The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Aberdeen, challenged the view that ready meals were uneconomical and bad for consumer health, when compared to home-cooked meals, said freelance dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton.
“I found the results of this study very surprising as we are often led to believe that home-cooked meals are typically better than ready meals,” she added.
Nutritional properties and cost
The study compared the nutritional properties and cost of 10 of the most frequently purchased ready meals in a sample of Scottish households to an equivalent home-cooked meal made following popular recipes.
Dishes including pizza, chicken curry, lasagne, macaroni cheese, cottage/shepherd’s pie, Chinese chicken, fish pie, spaghetti bolognaise, pasta bake and jacket potatoes were the top 10 ready meals purchased by Scottish consumers, according to Kantar Worldpanel data.
Researchers then compared the nutritional and financial differences between the ready meals and their home-made equivalents by using recipes from the websites allrecipes.co.uk and bbc.co.uk.
Analysis suggested there were no significant differences between the ready meals and recipes (per 100g) for energy, macronutrients, fibre or sodium.
The research indicated that a home-cooked meal was not necessarily healthier than a ready meal, said Stephen Whybrow, a research fellow who worked on the study at the University of Aberdeen.
Challenged popular belief
It also challenged the popular belief that it was healthier and cheaper to cook at home, “and making healthier meal choices is more important for improving diet quality than whether meals are home- or ready-made”, Whybrow added.
“The analysis suggests that food manufacturers have listened to concerns about the calorie, saturated fat and salt levels of their products and have taken steps to reduce these less healthy nutrients,” said Ruxton.
Buying ready meals was no more expensive per 100g than buying the ingredients to make an equivalent ready meal, the researchers added.
It was over-simplified to suggest it was cheaper and healthier to cook at home, rather than to buy a ready meal, they said.
The results of the study also provided an excellent opportunity for UK food manufacturers to take advantage of health-concerned consumers, who were also looking for convenience, said Ruxton.
“With the ‘time poor’ attitudes of today’s consumers, ready meals will continue to be a regular part of people’s diets.
“This provides an excellent opportunity for manufacturers to keep improving the nutritional profile of popular products by adding more vegetables, perhaps as sauces, and by boosting the fibre content.”