How to be really good to yourself

Supermarkets are responding to consumers' health-consciousness with ever-expanding ranges of 'healthier' convenience foods. But are they better for us than standard ready meals? Kate Hilpern decodes the labels

Twenty years ago, the ready meal was a rare sight. Now, these mealtime short cuts for the cash-rich and time-poor are stacked high on supermarket shelves. But as the healthy-eating message begins to hit home with the public, this sort of convenience fare is getting a bad press.That's why the supermarket giants are retaliating with ever-expanding ranges of "healthier" options. Most of these are lower in calories than their regular equivalents, but can they really claim to be better for us?

Twenty years ago, the ready meal was a rare sight. Now, these mealtime short cuts for the cash-rich and time-poor are stacked high on supermarket shelves. But as the healthy-eating message begins to hit home with the public, this sort of convenience fare is getting a bad press.That's why the supermarket giants are retaliating with ever-expanding ranges of "healthier" options. Most of these are lower in calories than their regular equivalents, but can they really claim to be better for us?

Next month, Tesco shoppers will be introduced to a "traffic light" labelling scheme, with red warnings on food which is high in fat, sugar and salt, and green signals for low levels of these ingredients. But, warns the Food Commission, consumers who fill their baskets with green items may not be getting as good a diet as they think they are, even if they opt for the Healthy Living range. In fact, the consumer watchdog claims that Tesco is not the only supermarket chain to have higher levels of salt, sugar and fat than those recommended by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in its "healthy" range of foods. So how can anyone hope to stick to a healthy diet?

"Customers should expect to see a lot of red lights on Tesco's Healthy Living shelves this September," says Tim Lobstein, director of the Food Commission. "Healthy Living sausages, for example, would have an amber light for fat and for saturated fat, and green for sugar, but red for salt. And while the supermarket claims its cream cheese is 'light', it would have to be amber for fat, salt and sugar, and red for saturated fat." Similarly, should Sainsbury's ever decide to follow the traffic-light route, its Be Good to Yourself range would most likely be littered with red and amber lights for its levels of fat and sugar.

The Food Commission actually welcomes the traffic-light system as the best way to inform customers about the level of healthiness of the products they're buying, believing it will eventually become a legal requirement. The problem is that Tesco has decided not to use the FSA guidelines on healthy levels of salt, sugar and fat, and this could enable them to keep even the number of red warnings low, according to Lobstein.

Tesco confirms that the criteria it is using are based on dietary targets set by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy and the World Health Organisation. Anne Nugent, a nutrition scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation, believes it is this very lack of consistency that enables supermarkets to create their own definitions of "healthy" - some of which, she agrees, are still too high in salt, sugar and fat. "It makes it very difficult for consumers, particularly those in a hurry, to know whether they are getting something that's genuinely good for them or not," she says.

For example, Asda's Good For You brand has a criterion for a healthy level of fat at less than 3 per cent, which meets the FSA standard for a green light. "But," explains a spokesman, "there are exceptions - pizza, cakes, puddings, coleslaw and cream-based sauces - where the criterion is raised to less than 5 per cent fat."

But even this is far stricter than Sainsbury's Be Good to Yourself range, where the criterion is, rather more vaguely, "lower fat". If you're lucky, products contain less than 3 per cent fat. Others simply contain "at least 50 per cent less fat than the standard equivalent product" - which could theoretically amount to anything up to about 40 per cent - well above the FSA recommendations. What's more, the Be Good to Yourself range doesn't necessarily contain any less sugar than standard products. Co-op, on the other hand, stipulates that all foods in its Healthy Living Range must contain at least a quarter less sugar than a standard equivalent product.

Nugent says the solution is for shoppers to shift the focus to the bigger picture. "In food manufacturers' defence, it is quite difficult for one individual food product to be healthy in every way. Cheese, for example, is always going to contain a lot of salt and fat, even if it has been reduced for the purposes of belonging to a 'healthy' range. But it's a great source of calcium, so there's no need to avoid it altogether. The trick is to put a range of products with a wide variety of nutrients into your shopping trolley." Nugent adds that while it's unhealthy to have excessive amounts of sugar, fat and salt, they are sometimes necessary. "Fat is intrinsic to the taste of a sausage," she explains. "And salt is added to bread to make it taste nice. It's unrealistic to think that you can cut them out altogether, unless you have an extremely bland diet."

However, Amanda Wynne, a spokesman for the British Dietetic Association (BDA), says: "If you're buying fatty products like sausages or cheese, it's still far better to pick them up from the healthy range. They could contain less than half the fat of the others in the shop. That goes for sugary and salty products, too. This is what worries me about the traffic-light scheme. Customers might see red lights on both packs of sausages and think, 'I might as well opt for the non-healthy range if they're both bad for me.'" Wynne also cautions people not to hone in on one ingredient at the expense of another. "The McVitie's Go Ahead range is particularly cleverly marketed," she says. "The message is that the products are guilt-free. While it's true that they're low in fat, many of the products are high in calories. I've seen people piling them in [their baskets], thinking they're slimming when they'd probably be better off having a small bar of chocolate."

Wynne welcomes the trend in a growing number of supermarkets to list on their packaging the daily recommendations of salt, fat and calorie intake, next to the legally required panel that lists the nutrients of the individual product. Marks & Spencer is among them. "We don't market any of our products within a healthy eating range," says Jenny Arthur, a nutritionist for M&S. "We just tell it how it is - that it is 'half the fat' or 'reduced sugar' and let the customer work out how the product can fit into their daily recommended intake." The store's Count on Us range, Arthur says, has much stricter criteria for levels of fat, sugar and salt. "But this is quite different from a healthy range because it's specifically aimed at people who are dieting," she says.

The Co-op goes a step further in educating customers. "Across both our Co-op own-brand range and our Healthy Living range, we state whether the product is high, medium or low in each nutrient," says Cath Humphreys, the chief scientific adviser to the Co-op. "In addition, we have a circle on the front of every product, displaying the number of calories and amount of salt and fat per serving."

It's about helping customers make a quick but informed choice, Humphreys says. If only all supermarkets would take note and work to a standard system, rather than leaving shoppers increasingly perplexed.

THE HIDDEN INGREDIENTS

Tesco Healthy Living Brussels pâté, 175g, 75p

This is "healthier" than the standard pâté, containing half the fat. But a single serving will still provide one-third of the recommended daily intake for salt (1.75g). Amanda Wynne, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says: "Liver is a good source of iron, but is also high in Vitamin A and so should be avoided by pregnant women."

Marks & Spencer Count On Us chocolate muffin dessert, 110g, 79p

Though lower in fat and calories than some desserts, this is still relatively high in sugar and "provides little in the way of nutritional value", says Amanda. "A better choice would be fruit-based desserts." But this pudding is fine if enjoyed occasionally.

Waitrose Perfectly Balanced kedgeree, 400g, £2.69

A fairly healthy meal containing fish, which provides omega-3 fatty acids needed to maintain a healthy heart. "Although not too high in fat, the salt content is high at 2.8g, providing almost half the daily recommended intake." Amanda says that this meal is lacking in vegetables, and should therefore be served with salad or vegetables.

Co-op Healthy Living ham, cheese and pickle sandwich, £1.70

"The malted bread provides some fibre, and with the meat and cheese filling, there will be some iron and calcium too," Amanda says. However, calorie and fat content is moderate, and salt content is high. "Sandwiches are an ideal lunch, but watch out for high fat and salt. Go for varieties which contain some vegetable or salad."

Andrea San-Pedro

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