Christmas 2012: Research

Nutritional content of supermarket ready meals and recipes by television chefs in the United Kingdom: cross sectional study

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 17 December 2012)
Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7607

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Displaying 1-9 out of 9 published

Conventional wisdom tells us that homemade meals are healthier than the ready-made fare at supermarkets. This study suggests that it depends on the home cook's recipe: did it come from a TV chef? Chances are using a TV recipe is worse than the fast, frozen stuff in nutritional value.

So what does this mean? Does it mean that we can stop cooking from scratch and buy everything pre-packaged because it is better? Of course not.

People who choose to cook from ingredients instead of heating up packaged foods are generally pretty well informed about the healthiness of the ingredients they are using. They should be able to look at a recipe that is loaded with cheese or sugar or bread and realise the end product will be high in fat, sugar or carbohydrates. The key is to cook from recipes like that only once in a while and choose recipes that are healthier on a regular basis.

Competing interests: None declared

C Albert Yeung, Consultant in Dental Public Health

NHS Lanarkshire, Kirklands, Fallside Road, Bothwell G71 8BB

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As an avid fan of television chefs on both sides of the Atlantic, I think it is important to remember they are a product of theie education. For those who attended catering college, my guess is that their curriculum didn't emphasize balancing nutritional concerns with flavor, as is the trend now. Back then, nutrition was not the domain of culinary training, so these chefs either learned it on their own, or simply went on as they were taught. Should they be held accountable for their lack of training? Arguments can be made for both sides of that question; but, I think rather than point the finger, the medical community needs to work with catering colleges to be sure that future celebrity chefs will create recipes that are in line with WHO guidelines.

Competing interests: None declared

Maria Esposito, Medical writer

Freelance, 29 Maxwell Avenue Oyster Bay Ny 11771

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I think you shoud consider the fact that natural saturated fats are healthy and beneficial for the human body in all ways. It is only the carbohydrates that can cause diabetes, obesity, and related dieases. Please do look for any reseach studies that supports that natural saturated fats as harmful for us in any way. There are none. So please stop pretending.

Competing interests: None declared

Robert Aksland, Computer programmer

Norwegian Defence, Ture Nermansvei 154, 5143 Fyllingsdalen, Norway

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The comparison performed omitted a crucial point. Taste of the food should not be forgotten! It also contributes to health. “Better” (dietary) food doesn’t mean “better” (tasting) food! Healthy diet cannot be followed without taste and pleasure. One can postulate that supermarket ready meals and recipes by television chefs were not comparable regarding this criterion. Such comparison should have been included in the study. It should be considered like a risk/benefit ratio.

Competing interests: None declared

Frédéric Lapostolle, Emergency Physician

Karim Tazarourte, Michel Galinksi

SAMU 93 - UF Recherche-Enseignement-Qualité Université Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité, EA 3509, Hôpital Avicenne, 125, rue de Stalingrad, 93009, Bobigny, France

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22 December 2012

Howard and colleagues conclude from their analysis of supermarket ready meals and recipes by TV chefs that ‘consideration should be given to regulation of (the nutritional content of) recipes demonstrated by TV chefs’. We think this would be a shame.
Supermarket ready meals are designed for convenience within tight cost constraints while TV chef recipes are designed to entertain and impress, with fewer limits on the cost of ingredients and hence serving size. It is unclear whether the portion sizes were comparable between the ready meals and the TV chef’s recipes, or ether the use of the lowest rather than median number of servings introduced any bias. In judging nutritional content the quantity as well as the quality is important.
As the authors note, nutritional quality should be judged in a whole diet. The balance of the whole meal therefore needs to be considered, for example whether it is recommended that a main dish is consumed with starchy carbohydrates and/or vegetable side dishes, which we suspect is more likely with home-cooked meals. TV chefs could take care to promote this practice and to check that the serving size suggested is modest. Beyond this we would not want to curtail their flair for combining and presenting ingredients in ways that clearly inspire many.

Competing interests: None declared

Geraldine McNeill, Professor of Public Health

Jennie Macdiarmid

University of Aberdeen, Foresterhill, Aberdeen AB25 2ZD

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20 December 2012

Physicians overestimate medicine and underestimate food. They forget that life is metabolism, which requires nutritious food to satisfy hunger and create health. So let's recognize that it's not how you look, it's what you cook; it's not what you say, it's what you saute; it's not what you do, it's what you chew; it's not what you deduce, it's what you juice; it's not what you think, it's what you drink; and it's not who you meet, it's what you eat. Food is live medicine; medicine is dead food.

