As the old saying goes, “fresh is always best” and when it comes to comparing fresh produce to pre-packaged foods and/or meals in the supermarket, there is no exception. But the reality is that many people are time-poor and are always looking for a quick replacement that requires little or no food preparation at all. When desperate times call for desperate measures and with the over-reliance on convenience foods, the usual culprits are pre-packaged soups, salads and frozen meals. Let’s look at each one in more detail:
Like yoghurts, the soup market is growing larger and larger with so many different brands on the shelves and in the cold section of the supermarket. Some soups come in instant dried form where all you need to do is add water, others come in cans, or plastic tubs that are microwaveable, and some are made with organic ingredients, while others are not.
With such a wide range of options, it’s safe to say that some have superior nutrition content compared to others. Most canned/tinned soups are high in sodium, which when overconsumed may lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Creamed soups can also be high fat and saturated fat, which may also lead to elevated cholesterol and not beneficial if you are trying to lose weight as it will cause the total calorie content to be high.
Another issue with canned soup is its plastic lining, which may contain the harmful Bisphenol A (BPA). This toxin can leach from the lining into the food and can’t be drained or rinsed.
Dried instant soups such as ‘cup a soup’ definitely deserve my wooded spoon. There is nothing health promoting about them and while some of them may advertise that they are low in fat, they are certainly not low in sodium. The average cup a soup contains 600-1000mg of sodium, about half your recommended sodium intake for the day. They also contain numerous amounts of other ingredients that you wouldn’t find in homemade soup. For example, mineral salts (340, 451), emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, sugar, flavour enhancers 621, 635 and colour 160b. There are even some brands in which their chicken soup contains no chicken but it does contain food acid, flavour enhancers, hydrolysed corn protein and colours such as caramel IV.
Soups found in the fridge/chiller section of the supermarket are probably your best choice of all soups. They have a shorter shelf life meaning they with have less additives and preservatives in them for a start, and they contain an ingredients list closest to what I would use at home. There are many different ones out there and the ones to look out for are soups that are preservative and additive free, contain natural ingredients and are low in sodium (remember, you can always add more salt at the table if needed). Finally, these usually cater better for people with food intolerances e.g. gluten free, dairy free.
I think it’s obvious that nothing beats a homemade soup, both in terms of flavour as well as nutritional value, especially if you make your own stock. You also have the ability to control the amount of sodium (salt) that goes into the soup. Finally, it works out to be cheaper (depending if you buy organic produce or not) in the fact that you can make a big batch up soup and freeze portions for a meal later in the week.
In our never-ending search for foods that are both healthy and convenient, salad kits, premade salad bowls, bags of washed and pre-sliced vegetables offer the best of both worlds.
Fresh leafy greens and other raw vegetables are packed with nutrients, phytochemicals and antioxidants, and the word “prewashed” gets a thumb’s up from me. Well, for the most part. According to food safety groups, leafy greens are the riskiest food you can eat, in terms of food safety.
Having said this, it’s important to point out that the potential dangers are minimal. While it’s true that leafy greens are associated with a high number of food poisoning outbreaks in comparison to other types of foods, the lettuce itself isn’t inherently dangerous and the risk of food poisoning is very minimal. Therefore, in terms of health, the benefits of eating a healthy, pre-packaged salad outweigh the risks. Being able to pick up a premade salad bowl at the supermarket when you’re on the run or stocking your fridge with fresh greens and other veggies that are ready to eat makes it that much more likely that you’ll make a healthy choice with your meals.
Ready-meals are usually defined as pre-prepared main courses that can be reheated in their container, requiring no further ingredients, and needing only minimal preparation before consumption. The usual ones that come to mind are Lean Cuisine, Weight Watches and McCain. In the past these meals have lacked flavour, been carb-heavy (think pasta and rice), contain minimal vegetables and not enough protein. Over the years, there have been a rise in healthier pre-packaged meals that have even been endorsed by fitness celebrities/influencers.
It’s important to note that these meals are usually designed and created to be nutritionally balanced meaning they will usually contain a protein (animal- or plant-based), vegetables and some grains. The serving size of these meals are also relatively small to keep the calorie count down, so they may not fill you up or provide certain population groups with enough energy that they require for good health e.g. athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding women and the chronically ill. On a positive note, there is always an opportunity to add to the meal e.g. tinned tuna, tinned chickpeas or other legumes, or extra frozen vegetables if need be.
Some brands and meals may contain high amounts of sodium as a way of adding flavour to them, so this is something to be cautious of. All in all, these meals are a better choice than most takeaway’s but should be reserved in the freezer for emergencies when you come home starving or have very little time to prepare a meal.