The study from the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg (ORISCAV-LUX) led by Dr Ala’a Alkerwi specifically looked at the role of pre-packaged ready meals. Sales in Europe have increased by 14% in the past five years and are expected to grow a further 12% by 2016 according to a report by Food For Thought.
“Although fast foods and takeaways have been consistently targeted as major contributors of weight gain (…), the associations between consumption of ready-to-eat pre-packaged dishes and diet quality have not been considered previously,” wrote the researchers.
The team of scientists followed 1352 subjects aged 18–69 years, 97% of whom reported eating some quantity of ready-made meals every day. The researchers found that the percentage of nutrients derived from daily consumption of ready-made meals varied from 10% for total cholesterol to 0·65% for total fibre, with ready-made meal consumption providing at least 7% of total daily energy. They also found an independent link with abdominal obesity.
Due to the combination of this relatively high daily energy intake and poor nutritional value, they concluded that there was a plausible causal link between eating ready meals and being at risk of obesity.
Dr Alkerwi noted that the study did not include ready-to-eat foods that consumers might use to complement a home-cooked meal – such as chicken nuggets, fish and chips, French fries and many varieties of frozen dinners – meaning that the scope of poor nutrition and excess energy intake caused by processed foods may in fact be far wider than the study suggests.
An increasingly diversified market
Eleven pre-prepared foods were used in the study to calculate the value of an average ready meal, including both a mixture of foods traditionally associated with fast food such as hamburgers and pizza, regional specialties such as Sauerkraut or smoked pork with beans (a typical Luxemburg dish) and more ‘exotic’ foods, including Indonesian spring rolls and Portuguese cod bacalho.
This selection is representative of an increasingly diverse ready meal market that attempts to appeal to the international tastes of consumers. The study said that “consumers of foods prepared away from home may be less knowledgeable about the energy content of foods.”
Dr Alkerwi said that she hoped this study would highlight the importance of clear nutrition information on ready meal packaging to those working in the industry as well as public health decision-makers
“It is important for manufacturers to clearly indicate nutrition information on the packaging of ready-made meals. It would be useful to standardize this information so that we have a single European reference to increase consumers’ understanding,” she added.
A 2014 European Commission-funded study found that there was little coherence in the nutritional content of ready-meals, meaning consumers were unclear of their health value.
Source: British Journal of Nutrition
Vol 113, Iss. 2, pp 270-277
Consumption of ready-made meals and increased risk of obesity: findings from the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg (ORISCAV-LUX) study
Authors: Ala'a Alkerwi, Georgina E. Crichton and James R. Hébert