FROZEN meals are popular - you can infer this from the ever-growing range on supermarket shelves. But are they healthy?

Many claim to be, but when you take a closer look at the ingredient lists and nutritional panels they may not be as healthy as they want us to think they are.

Now new research presented at the Dietitians Association of Australia's National Conference by Sydney University has found that, generally speaking, frozen meals sold in Australian supermarkets are low in vegetables, lean protein and wholegrains, suggesting they are not the best dinner choice.

We know that usually fresh is best … but sometimes you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to cook.
We know that usually fresh is best … but sometimes you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to cook.

Dietitian and research student Irene Sangadi examined the nutrient composition of 197 frozen meals available in supermarkets. Of these, 57 per cent of the meals were identified as "healthy choices" as indicated by the name of the meal or on product packaging.

Overall it was found that while the "healthy meals" generally had lower calorie and fat content (and while this is a positive outcome), it was noted by researchers that were also plenty of varieties that were also low in protein, wholegrains and vegetables - all crucial components of a "healthy" meal.

So many frozen meals are heavy on the pasta, rice and noodles (which is not surprising … they’re cheap ingredients).
So many frozen meals are heavy on the pasta, rice and noodles (which is not surprising … they’re cheap ingredients).

These findings suggest that while these meals may boast relatively small serving sizes (thereby reducing calorie loads and fat content), this often came at the expense of good quality protein and vegetables.

Overall, the frozen meals that reported the highest vegetable portions were the Woolworths Delicious Nutritious meal ranges in which the top five choices all contains more than three serves of vegetables per meal.

On the other hand, there are a number of frozen meals in the supermarket that contain no vegetable serves including On the Menu 3 Cheese Macaroni, On the Menu Chicken Fettuccine, Woolworth's Chicken Satay with Long Grain Rice and Coles Macaroni Cheese.

Another key issue identified was the significant carbohydrate load found in a number of meals including the McCain Healthy Choice Lemon Chicken, McCain Healthy Choice Whole Grains Thai Beef and Basil Stir Fry with Brown Rice and Quinoa and Woolworths Chicken Satay with Long Grain Rice which consisted of up to 43 per cent rice at the expense of protein which could be as low as 13 per cent of total ingredients.

In fact a quick scan of frozen meals generally found in supermarkets will reveal a large number of rice and pasta dishes - relatively cheap ingredients compared to lean protein and vegetables.

An item from Woolworths Delicious Nutritious range.
An item from Woolworths Delicious Nutritious range.

Frozen meals that were significantly lower in processed carbohydrates included Lean Cuisine Italian Minestrone Soup, Woolworths Delicious Nutritious Beef and Tomato Casserole (in which the ingredients are primarily vegetables, legumes and beef) and On the Menu Roast Range Roast Pork. All of these meals are not based around rice or pasta.

These new findings have confirmed what has been assumed for some time by nutritional professionals - that on the whole, frozen meals - even those that are claiming to be healthy - are not as healthy as we may be led to believe.

Rather, there are few frozen meals that contain the recommended serves of vegetables and lean protein for a main meal and they are often filled with plenty of filler ingredients and processed carbohydrates.

Just because an item is described as ‘lite’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option.
Just because an item is described as ‘lite’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option.

So if you find yourself at the supermarket, hungry and looking for a quick and easy meal option, when it comes to choosing a healthy frozen meal, look for the options that contain more vegetables and more lean protein minus the heavy rice and pasta base.

Or better still, grill some fish and cook some frozen vegetables for a much more nutritious meal option.


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