Forget ready meals and celebrity chefs - cook it yourself, researchers say

Wednesday, 09 January, 2013

While ready meals often get a bad rap for being a less-than-healthy choice, they’re at least healthier than recipes pushed by popular TV chefs, according to researchers from the UK’s University of Newcastle. Their advice? Stick to making it yourself.

A team of researchers based at NHS Tees and Newcastle University analysed the nutritional content of recipes by TV chefs and own-brand supermarket ready meals, comparing these with dietary guidelines published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The researchers randomly selected 100 own-brand ready meals from the UK’s three leading supermarkets (Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco) and 100 main meal recipes from cookbooks by Jamie Oliver, Lorraine Pascale, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nigella Lawson.

The TV chefs’ recipes were less healthy than the ready meals, containing significantly more energy, protein, fat and saturated fat, and significantly less fibre per portion than ready meals. The recipes were also more likely to achieve red traffic light labels according to FSA criteria than ready meals.

Not a single recipe or ready meal fully complied with the WHO recommendations for the avoidance of diet-related diseases. Both types of meals tended to be high in protein, fat, saturated fat and salt, and low in carbohydrate. Their one saving grace was that they all fell within the recommended range for sugar.

However, only 4% of the ready meals met the WHO recommendation for salt content. While the recipes were more likely to comply with this recommendation, the authors highlighted the fact that salt used for seasoning was not assessed.

“This study shows that neither recipes created by popular television chefs nor ready meals produced by three leading UK supermarket chains meet national or international standards for a balanced diet,” the authors wrote. “The recipes seemed to be less healthy than the ready meals on several metrics.”

The authors suggested that nutritional information should be included on recipes in cookbooks. They add that consideration should also be given to regulation of the recipes demonstrated by television chefs similar to that limiting advertisement of foods classified as high in fat, salt or sugar.

According to the authors, the maximum nutritional benefit “is likely to be derived from home cooking of nutritionally balanced recipes primarily using raw ingredients, rather than relying on ready meals or recipes by television chefs.”

“Further reformulation of ready meals in line with international nutritional guidelines, and collaboration with television chefs to improve the nutritional quality of their recipes, may also help consumers to achieve a balanced diet,” the authors concluded.

The full paper is available here.

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