TV dinners are done, ready meals the new reality

As a health conscious and busy person, opting out of cooking and reaching for a ready meal may seem like yet another unhealthy by-product of the digital age. But the reality is hard-working households have been peeling back the plastic and foil for decades.

And, in many ways ready meals are a lot better than they used to be. There’s more variety, they’re tastier and more available and ‘ready’ to go when ever. But what is alarming is that heat-and-eat ready meals seem to be rocketing on to supermarket shelves faster than health experts can say, “Houston, we have a problem – they’re loaded with salt.”

Ready meals got their start in the 50s, took off in the late sixties as families huddled around the TV to watch man land on the moon, and then went on to find a new wave in the 80s with the advent of the microwave. Now, well into the 21st century, you could say the explosion of the ready meal market has reached atomic proportions. And in some of these products – so has the salt.

New research shows no salt-reduction in booming market

A recent report from the George Institute for Global Health has shown that the ready meal market has more than doubled in Australia in the last seven years, and despite all of the nutritional improvements (less fat, more vegetables, less artificial colours and flavours), there has been no reduction in salt content.

The average ready meal contains more than half of the maximum daily recommended daily salt intake with some of the highest soaring past the 5g daily target in just one meal. So what’s the big concern? Excess salt consumption has been directly linked with high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke and we’re eating more foods (like ready meals) that contain more salt, more often.

More ready meal salt in the fridge than the freezer

Another interesting find from the research was that chilled ready meals (those found in supermarket refrigerators) were the fastest growing in both product numbers and salt content. From 2010 to 2017 the chilled ready meal market increased by 82% and their salt content by 31%.

Frozen ready meals actually had the lowest salt average sodium content in the product category, which goes against the natural assumption ‘the fresher the better’. In the case of salt in ready meals, it seems this isn’t the case.

No salt targets for ready meal manufacturers

Salt is often described as a natural preservative and a necessary in food manufacturing. But the huge variation between products suggests some manufacturers are using more than what’s actually required. Currently, there are no salt targets imposed on ready meal manufacturers, which could explain why reformulation and salt reduction has been managed in other food categories like bread and cereals, but not ready meals.

Inarguably, fresh is best and we should all be cooking for ourselves. And, while there has been some resurgence in the appeal of cooking with the popularity of shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules, life is continuing to get busier and the ready meal market will probably continue to skyrocket.

It’s true we can’t all be chefs – but we all need to be critical. We need to be aware of what’s hiding in our convenience foods and to consider how they fit into our diet as a whole. Reading the label for salt (you can learn how here) and picking the lower salt option will help manage the impact of convenience on our long-term health.