Why do supermarkets add sugar to ready-meals?

Why do supermarkets add sugar to ready-meals?

24 January 2019

Written by Jennie Bayliss

Ready-meals have cast-off their old image of cheap, instant food. Today the most popular ready-meals are the fresh, premium ranges found in the refrigerated section. These are marketed as a delicious option that we can all enjoy. But if they are supposedly the best, why do supermarkets add sugar to ready-meals? Virtually all of them have sugar added. And whilst the premium meals generally have less sugar than their cheaper counter-parts, it’s still being added to most of them.

Supermarket premium ready-meals selling strategies

Make no mistake, the supermarkets are selling to us the idea that these ready-meals are a good meal choice. Notice the names of their ranges: ‘Finest’ (Tesco), ‘The Best’ (Morrisons), ‘Extra Special’ (ASDA), and ‘Taste the Difference’ (Sainsbury’s). These words register with our sub-conscious that they are better than the cheaper versions. The meals are also carefully described, mimicking how restaurants list food on a menu. Listen to how tempting these meals sound:
British Steak Stroganoff with White & Wild Rice in a crème fraîche, Dijon mustard, mustard and brandy sauce finished with roasted mushrooms—Morrisons
Chicken & King Prawn Paella with saffron flavoured bomba rice with a tomato, Spanish chorizo and smoked paprika sauce, chargrilled marinated British chicken, king prawns, peas and red peppers—Sainsbury’s
Cottage Pie with melt-in-the-mouth beef in a rich gravy crowned with Jersey butter mash and finished with a herby Cheddar crumb—ASDA
Now add mouth-watering photography and beautiful typography and it’s not surprising that most people pop a ready-meal into the trolley without reading the list of ingredients. Not that the supermarkets make that easy either. The ingredients list is found on the bottom of the pack. To read it, you have to either lift it above your head or tip the pack upside. Lifting it high can feel foolish. Tipping the pack upside down means the food will fall on the cellophane lid making a mess of the food inside. And we’re far too polite to do that!
If you did look at Tesco’s Finest Cottage Pie, this is what you would find on the ingredients list:

Mashed Potato (47%), British Beef (32%), Water, Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Red Wine, Onion, Cornflour, Carrot, Leek, Beef Extract, Celery, Tomato Purée, Garlic Purée, Caramelised Sugar, Rapeseed Oil, Salt, Sugar, Black Mustard Seed, Spirit Vinegar, Tomato Paste, Onion Concentrate, Thyme, Parsley, Molasses, Onion Purée, Black Pepper, Tamarind Paste, Yeast, Ginger Purée, Olive Oil, Sea Salt, Caramel Syrup, Preservative (Acetic Acid), Clove, Paprika, Garlic Extract.

All processed food lists the ingredients in descending order. In this Cottage Pie, there is more caramelised sugar than the first addition of salt. Then comes molasses and finally carmel syrup. If you were making Cottage Pie, would you add sugar? I’m sure you wouldn’t.

Review of 5 popular, premium ready-meals

I took 5 popular ready-meals from 4 of our biggest supermarkets. I reviewed their ingredients lists as shown on their websites, checking whether sugar was included. This is what I found.

Extra Special
The Best
Taste The Difference
Cottage Pie caramelised sugar
caramel syrup
sugar sugar
Chicken & Prawn
sugar none lactose
sugar (x4)
dextrose dextrose none sugar
sugar sugar none none
sugar sugar sugar sugar

From this sample, Morrisions were the least likely to add sugar, whilst Tesco added more different forms of sugar. I was really surprised how much sugar was found in Sainsbury’s paella. Reading through the ingredients, sugar was added to the meal, AND sugar was in several of the ingredients; in the chorizo, lobster extract and anchovies. Again, why would you want to add sugar to fish?!

How the green traffic lights may lead you astray

On these packages, the label traffic light is ‘green’ so does it matter if a small amount of sugar has been added? Yes, it matters! Relying on the traffic symbols can be so misleading. If you eat a breakfast cereal with a ‘green light’ for sugar content, then sandwiches for lunch, and a luxury ready-meal for dinner. All of these perhaps had a green light for sugar. Subconsciously, it might feel like the amount of sugar consumed was within the healthy range – but the total of all sugar consumed that day may easily add-up to a flashing ‘red light’.
Decades ago, sugar was used as a preservative, but that’s not why it’s added to food today. Roll-the clock back a decade or so and sugar was added as it was cheap and bulky. In premium ready-meals, today, it’s down to the taste-tests. And sadly, it seems we prefer the sweeter options.
The problem is that it’s not just added to ready meals. Sugar is added to all sorts of food that you would not expect. Sugar is added – in its various guises to most yoghurts, virtually all breakfast cereals and breads, most mustards, virtually all packaged smoked salmon, all pickles, tomato ketchup, baked beans, wafter-thin ham, breaded cod fillets…to mention just a few. In each of these, the amount is not much, but again it’s so easy to be eating far more sugar than you realise.

How lower ‘added sugar’ in your diet

As a child, my youngest daughter was allergic to eggs, artificial food colourings and some preservatives. Even back then, I cooked mostly from fresh, BUT everything I bought from the supermarket shelves had to be checked. Reading food labels initially takes quite a bit of time, but it amazing how quickly you spot which brands are OK and which are not. If you don’t already do this, begin reading the ingredients labels. Choose some of the foods that you buy weekly. Read these labels to see if it lists sugar, honey or any of the simple sugars such as dextrose, fructose, lactose or glucose as one of the ingredients.
If your favourite brand tuns out to have more sugar than you realised, is there another brand that doesn’t have these sugars added?
Watch-out for sweet foods and drinks that state ‘No sugar added’ on the packaging. What have they used to sweeten the food with? Honey, molasses and maple syrup are fractionally better for you than regular sugar – but their sugar content is still high. Take, for example, whole-food bars and protein balls such as Bounce, Trek, Nak’d, Delicious Ella and Eat Naturally. These typically contain dates. Nutritionally, dates have a little protein, fibre and some useful amount of vitamins and minerals, but 1 large, 24g pitted medjool date contains a whopping 16g (4 teaspoons) of sugar. Many of the bars listed above have 3-4 teaspoons of natural sugar in them, despite the sticker telling you there is no added sugar.

how to work out the ‘teaspoons’ of sugar

I find it useful to consider the sugar content as teaspoons. For me it’s easier to visualise it in this way. To calculate the number of teaspoons, look at the nutritional information table. Under carbohydrates will say, ‘of which sugars’. Take this number and divide it by 4. Notice, by the way, many list their food and drinks ‘per 100g’ or ‘per 100ml’ and not necessarily per portion size. For drinks, this can be especially misleading as most bottles/cans are typically 330–500ml, so you need to multiple the grams of sugar by the portion size first – for example for a regular drink can, it will be 330ml, so x 3.3, then divide it by 4.
I hope this article has helped you become aware of the amount of hidden sugar in our food. My biggest hope is that as many people stop buying the foods with added sugar, then the supermarkets will begin to change their recipes.
As always, I love to hear your thoughts, so let me know via the comments box below.

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