Who doesn’t like a ready meal once in a while? People in the UK certainly do: consumption of ready meals and convenience meat products has increased five-fold over the last 40 years, according to the latest National Food Survey on UK food-buying habits. High levels of calories and fat in some of these products can be spotted on the label. But there are other concerns about the nutritional value of some ready meals – things you won’t find on the label.
One concern is the way these foods are cooked. Cooking processes can be just as important for our health as the sugar, salt and fat content. Beetroot turning cooking water purple is a vivid example of how nutrients (antioxidants called betalains) can be lost. But other nutrients disappear unnoticed into the cooking water, such as B vitamins from leafy vegetables, and anticancer glucosinolates from members of the cabbage family. At home, we can minimise this by steaming vegetables or using the cooking water. But we have no control over the making of convenience foods and ready meals. Do firms that make these products take care to prepare ready meals in ways that preserve the nutrients? We simply don’t know.
Labelling on ready meals tends to be limited to fat, sugar and salt. Makers of ready meals don’t have to label total vitamin content, and probably don’t bother figuring out how many of the myriad of cancer-preventing compounds in plant foods are lost during production. Even when they do mention vitamins on their labels, this can just mean that the vitamins were in the raw ingredients. It’s not an indication of what remains in the end product.
Some makers of ready meals compromise health by substituting healthy ingredients with less healthy ones. For instance, rapeseed oil is common in ready-prepared Mediterranean dishes such as hummus and pizzas, even though they are traditionally made using virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil has well-established health benefits against cardiovascular disease and possibly even against breast cancer, but there is no evidence for these benefits with rapeseed oil.
Another example is the way olives are processed. Beneficial antioxidants that lower the risk of cardiovascular disease are lost during the processing of some cheap black olives. Fortunately, the shopper can identify these nutritionally-depleted olives by the ferrous gluconate (added to stabilise the black colour) mentioned on the label.
Food trends in 2016
Food trends in 2016
1/11 Celeriac root
We had a kale obsession in 2015, but 2016’s vegetable sine qua non is predicted to be the knobbly celeriac root. Celeriac milk (Tom Hunt at Poco in Bristol serves it with winter mussels and wild water celery), celeriac cooked in Galician beef fat (from Adam Rawson of Pachamama, hot new chef in the capital) and salt-baked celeriac (to be found in Matthew and Iain Pennington’s kitchens at The Ethicurean in the West Country) are just a few examples.
2/11 Middle Eastern food
The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook (£24.95, Phaidon) by grand-dame Salma Hage, author of the bestseller The Lebanese Kitchen (whose halva is pictured here), is out in April
© Liz & Max Haarala Hamilton
3/11 Non-alcoholic cocktails
Grain Store mixologist Tony Conigliaro has created Roman Redhead, a riot of red grape juice, beetroot, pale ale and verjus, and Rose Iced Tea (black tea, rose petals, anise essence, pictured here)
The discerning will be slurping Hepple gin – from chef Valentine Warner and cocktail guru Nick Strangeway – which is punctuated with bog-myrtle nuances
5/11 Argyll and Bute
Restaurant followers are getting in a froth about Pam Brunton in Scotland, who opened the Inver restaurant in Argyll and Bute to acclaim last year
6/11 Andy Oliver’s Som Saa
One of the most eagerly awaited restaurants of 2016 will be the permanent incarnation of Andy Oliver’s remarkable pop-up Som Saa opening very soon in east London. Oliver, who worked at Thai god David Thompson’s Nahm in Bangkok, raised a whopping £700,000 through crowdfunding, and is renowned for his piquant Thai flavours and obsessive attention to detail, including in his home ferments and DIY coconut cream
© Adam Weatherley
Another ruminant in vogue is venison, with Sainsbury’s doubling its line for 2016. It provides a protein-packed punch, with B vitamins and iron, and it’s low in fat. Its entry into the mainstream is in part thanks to the Scottish restaurant Mac and Wild, just opened in London, whose Celtic head chef Andy Waugh (who also runs the Wild Game Co) has been touting it as street food for years (his venison burger pictured here)
From Brett Graham’s The Ledbury to Angela Hartnett’s kitchens at Lime Wood Hotel in the New Forest, Cabrito is the go-to goat supplier among the chef cognoscenti (roasted loin of kid pictured here) – but this year, domestic cooks can get in on the action, as Sushila Moles and James Whetlor of Cabrito offer their meat through Ocado
Mike Lusmore / mikelusmore.com
Coffee sage George Crawford is launching the much-anticipated Cupsmith with his partner, Emma. Crawford believes that 2016 is the year purist coffee will finally meet the masses; Cupsmith’s mission will be to make craft coffee as popular as craft beer on the high street. The company roasts Arabica beans in small batches, improving its quality – but sells it online, at cupsmith.com, in an approachable way: expect cheerful packaging and names such as Afternoon Reviver Coffee (designed for drinking with milk – no matter how uncouth, most of us want milk) and Glorious Espresso
10/11 120-day-old steak
Hanging meat for extremely long lengths of time has become an art. In Cumbria, Lake Road Kitchen’s James Cross is plating up 120-day-old steak (pictured here). The beef is from influential “ager” Dan Austin of Lake District Farmers, who is currently investigating the individual bacterial cultures that go into this maturing process
11/11 Lotus root
Diners can expect root-to-stem dining - cue the full lotus deployed by the Michelin-starred Indian Benares in its kamal kakdi aur paneer korma
The nutritional value of ready meals matters since groups such as the single elderly rely on them for a lot of their nourishment. Surveys regularly find that elderly people aren’t getting enough heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, vitamin D or minerals such as calcium, magnesium and selenium. Supplements might be one answer, but they don’t provide all the nutrients – including fibre and cancer-preventing compounds – needed for overall health. So health authorities generally recommend eating a healthy diet rather than relying on supplements. And if ready meals are a significant part of the diet, it’s important that they preserve the nutrients that were present in the raw ingredients.
It’s not just what’s taken out
Lost nutrients aren’t the only concern. Other potential perils lurk on the ready meals counter. Carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines are produced in meats roasted or grilled at high temperatures. So reducing consumption of ready meals containing these meats could be a good idea. Also, popular meat products such as chicken nuggets and kebabs have high levels of substances known as AGEs (advanced glycation endproducts). These are linked to an increased risk of diabetes and also possibly of dementia. People with diabetes or kidney disease (who are less able to excrete AGEs) are advised to limit their intake of foods containing these substances.
Poor diet is the main reason – ahead of smoking and lack of exercise – for the epidemic of chronic diseases in developed countries such as the UK. Firms that make ready meals could help the fight against these chronic diseases by providing nutrient-rich meals. Concern over poor diet often focuses on sugar, salt and fat, but nutrient levels are also important. For example, new research indicates that an optimal combination of nutrients can help prevent diseases as seemingly intractable as Alzheimer’s disease. But to achieve these nutrient-levels, those eating ready meals should be able to rely on them being produced to a high nutritional standard.