A special Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) compared the energy and macronutrient content of main meals created by television chefs with ready meals sold by supermarkets.
The research, done by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK compared recipes from well-known UK celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Lorraine Pascale, Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with industry produced ‘own brand’ supermarket ready meals.
Both the celebrity chef recipes and the private label ready meals were then scored against nutritional guidelines published by the World Health Organization and UK Food Standards Agency.
Led by Professor Martin White, the researchers found the recipes created by industry contain significantly less energy, protein, fat, and saturated fat, and more fibre per portion than those produced by TV chefs – though the research also revealed the chef recipes contained less salt than the industry produced meals, on average.
“The recipes seemed to be less healthy than the ready meals on several metrics,” said the researchers. However, White and his team added that “neither recipes created by popular television chefs nor ready meals produced by three leading UK supermarket chains meet national or international nutritional standards for a balanced diet.”
A spokesperson for well-known TV chef Jamie Oliver said any research that raises debate on these issues is welcomed:
"We would regard the key issue to be food education so that people are aware of which foods are for every day and which are treats to be enjoyed occasionally," the spokesperson added.
Meanwhile Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) chairman Professor Graham MacGregor, said CASH was ‘not surprised’ to see chef’s recipes are unhealthier than supermarket ready meals.
“Whereas supermarkets have been working hard to gradually reduce salt in their products for years, the chefs we look up to have dug their heels in when it comes to making their food healthier,” said MacGregor.
The CASH chairman said the research is ‘the tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to added salt, because salt added as ‘seasoning’ was not measured by the study.
“Added salt can make up over three-quarters of salt in chef’s recipes,” MacGregor warned. “As most people look to chefs for guidance when cooking at home, if we could get the chefs on board with salt reduction, we would be one step closer to improving the nation’s health.”
The BMJ study analysed the nutritional make-up of 100 private label ready meals from UK-based supermarkets Asda, Sainsbury's and Tesco in addition to 100 recipes taken top recipe books like Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food, Nigella Lawson's Kitchen, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Everyday and Lorraine Pascale's Baking Made Easy.
In totality, White and his team found that chefs' recipes contained an average of 605 calories (kcals) per portion. This is 22% more than the ready meals studied.
Sugar content was also found to be 22% higher than in ready meals, while the recipes' fat and saturated fat content were shown to be 58% and 35% higher respectively, said the researchers.
Overall the team said the recipes were also more likely to achieve ‘red’ traffic light label status criteria than ready meals according to the UK Food Standards Agency.
Despite being found to be, in general, slightly healthier than chef inspired recipes, the research team added that industry efforts to improve the nutritional value of food must continue.
The team put special focus on salt, where only 4% of supermarket ready meals met WHO recommendations.
"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,” said White and his colleagues.