Proof convenience foods can be ‘healthy’
Research from market analysts Mintel has found that 30% of UK adults eat a ready meal more than once a week, compared with just 16% in France. But while ready meals are convenient, they’re rarely the most nutritious choice.
‘They can make you overfed and undernourished,’ says leading nutritional specialist Dr Marilyn Glenville.
‘They stop you feeling hungry for a while, but often don’t give you enough nutrients and fibre.’
READ THE LABEL
But there are healthy pre-prepared options to be had. ‘You just have to choose carefully,’ says Laura Southern, nutritionist at Gosh!.
Reading the label is crucial. ‘Always start with the ingredients list,’ advises Laura.
‘Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the higher up the list it is, the more there is of it in the product.
‘Products that are high in “real” foods, such as vegetables and fish, are going to be much better for you than those full of ingredients you don’t recognise, such as sulphites and E621 (MSG). If you can’t picture what the ingredient looks like, then don’t put it in your mouth!’
Levels of sugar and salt can also be worryingly high in ready meals. Government guidelines state that adults should not consume more than 6g of salt (2.3g sodium) per day. ‘If you’re eating a diet high in whole foods, which you prepare yourself, then you probably won’t reach this amount,’ says Laura. Eating pre-prepared meals regularly, though, is a different matter.
‘Labels will usually show salt per serving, so it’s a case of checking and adding up everything you eat to get your daily total.’
A single ready meal, for example, can have 36% of an adult’s recommended salt intake for a day. Adults should also eat no more than 7tsp (around 30g) of added sugar a day, according to guidelines. Laura recommends you look at the listing ‘Carbohydrates, of which sugars’ in the nutritional information. However, be aware that sugar can appear under many names in the ingredients list.
‘Anything ending in ‘ose’ is a sugar,’ explains Laura.
‘Dextrose, fructose, sucrose, honey, syrups and malts all count, so bear this in mind.’ She also recommends that you choose the packaged food in the fruit and veg aisle when shopping.
‘You’ll find really nice pre-made salads with naturally filling ingredients, such as quinoa and lentils. Also look in the deli section. You can make easy nutritious meals from items such as falafels, olives, hummus and sun-dried tomatoes.’
Dr Marilyn adds that you can be better off with a frozen ready meal rather than something from the chilled section. ‘As they’re frozen, they don’t need preservatives because there is no concern about shelf life,’ she says.
If you suffer from an allergy or intolerance, you’ll know all too well that finding a suitable ready meal can be tricky.
‘Many people are dealing with multiple intolerances and this is where the majority of convenience foods fall down,’ says Laura.
However, food manufacturers such as Gosh! and Amy’s Kitchen are rising to the demands of savvy shoppers wanting a healthy alternative that is free from allergens and sugar.
Read more: A Foodie’s Guide To London’s Healthiest Lunchboxes