EATING READY-MADE FOOD: The Good the Bad and the Salty

picture of ribbon wrapped chillies

Is the craze for eating ready-made food the reason for our bad health? And does the so-called convenience of such food pay off?

So there I was, queuing in the local supermarket waiting to buy my shopping when my eyes started roaming over what the lady in front of me was buying. It was a large shopping haul – big enough for the week – but the only vegetables in it were carrots and onions, the only meat was of the frozen chicken nugget variety and she’d even gone in for some frozen mashed potato. Two carrots and some onions aside, there were no fresh whole ingredients in sight. I found myself immediately judging her despite the fact that she looked like a harangued mum for whom convenience was the main food criteria.

Maybe she buys all of her fresh fruit and veg elsewhere (something that I must confess I do with this particular supermarket) and I say this as someone who does not have any children, not to mention four boys like I’m sure this lady had. But I do say this as someone who knows a great deal about food and the industry. Someone who knows that, with a few exceptions, any packaged jar of pasta bake, curry sauce or microwave meal will never ever taste as good, be as nutritious as a freshly made food will.

I can understand the lure of ready-made food. There is the perceived convenience. You don’t have to think about what you are going to cook, figure out a recipe, stock up the pantry with ingredients to give you the choice and then there is the perceived cost in both money and time. But I can’t somehow help but feel these arguments are somehow missing the point.

For a start ready-made food is not cheaper and it almost never will be if you look at it in context. Whole foods are sold by the kilo while packaged food by the jar, box or bag – usually far less than a kilo so they kind of look cheaper. There is also the problem that when you are making a sauce, for example, that a number of ingredients will go into it – all of varying cost. So you may buy some garlic that costs $25/kg making a bulb cost a few dollars i.e. a significant percentage of what a jar of the ready-made sauce will cost you. But remember that you’ll only be using a few cloves in your sauce which will only cost you say 30c of garlic.

Also remember that you’ll usually be bulking this sauce out with canned tomatoes, spinach or some other cheap ingredient. So when making fresh food your initial outlay may be more than buying the thing pre-made because you have to buy many ingredients in larger quantities than you need for that particular meal. But this is false economics. Because in the long run it will average out. Next time you go to the supermarket to buy your sauce making ingredients you will already have garlic and likely many other useful ingredients in your pantry.

There are some cases where even despite the cost of the initial outlay paying off in the near future that buying ready-made food is cheaper. This is particularly true in UK where microwave meals are ridiculously cheap. But I ask you this: how is it so cheap? Well for a start the factory would buy the ingredients in bulk at wholesale cost, much less than you would pay for the same ingredients in the supermarket. So far so good. But do you think they would go to the trouble of setting up multimillion dollar factories, paying staff, using up vast amounts of electricity on machines that will cook up the ready-made food just so they could make less margin on the wholesale ingredients than a supermarket? Of course not. No it is a little more complicated than that.

There is the bulking out factor. Think back to our little garlic example and think how you would aim to bring the cost of the sauce down, not for you to make at home, but if you owned a factory and your number one concern was not nutrition or taste, but cost. You would replace the fresh garlic cloves with garlic powder. It wouldn’t taste as good but would be far cheaper if not only for the reason that garlic is a damn pain to peel! So you would add a little more salt and sugar into your recipe to make it more desirable.

And then tomatoes went up in price so you use less of them and add water to bulk out your sauce. But of course that would make it thin and tasteless. So you add a thickening agent which will be a starch derivative from wheat, tapioca or corn, but will be so refined that it not only has no nutrition but is in fact an anti-nutrient (something that requires your body to use up more nutrients than  it is receiving in order to digest the food). And then you will add a little more salt and sugar to make up the flavour loss of having less tomatoes. You will also add some acidity regulator which will normally be either citric or acetic acid – again both refined food that don’t add much value nutritionally. So ready-made food is not necessarily cheaper even if at first glance it may look so. And in the long run ready-made food may be far more expensive in terms of your health. You are of course allowed to use these bulking out tricks at home to save on cost – but would you?

Of course with consumers becoming more aware of these issues brands are having to smarten up their act. But this still doesn’t mean that they won’t have low quality ingredients (e.g. highly refined vegetable oil instead of cold-pressed olive oil). And are still likely to be high in salt and sugar – again of the low quality and highly refined variety. This is not to mention the fact that nothing can beat freshly cooked food. Once frozen or cooked to the point of pasteurization food loses many of its nutrients. On the same note it is not healthy to eat slow cooked home food every single night. We all need varied diets that include a lot of fresh food.

I really want to make the point that soy sauces, vinegars, oils and even spice mixes are great assets in the kitchen. I understand the helping hand a curry paste (not a bulked out sauce) or stock cube can give to a meal – in fact I rely upon such things in the kitchen. And of course there are some fantastic factory made products out there. But what I really don’t understand is the frozen mashed potatoes, pasta bakes, curry sauces, chicken nuggets and microwave meals meals eaten almost every night. In my view if all you need to add is some meat, onions and a pre-made sauce or if you just have to microwave something for it to be ready to stick your fork into then you are most likely eating less than top quality food. And in the worst case scenario very unhealthy substandard food. Or put another way – I don’t believe this is the food we should be living. Just in the same way we should not be eating restaurant food every night.

For ten minutes after I paid for my shopping I stood near the checkout . It shocked me how much of this stuff people brought. I am not talking about the occasional ready-made meal for the tired busy evening or the emergency when you haven’t had time to make it to the supermarket and want to grab something out of the freezer. I am talking about the fact that this is what people are eating – all across the world!

Either way I lament the fact that children are being brought up on this substandard food and no longer understand what a quality meal should taste like. If it doesn’t have loads of salt and requires you to lift a knife to prepare your meal then it doesn’t cut the mustard or garlic or chillies or ginger – whatever quality fresh, whole ingredients you can think of that goes into a great meal. It is unhealthy and people are getting seriously sick from poor diets! And if you don’t believe me that fresh properly made food is tastier then I ask you why good restaurants don’t just cook out of jars and frozen packets? Because they know what is going on. Chefs understand how to make truly tasty food – even if that is also partly by adding a lot of oil and salt to their food. As I said you wouldn’t want to be eating restaurant food every night.

So I left the supermarket and went home to cook an effortless real home made chicken curry no ready-made sauces. In the short space of time it took me to chop my four cloves of garlic, whole chilli and thumb of ginger into small pieces in preparation, I had come to a realisation. This is what NOM NOM is about. Teaching people to eat better and yummier food. Giving people the confidence to know that food isn’t scary, needn’t take time to prepare or have to be overly expensive. By learning a few simple techniques, having a few pieces of good cooking equipment and becoming excited about food you can learn and be inspired to cook great food everyday, while saving loads of money in the long run, becoming far healthier and eating more tasty food. What is there not to like about this situation?

So to all of the harangued mums out there please take my hand (made food) and come on a journey. To all of those that agree that food is best eaten fresh and whole spread the word, NOM NOM is an expression we should all be using with every meal.

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