Frazzled after a long day and longing to collapse on the sofa, few of us can summon the energy to cook every meal from scratch.
And why bother, when the fridge and freezer can be crammed with delicious lasagnes, mouth-watering chillis and shepherd’s pies that take just minutes in the microwave?
Britain’s obsession with ready meals has reached staggering proportions.
Since their invention in 1953, we’ve developed something of an addiction, and today spend £3 billion on them every year — more than any other country in Europe.
Britain’s obsession with ready meals has reached staggering proportions – leading us to spend £3 billion on them every year
The average UK household munches its way through three shop-bought microwaveable dinners a week.
Last week, chef Gordon Ramsay, who once declared ready meals ‘food hell’, even launched his own range with his 15-year-old daughter, Tilly.
So why are we so hooked on microwave dinners? What really goes into them? And how unhealthy are they? From ‘meat glue’ to the dishes with more sugar than a can of Coke, we reveal the unpalatable truths behind your ready meals . . .
CHEAP CUTS BULKED UP WITH MEAT GLUE
While luxury brands offer select cuts of beef, tender lamb and free-range chicken, basic ready meals are packed with low-grade meats and cheap offcuts.
These are often bulked out in one of two ways. The first is transglutaminase, which has the stomach-churning nickname ‘meat glue’, a super-strength enzyme which bonds slabs of raw meat together into one, uniform joint.
The second is collagen, a protein extracted from butchered animal carcasses, which is processed into a powder. Combined with water, this becomes bouncy and glutinous, acting just like meat.
A chicken dinner may contain just 25 per cent meat — and even this may have been bulked out with water, oil, sugar and starch.
Paul Dobson, professor for business strategy and public policy at the University of East Anglia, suspects the 2013 horsemeat scandal — in which horse DNA was detected in cheap, frozen ready meals — has made customers more discerning.
However, he warns: ‘The fact that consumers did not distinguish the taste of horse from beef says a lot about how far unscrupulous producers might be able to go to mislead consumers.’
AS MUCH SUGAR AS A CAN OF COLA
Luxury ready meals may boast better meat (and higher price tags) — but they’re often far from healthy.
A 2015 study analysed microwave dinners from five UK supermarkets and found those labelled ‘finest’ or ‘extra special’ contained up to twice as much saturated fat, salt and sugar as ‘basics’ or ‘value’ varieties.
Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference lasagne, for example, contains 83 per cent of an adult’s recommended daily allowance of saturated fat and 34.5 per cent of our salt allowance, while the Basics equivalent contains 36 per cent saturated fat and 28.8 per cent salt.
One serving of Sainsbury’s sweet and sour chicken with rice was found to contain 33g of sugar — just shy of the 35g in a can of cola (file photo)
The same is true of high-end brands such as Charlie Bigham, whose indulgent fish pies, chicken kievs and stroganoffs cost between £4.50 and £8.50 at Waitrose.
Per 100g, Charlie Bigham macaroni cheese contains 11.2g fat, 2g sugar and 0.85g salt. The same meal from the Waitrose Essential range contains 7.8g fat, 1.2g sugar and 0.5 salt per 100g.
Of all the cuisines, Chinese is best avoided: one serving of Sainsbury’s sweet and sour chicken with rice was found to contain 33g of sugar — just shy of the 35g in a can of cola.
CHEESE POWDER THAT LASTS 18 MONTHS
The ingredient list on the back of the packet doesn’t always tell the full story. Last month, Tesco urgently recalled its Finest crab and chilli linguine after it was revealed to contain milk, egg and pork — thanks to being ‘mis-packed’ with spaghetti carbonara.
And even the ingredients that are listed might have more to them than meets the eye. Costs are cut by using artificial cheese powder — made from whey protein, a by-product of milk — which has a shelf life of 18 months.
‘Don’t be fooled, either, if you see any food with a label boasting “made with butter”,’ explains Joanna Blythman, author of Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets.
‘The product could include a much cheaper, pale yellow powder that is made using a technique called “spray-drying”, during which nearly all the water is removed from a mixture of butter, milk proteins and starch.’
