Knowing the best supermarkets to buy pre-made meals from can be beneficial. This modern convenience is akin to sliced bread in the 1920s – a welcome innovation that allows for easy access with a single stop at the grocery store. Unlike salad bars and buffet options, which are also available in many supermarkets today, pre-made meals from grocery stores are neatly packaged in containers. And in most cases, the instructions encourage heating them up in those containers, without the need for additional dishes.
However, just as sliced bread has its critics, pre-made meals have received their fair share of criticism as well. In a 2015 study published in the academic journal Appetite, the authors make a damning statement about these foods that were meant to simplify our lives. They suggest that over-reliance on convenience foods, including ready-meals, may contribute to obesity. However, the study acknowledges that research on the nutritional content and health consequences of consuming supermarket ready-meals was limited at the time.
Fortunately, although research on this topic is still lacking, we now have more knowledge than we did in 2015. While the reality of what you’re actually eating when you buy pre-made foods from the grocery store may not meet our expectations, it’s not entirely bad either.
Ingredients Might Not Be Fresh
According to a 2016 Consumer Reports study conducted among grocery stores, only about half of the pre-made meals found in supermarkets are prepared on-site. The meals that are not prepared on-site are cooked elsewhere before being packed, refrigerated, transported, unpacked, and refrigerated again before reaching the consumer. Some meals may even be frozen during this process and thawed/reheated upon arrival at the grocery store.
Additionally, some of the ingredients used in pre-made grocery store meals are themselves pre-made and may be preserved in cans or bottles. For example, pre-made tomato sauce is often used in these meals. Furthermore, some ingredients may have been frozen before being used in the pre-made grocery store meals.
This doesn’t necessarily mean these ingredients are “bad.” However, if you’re avoiding preservatives, pre-made grocery store meals may not be the best choice. To determine if a meal is suitable for you, check the label for preservatives such as benzoic acid, calcium sorbate, potassium sorbate, and sorbic acid. Additionally, reheating leftovers thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, as recommended by the USDA, should be done. It’s important to note that reheating the food is the second time it will be heated, as it was already cooked before being sold.
Federal law requires most packaged foods sold in grocery stores to be labeled with any major food allergens present, such as milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame. Most pre-made grocery store meals are appropriately labeled in this regard. However, mistakes can occur. For example, a recall of a popular ready-made salad from Trader Joe’s was issued because it contained undisclosed wheat, one of the major food allergens.
Moreover, some individuals may have allergies to foods not included in the list of major allergens. Over 170 different foods have been associated with allergic reactions in humans, as reported by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Although most allergies involve the major allergens listed above, approximately 10% of the 32 million people in the U.S. with food allergies are sensitive to other foods. While there is no requirement to disclose these potential allergens, they should be listed in the ingredient label. Unfortunately, federal law does not always mandate an ingredients list on pre-made food, and some states may not require it either.
The downside is that some pre-made foods are packaged without an ingredients list. Moreover, some ingredient lists may be unreliable. For example, Consumer Reports found that a Stop & Shop spicy tuna roll contained avocado, but the ingredient list did not disclose it.
Differences From the Labeled Description
Federal law requires most pre-made grocery store meals to disclose the presence of any major food allergens. However, ingredient lists are another matter. Some pre-made foods can be sold without an ingredient list on the label. Since ingredient labels are not federally mandated, they are not closely regulated and may contain errors, omissions, or inaccuracies.
For example, Consumer Reports found that a pre-made turkey meatloaf at The Fresh Market contained salad dressing, despite no dressing being listed in the ingredients. Similarly, a pre-made tuna roll at Stop & Shop contained undisclosed avocado. Some errors and omissions may lead to allergic reactions, while others, such as undisclosed calories, salt, or saturated fat, may not pose an immediate risk but could still be problematic for some individuals.
There is also a possibility, although rare, that store-made food might be placed in the wrong packaging, including incorrect allergy disclosures and ingredient lists. This occurred in May 2023 when a Trader Joe’s vendor, Bakkavor U.S.A., filled Hummus Dip containers with pesto sauce, as revealed in an FDA recall.
Potential Foodborne Contaminants
Pre-made meals from grocery stores may harbor contaminants that should not be present. One type of contaminant is bacteria, which can cause foodborne illnesses like Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria. Pre-made meals are at a higher risk of cross-contamination because they involve various foods, not all of which are cooked at temperatures sufficient to kill foodborne bacteria (165 degrees Fahrenheit).
For instance, if a dish contains both chicken and carrots, and the same knife is used to cut both, bacteria from the chicken can contaminate the carrots. While the chicken is likely cooked at the correct temperature, the carrots may not be. Recalls of pre-made foods due to bacterial contamination are more common than we might think. In February 2023, a vendor recalled ready-made sandwiches and wraps due to potential Listeria contamination, and in April 2023, Meijer recalled pre-made salads for the same reason.
Cross-contamination can also introduce trace amounts of undeclared allergens into pre-made food. In 2020, the FDA issued a warning to Whole Foods regarding instances of this in their pre-made foods.
Higher Salt Content Than Expected
Salt enhances the taste of food, according to the National Library of Medicine. Chefs and cooks responsible for designing and preparing pre-made grocery store meals are aware of this fact. Consequently, these meals often contain generous amounts of salt, more than what an individual would typically use when cooking at home.
The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of 1,500 mg. However, many pre-made meals analyzed by Consumer Reports in their 2015 study exceeded these recommendations. For example, a Shop Rite chicken marsala with potatoes pre-made entree contained 972 mg of sodium per serving. It’s important to note that the number of servings in a package may not align with an individual’s perception of a single portion, leading to higher sodium intake.
This high salt content is not exclusive to Shop Rite but applies to most pre-made meals analyzed in the 2015 study. The study concluded that even some labeled as “healthier” options contained excessive salt. When cooking at home, it is much easier to control the amount of sodium consumed.
Excessive Saturated Fat
Pre-made supermarket meals also tend to be high in saturated fat, as reported in the 2015 study published in Appetite. Saturated fat, found in butter, cheese, red meat, poultry, lamb, and pork, is frequently used in pre-made meals from grocery stores and other sources.
Excessive consumption of saturated fat can lead to increased levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), raising the risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their daily saturated fat intake to 5% to 6% of total calories, which translates to about 12 to 13 grams for a person consuming 2,000 calories per day. Many pre-made meals analyzed in the 2015 study exceeded these recommendations, with an average of 7.2 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Moreover, the concept of a serving size in pre-made meals may not align with individuals’ perception of a single portion. This discrepancy can result in higher saturated fat consumption than intended.
Potential Plastic Contamination
While pre-made meals offer convenience and eliminate the need for additional dishes, caution should be exercised when microwaving food in plastic containers. The World Health Organization warns that chemicals from the plastic may leach into the food during microwaving, even if the container is labeled “microwave safe.” Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are the chemicals of concern, which can be found in food cooked or heated in plastic containers.
The FDA states that the low levels of these chemicals found in food cooked in plastic containers do not pose significant health risks. However, individuals may prefer to remove the food from plastic packaging before microwaving to minimize potential exposure.
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