New research from Which? has highlighted that sugar levels can be surprisingly high in some ready meals, despite what consumers may expect. This reinforces the need for more food industry action to reduce the ‘hidden’ levels of added sugars in products and re-evaluate whether some of their products really need to be so sweet for people to enjoy them.
With sugar being in the spotlight at the moment, Which? researchers went shopping to check how much sugar can be found in ready meals. Sugar content may not be top of the list of nutrients you are likely to check when buying a ready meal, and while you would expect sweet and sour dishes to be sweet, we found that you could be eating as much as 50g of sugar - about 10 teaspoons - in just one pack.
This is double the amount you would find in a standard size dairy milk chocolate bar and three teaspoons more than in a can of Coca-Cola. Despite some of the ready meals containing fruit, we found most of the sugar content was added sugar. A Pad Thai with rice noodles may seem like a healthy option but you could be eating 37.8g sugar per serving.
The World Health Organization has consulted on stricter guidelines on sugar consumption and the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is also reporting soon on this this. Overall, it’s clear that many of us eat far more sugar than we need. Recently published National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) results show that all population groups are exceeding the current UK recommendation that no more than 11% of food energy should be from added (non-milk extrinsic) sugars.
“We found that you could be eating as much as 50g of sugar in one meal”
Our research therefore reinforces the need for people to take a close look at food packaging. It’s not only about sugar. It’s also important to watch fat, saturated fat and salt content in foods. The NDNS results show that all groups are exceeding recommended intakes for saturated fat, as well as virtually all age groups in the case of salt.
This is one of the reasons Which? has been such a strong advocate of the traffic light nutrition labelling scheme - so that there is greater transparency about the levels of all of these nutrients, enabling people to make informed choices.
It is also why we think there needs to be a greater effort to try and take unnecessary sugar out of products in the first place. There is no specific Responsibility Deal pledge on sugar reduction, though 37 companies have signed up to the calorie reduction pledge. This is a good start but as the brands we looked at are included among the signatories, clearer targets are now needed across a wider range of categories to help cut unnecessarily high levels of sugar.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?