Potato protein isolate, a compound extracted from the flesh of potatoes, is another substitute, used instead of dairy products.
ADDITIVES MADE FROM HUMAN HAIR
Some of the preservatives and shelf-prolonging additives commonly used in ready meals are enough to turn your stomach.
Many microwave meals contain the amino acid L-cysteine, a naturally occurring substance produced from feathers, pig bristles and even human hair (which, a 2016 study claimed, originates in barber shops and hair salons in China).
Many microwave meals contain the amino acid L-cysteine, a naturally occurring substance produced from feathers, pig bristles and even human hair (file photo)
Some chicken nuggets contain dimethylpolysiloxane, a compound used to make silicone breast implants.
Other additives include glucose syrup and maltodextrin, sugars used to boost flavour; lactose, which is added as an emulsifier to keep sauce smooth; and artificial vitamin E, commonly derived from petrol.
Chilled meals are the worst offenders, requiring far more enhancers than their frozen rivals to keep them looking and tasting fresh.
But even they aren’t obliged to reveal the full ingredients list on the label; take a look at most packets and you’ll find the catch-all terms ‘preservatives’, ‘flavourings’ and ‘spices’ instead.
TOXINS IN THOSE PLASTIC TRAYS
Ready meal containers have come a long way from the ‘TV dinners’ marketed by U.S. food company Swanson’s in the Fifties, which were packaged up in foil trays to mimic airline meals.
Today, you’re more likely to eat your cottage pie out of a heatproof plastic tub, vacuum-sealed with a transparent film.
These tubs are injected with a nitrogen-based gas that mimics air found in the atmosphere.
It’s harmless, but helps to extend the shelf life of the food, keeping meat red and preventing what manufacturers call ‘warmed over flavour’ — an off-taste that occurs in factory produce.
There are some concerns that storing food in plastic for long periods of time may cause chemicals to leak into it (file photo)
But there are some concerns that storing food in plastic for long periods of time may cause chemicals to leach into it, including phthalates — an ingredient added to plastic to increase its flexibility and linked to health problems such as reduced fertility, low libido, birth defects and lower IQ in infants.
Dr Steve Ball, consultant endocrinologist at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, says: ‘If I am microwaving something, I always take it out of the plastic tray first and put it on a plate.’
FROZEN IS BETTER THAN ‘FRESH’
Most shoppers prefer chilled ready meals to frozen varieties, presuming that the ingredients and flavour are better. According to trade magazine The Grocer, UK sales of frozen meals are plummeting (down 3.6 per cent, or £24.5 million, in a year).
But experts say frozen microwave meals can actually be healthier, and higher in quality, than their chilled counterparts.
This is because ‘flash freezing’ — the process of freezing produce so quickly that ice crystals, which can cause damage to cell membranes, don’t form — locks in freshness and protects essential vitamins and minerals.
Experts say frozen microwave meals can actually be healthier, and higher in quality, than their chilled counterparts using fresh ingredients (file photo)
For refrigerated ready meals, by contrast, there are no rules on what can be classed as ‘fresh’.
Fish, for example, can sit on ice for up to two weeks out at sea; lamb from New Zealand takes six weeks to reach Britain and is frozen in transit. Both are then defrosted and sold as ‘fresh’.
This also explains why chilled foods are more expensive. It’s not that they’re better quality; they simply have a short shelf life, costing supermarkets a fortune in stock disposal and recycling.
Supermarkets are catching on to the money-spinning potential of frozen dinners: in 2014, MS launched its own range, while upmarket frozen meals brand COOK, started in a kitchen in Kent in 1997, now has annual sales of £46 million.
FACTORIES CHURN OUT 250,000 MEALS A DAY
Ignore tempting labels claiming they’re ‘home cooked’ or ‘freshly made’ — most ready meals are produced on a vast scale on factory conveyor belts.
Manufacturers make meals for several supermarkets, with luxury and economy options made on the same site — often from the same ingredients.
