Accredited practicing dietitian Robbie Clark on whether your ‘healthy’ soup, salad or reheatable meals is actually doing you any good.
As the old saying goes “fresh is always best” – and when it comes to comparing fresh produce to pre-packaged foods or meals in the supermarket, this is no exception. But the reality is that many people are time-poor and are looking for a quick replacement that requires little food preparation and is still a healthy option, so to speak. 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, 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. Some are made with organic ingredients, 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 or tinned soups are high in sodium, which, when overconsumed, may lead to high blood pressure and weight gain. 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 your total calorie intake to increase.
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 healthy 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.
But 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 will have less additives and preservatives in them, 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 can cater for people with food intolerances and will call out if they are gluten free or dairy free on their packaging.
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 salt that goes into the soup. It also works out to be cheaper (depending if you buy organic produce or not) as 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.
Anything with fresh leafy greens, raw vegetables, phytochemicals and antioxidants – not to mention, 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 means that you’re far more likely to make a healthy choice with your meals.
Frozen or ready-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. 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, though.
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 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 example, athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding women and the chronically ill. On a positive note, there is always an opportunity to add to the meal with things like 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.