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Shocking levels of sugar in UK ready meals, says Which?

By Nicola Cottam , 26-May-2014

Some own-brand ready meals contain almost twice the WHO recommended levels for free sugars, finds the Which? investigation.
Some own-brand ready meals contain almost twice the WHO recommended levels for free sugars, finds the Which? investigation.

UK ready meals contain up to double the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended daily intake for sugar, according to the latest research from Which?.

Like for like comparisons of sugar in 17 own label and branded ready meals showed considerable variation, said the consumer association - however, the worst offenders contained sugar levels elevated well above the 25g of ‘free sugar’s’ a day recommended for adults by WHO.

Sainsbury’s sweet & sour chicken with rice and Tesco’s Everyday Value sweet & sour chicken rice contained 50.7g and 48.4g respectively – or around ten teaspoons – in a meal for one. This is significantly higher than the 25.5g found in a standard Dairy Milk Chocolate bar.

“With rising obesity rates, it is shocking to find that ready meals contain more sugar than a chocolate bar. We want the government to set clear targets for sugar reduction as part of the Responsibility Deal with food businesses,” said Which?

“Manufacturers could reduce sugar in a similar way to how they worked together to gradually reduce salt levels in food. By making steady reductions, where feasible for products, won't impact on taste if it is done over a period of time.

Less sugar does not compromise taste

Other meals analysed showed considerably less sugar, but manufacturers continue to push the boundaries to make food more appealing to consumers - to add bulk and mask the taste from poor quality ingredients, says health campaigner Katherine Jenner at Action on Sugar.

“Sugar is often used to replicate the authentic flavours normally achieved using good quality fresh ingredients. Manufacturers will also be trying to match the taste of high street takeaways - which don’t have good process controls generally and recipes contain huge amounts of cheap ingredients,” she said.

Jenner argues that reducing sugar content by 10% would have little or no effect on taste but the health implications would be considerable.

“Consumers who eat ultra processed foods are at higher risk of obesity and that is an indicator for lots of other more serious health conditions like heart disease, stroke, blood pressure and type-2 diabetes,” she said.

“There is a lot of variation between products and if one meal contains less sugar there is no reason why others should have more. Manufacturers should aim for the lower sugar threshold.”

Collaborative approach

Consumers are also accountable and the traffic light labelling system gives them the opportunity to make informed decisions about the food they buy, continued Jenner, although many are often short on time and it simply wouldn’t cross their mind to check the labels.

“Consumers have the information available to them to choose lower sugar options, but we are all too used to eating sugary products. Consumers who find meals too sugary could also write to the manufacturers or let them know.”

Progress has been made with the wide scale adoption of traffic light labelling, as part of the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, which involves working in partnership with the food industry and others to agree voluntary action, said Which?, but now there needs to be greater focus on reducing sugar.

“With all the major retailers and several leading manufacturers adopting traffic lights on their products, consumers are able to make far more informed choices. However, greater government direction is now essential to ensure that there is more action on issues such as reducing sugar and fat levels in foods.

“We want the government and industry to continue to work together to set clear targets for sugar reduction as part of the Responsibility Deal.”

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