Competing interests: None declared

Hugh Mann, Physician

Retired, Eagle Rock, MO, USA

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What you eat is what you are. Diet whether in the supermarket or the recipes shown in TV or even the guidelines of WHO will always be a diet that needs to be tested for its nutritional efficiency and dietary quality in meeting the daily requirements of a middle class customer. These ready meals cannot compete with the diet or food prepared at home by the greatest nutritionist of the family - one's mother who prepares the food keeping everyone's taste and type in mind.

The art of cooking in a mud vessel with the right ingredients in the right proportions meets the daily need of the family members. Above all the love and affection served along with the food by the mother fills up the stomach and mind with a satisfaction to the fullest satiety. The variety in the food, the different preparations with different vegetables, grains, dals and meat or chicken or eggs presents itself as a balanced diet. The body used to such types of food for a long duration for ages responds to the diet with a positive measure meeting the standard diet prescribed by, say, WHO guidelines.

Unfortunately shifting from such traditional diets to market products and TV recipes neither justifies the nutritional requirements nor suits the body to provide a healthy body. Ancient dietary wisdom and its following have kept the community healthy according to environment and culture. The sudden shift to modern day meals and nutritional supplements has led to a modern population with its present viscerally obese phenotype. It is important now to look at the products they sell in the market with its artificial flavor and adulteration. It is better to get back to our mother's kitchen during Christmas Times for she brings health and happiness to the family.

Competing interests: None declared

dhastagir s sheriff, Professor

Faculty of Medicine, Benghazi University, Benghazi, Libya

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In the 2012 Christmas Issue, Howard et al reviewed the macronutrient content of ready-made meals and of recipes of prominent TV chefs.1 They conclude that both fall short of WHO recommendations. To the authors’ apparent surprise, TV chef recipes score worse on fat, protein and fibre content than ready-made meals.

Food and food preparation is about a lot more than health. Our eating behaviour is informed by a large set of norms and values, including convenience, health, taste and cost. These values need not exclude one at other at all times, but sometimes they do. In such cases, we weigh them against one another in the context of a concrete meal. In the preparation of our annual family Christmas supper, we generally favour taste over convenience, appeal and prestige over cost and enjoyment over health. Other meals present different pictures.

TV chefs may have aligned themselves with the value ‘health’ from time to time, as Howard et al indicate. Jamie Oliver did it with his project on UK school dinners. However, a few exceptions aside, in the cuisine of prominent chefs (on TV, in Michelin-star restaurants or elsewhere) taste, appeal, experience and enjoyment triumph over health and often cost. TV chefs provide ideas and aim to stimulate creativity in home cooking – or plainly entertain an audience. In other words, recipes by television chefs are not about health and evaluating them as such will yield exactly the results Howard et al found.

TV chefs have, however, a very high ‘dietary credibility’, meaning that in all food related issues their voice is heard and respected.2 Often, and perhaps always, higher than public health scholars or nutrition scientists.3 With this credibility comes a certain public influence and connected responsibility. But this responsibility is a social responsibility, rather than a public health goal.

We have all noticed Jamie Oliver putting on some weight over last years. This has not harmed his dietary credibility at all, since it is fuelled not by (public) health values, but above all else by the appeal and taste of his meals and the entertainment they provide to watch on TV, read in his books, and try them at home.

1. Howard S, Adams J, White M. Nutritional content of supermarket ready meals and recipes by television chefs in the United Kingdom: cross sectional study. BMJ 2012;345.

2. Penders B, Vam Dam F, editors. Ingrediënten van Geloofwaardigheid. Goed Eten onder de Loep. Den Haag: BoomLemma, 2012.

3. Shapin S. Expertise, common sense and the Atkins diet. In: Porter JM, Phillips PWB, editors. Public science in liberal democracy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007:174-93.

Competing interests: None declared

Bart Penders, Assistant Professor in Biomedicine & Society

Maastricht University, School for Public Health and Primary Care, PO Box 616; 6200MD Maastricht, the Netherlands

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Waitrose, one of the earliest adopters of the traffic light system for its ready meals, recently launched the Heston from Waitrose range featuring celebrity chef Heston Blumethal. How strange that at launch the traffic lights were glaringly absent from the lasagne, fish pie, shepherds pie and chilli con carne, contrary to what appeared to be the Waitrose nutritional policy.

Competing interests: None declared

Bernard Bedford, Retired GP

Retired GP, Brockenhurst, SO42

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