Large factories run up to ten assembly lines, churning out 250,000 portions a day. Joanna Blythman says the busiest plants can process ten tons of chicken tikka or half a million kebabs in one day.
‘BRITISH’ FOOD FROM AROUND THE WORLD
A 2015 investigation by ITV’s Tonight programme found ingredients from ten different countries — including New Zealand, Israel, Argentina and Spain — in a ‘British lamb hotpot’.
The same was true of a pizza labelled ‘country of origin Ireland’; its 35 ingredients were found to have passed through 60 different countries during preparation and packaging. Ingredients, particularly meat and vegetables, from other countries are subjected to vastly different — and often lesser — quality and disease controls to those originating here.
What’s more, all that travel has a damaging effect on our environment. Studies have shown that the processes that go into producing an average ready meal leave a footprint of 6kg of carbon dioxide per customer — equivalent to driving round the world 5,500 times every week, according to the University of Manchester.
BIGGER PORTIONS — AND WAISTLINES
As obesity spirals (two-thirds of British adults are overweight or obese), experts have blamed calorie-laden convenience food — and a recent study found that ready meals have increased in portion size by 20 per cent in the past two decades.
A one-person cottage pie from 1999, for example, weighed 230g — while a modern-day equivalent weighs 450g, a near 100 per cent increase in 18 years. A chicken curry grew by a third — from 300g to 400g — in 15 years.
As obesity spirals (two-thirds of British adults are overweight or obese), experts have blamed calorie-laden convenience food (file photo)
Prof Dobson says retailers use larger portion sizes to lure customers and fend off competition.
‘Over time consumers have become accustomed to larger sizes, which has in turn distorted their perceptions as to what is a “normal” size,’ he explains.
VEGGIES STRIPPED OF VITAMINS
Even healthy sounding ingredients can be cooked in such a way that they lose their nutritional value — or acquire harmful side-effects.
Vegetables are often boiled, meaning water-soluble B vitamins seep into the cooking water and are lost. Meat, meanwhile, might be cooked at a very high temperature (such as grilling it over an open flame), which has been shown to form cancer-causing chemicals.
Dr Richard Hoffman, a lecturer in nutritional biochemistry at the University of Hertfordshire, says: ‘We simply don’t know the extent to which this is a problem as there is little regulation regarding the way ready meals are prepared.’
Although EU rules introduced in December dictate that the sugar, salt, fat and calorie content of ready meals must now be stated on the label, there is no similar requirement for vitamins or minerals.
Dr Hoffman says this means ready meal consumers risk low-level deficiencies in crucial vitamins and minerals, which can have serious health consequences.
‘A good example is lack of adequate vitamin D impairing the immune system,’ he explains.
‘There is quite good evidence that this increases the risk of a wide range of illnesses such as some cancers.
‘Another example is the importance of B vitamins for brain health, as insufficient vitamin B1, B6 and B12 are all linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.’
Make sure you are reading the right part of your ready meal’s nutritional table.
Some packaging lists both the ‘per serving’ and ‘per 100g’ values —with the latter appearing much healthier.
MICROWAVES HAVE BEST-BEFORE DATES
Microwaves carry their own risks — so cooking instructions must be followed to the letter.
As ready meals contain raw or partly cooked meat, there’s a risk of salmonella and listeria, potentially deadly forms of bacteria that can cause severe food poisoning.
To avoid this, the food must be cooked thoroughly and at the correct temperature. Contrary to popular belief, microwaves don’t cook food from the inside out; instead, the heat waves penetrate food to a depth of 1.5 inches (almost 4cm) — so thicker, denser foods must be cooked longer at a lower power.
The ‘standing’ time listed on the packet is, actually, part of the cooking time, allowing heat to spread throughout the container — so skip this at your peril.
And don’t forget to check your microwave itself.
Experts say they lose power over time, because the ‘magnetron’ — a high-voltage tube that uses electrical fields to produce waves that bounce around inside the oven — becomes weaker.
An average microwave has a life span of 2,000 hours; or 15 minutes a day for 22 years.