We spent over £2 billion on ready meals in 2012, and with our lives getting busier than ever before, they're a popular choice. But some ready meals can be packed with hidden fat, salt, sugar and additives. Not all ready meals are bad for you – many supermarkets have launched their own healthier ranges – so how do you know which ones to choose?
Not all ready meals are bad
Some supermarket meals can be surprisingly nutritious, such as Marks and Spencer's Chicken Portabello Casserole, loaded with protein-rich chicken, B vitamins and potassium, low in salt and flavoured with herbs. Other healthy options include Morrison's Natural Choice Three Bean Chilli with brown rice, vegetables and lycopene-packed tomatoes, which can help to protect against cancer and heart disease, and Innocent's Vegetable Pots, which count as several portions of your five-a-day.
More expensive isn't always better for you
As a rule, look for ready meals where the ingredients are protein and plant-based, so you know they're not loaded with artificial nasties (1). However, don't be fooled into thinking that more expensive brands will be better for you, as researchers from Glasgow University discovered that luxury ready meals can contain up to twice as much salt and fat as budget meals (2).
The study analysed ready meals from five leading UK supermarkets and discovered some meals contained more of the GDA (guideline daily amounts) of fat than cheaper options. Those expecting more expensive meals to contain health benefits could be misled by the 'finest' or 'extra special' wording on labels. For example, Sainsburys 'Taste the Difference' Beef Lasagne has over twice the saturated fat (77% GDA) than its 'Basics' version (36%) and 34.5% GDA of salt compared to 28.8% - a significant difference, particularly if you're eating these ready meals on a regular basis.
A few other ready meals compared in the study were:
- Sainsburys Taste the Difference Shepherd's Pie which contained 52.5% GDA saturated fat compared to the Basics pie with 22% GDA
- Tesco Finest Chicken Tikka Masala which contained 68% GDA saturated fat compared to the Value dish with 41% GDA
Whilst nutritional information is displayed on the front of the pack for you to make comparisons, the difference is still pretty shocking, as most of us assume that more expensive options will be better for us!
Salt, sugar and additives
Some ready meals are loaded with salt and fat – popular dishes such as lasagne, macaroni cheese and pizza are top of the list – and not all meals have traffic light labels to help you decide. A consumer group study found that cheese and tomato pizzas were amongst the worst offenders for fat and salt content, with the average pizza containing 1.5g of salt per 100g.
Unfortunately, many ready meals are also packed with artificial preservatives and additives to give them flavour. Chemicals which extend the meal's shelf life and synthetic vitamins and minerals, which are hard for your body to digest (3) are found in many ready meals.
Microwaveable ready meals are also packed with sugar. The WHO recommends we consume no more than 25g of sugar a day (4) – that's just five teaspoons, or, to really put things in perspective, a standard bar of Dairy Milk! Not all ready meals are loaded with sugar, but Chinese sweet and sour dishes are the worst offenders. Up to 50.7g of sugar was found in one serving of Sainsburys sweet and sour chicken with rice – that's more sugar than in a can of coke (35g). Even seemingly healthy options such as Tesco Thai Chicken Pad Thai with Rice Noodles contains a whopping 37.8g of sugar per serving.
How to choose healthier ready meals
So, we've looked at what's really in your ready meal, but how can you avoid the hidden salt, fat and sugar content in many ready-prepared dishes? The easiest way is of course to avoid them entirely and cook from scratch – if you're stuck, we have plenty of quick, easy recipes to inspire you. But if you are relying on ready meals for a couple of days after a particularly busy week at work, there's nothing wrong with that. There are some things you can do to ensure you choose healthier options.
Check the GDA
The guideline daily amounts, or GDAs, tell you how much fat, salt, saturated fat, and energy is in your read meal, in relation to recommended amounts. Bear in mind that a single meal shouldn't exceed around 33% of your GDA for every nutrient (5) – if the meal you're buying has the 'traffic light' symbol on it, try to choose one with no red (high) markers, or only one red marker.
Check the vegetable content
Many ready meals will have a '5 A Day' logo, telling you how many portions of vegetables it contains – you should aim for two to three portions with your meal. If the meal is low in vegetables, you can always bulk it up with the addition of extra vegetables or try a side salad.
Know the difference between salt and sodium
Don't forget that sodium is different to salt – 1 gram of sodium equals 2.5 grams of salt! Portion sizes on packaging can be small, so don't forget to check the salt content for the serving you're ACTUALLY eating, rather than the recommended portion size.
Choose balanced options
The major supermarkets each have their own ranges of balanced meals, many of which contain more veggies than other options. Look out for healthy living or nutritionally balanced on the label.
There's nothing wrong with the odd ready meal as part of a balanced diet loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables – we'd be lying if we said we never touched a ready meal occasionally. But having them for dinner every night isn't going to do your health any favours, so try to save them for those days when you're pushed for time, and don't regularly rely on them as an easy option. There are plenty of quick, simple recipes that you can use when cooking from scratch after a workout at the gym or a long day at work!