Downside of convenience: what's in that ready meal?

Author reveals labelling tricks

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That healthy-looking list of ingredients on a ready meal could be disguising a bundle of unpleasant additives.

From "vitamins" to "butter", not everything is what it seems, says food writer Joanna Blythman. In her new book, Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry's Darkest Secrets, she explores the murky world of the food processing industry and shows how it uses technical language and clever labelling to mislead consumers about what they're actually eating.

"The key to the success of processed food is simple: it is not only quick and simple but reliable," she writes in the Daily Mail.

"As one 'food technology executive' or ready-meal scientist told me: 'Our objective is to see that the consumer gets the same taste experience every time.'"

This means a total reliance on standardised ingredients. Eggs, for example, are supplied as powders, or even hard-boiled into a long cylinder to that they can be cut into regular slices.

"Made with butter", meanwhile, may actually refer to the use of a yellow powder that's left behind when the water is removed from a mixture of butter, milk proteins and starch.

And supermarket "fresh" food? It's not necessarily anything of the sort, says Blythman.

"Take the M&S jam doughnut," she says. "The ready-mixed dough, deep-fried in vegetable oil and injected with raspberry jam filling, arrives frozen at the store. It can be stored for up to nine months before staff heat the mixture on setting No 7 (eight minutes at 120c, followed by three minutes at 100c) and then apply one-tenth of an ounce of sugar to each ring."

Meanwhile, she says, manufacturers have become skilled at using language to obscure the real origins of our food. "Cultured vinegar" or "cultured corn syrup", for example, sound much better than "preservative" - but that's what they actually are.

Indeed, many of the businesses making these ingredients describes themselves as "chemical" firms.

"Processed food is everywhere, despite numerous news stories warning of the dangers," says Blythman.

"For companies such as these, the food on your plate is just another revenue stream."

However, research last year at the University of Aberdeen found that ready meals are no less healthy overall than their home-cooked equivalents, with no difference in energy, macronutrients, fibre or sodium.

"Making healthier meal choices is more important for improving diet quality than whether meals are home- or ready-made," Stephen Whybrow, who worked on the study, told the Food Manufacture website.

"With the 'time poor' attitudes of today's consumers, ready meals will continue to be a regular part of people's diets."

This certainly seems to be true: last year, researchers found that the UK consumes 1.6 billion ready meals every year, with Italian food the most popular.

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