Many of us buy prepackaged meals in the hopes of eating healthier without having to cook. We’re on the run or lazy – we just want something quick but decent. We assume that a chicken salad sandwich, for example, is better for us than a Big Mac. But what do we really get when we eat ready-made meals? Which?, a consumer advocate organization in the UK, decided to find out.
Which? bought 14 different chicken salad sandwiches to see how much salt and calories they contained. Chicken sandwiches make up 30% of the ready-to-go sandwich market. Chicken, in general, is a decent healthy choice because it’s high in protein, which makes you feel fuller longer, as when skinless, it’s low in saturated and regular fat. But not all chicken is equal – cooking methods can change its nutritional value, and filling a sandwich with mayo or other ingredients can also make a sandwich higher calorie or less healthy for you. Because these sandwiches aren’t required to put nutrition information on the packaging, you may not be getting the healthy meal you think.
So Which? bought sandwiches from 12 different grocery stores and fast food places, checking to see what nutrition info was on the packaging and the actual nutrition value of the contents. Many of their choices included what were advertised as ‘healthy’ or ‘premium’ options. Those bought in supermarkets or coffee shops all included complete nutritional information. The ones from sub shops like Subway, however, didn’t, though some had the information available if you asked or went online. What they found was a little disturbing.
All Sandwiches Are Not Created Equal
The 14 sandwiches bought by Which? ranged from 288 to 495 Calories. One major difference, they found, had to do with how the chicken was cooked. The highest calorie meal, Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’, contained chicken that is ‘butter roasted‘ as well as a lot of mayonnaise, and had a whopping 1.9 g of salt – 1/3 of the adult recommended daily intake. The chicken content varied not only in calories, but in quality. Some labels showed that the chicken breast contained corn flour, salt, water or tapioca starch to bulk up the weight.
Ironically enough, the cheapest sandwich had the most pure chicken. And even more disconcerting, Which? found no connection between price, nutritional value, salt content or number of calories. So the fact that a sandwich costs more doesn’t mean it’s healthier or better for you.
They also looked at sandwiches other than chicken salad, just to see what nutritional content they had. Subway’s Meatball Sub, for example, contained over 75% of the daily saturated fat and salt intake recommendations. Another sandwich they tried, M&S’ Wensleydale & Carrot Chutney, contained over 25 g of sugar, and Asda’s Vintage Cheddar Ploughman’s (no mayonnaise) had 15.2g of saturated fat, 5.2 g more than a McDonald’s Big Mac! So even the vegetarian options aren’t necessarily healthy ones. Cheese, chutney, and mayonnaise are the main culprits of increased fat, salt and sugar content in pre-packed subs, and are ingredients to keep an eye on when choosing your own meals.
So How Do I Get A Healthy Meal To Go?
The easiest way to have a healthy lunch is to make it yourself. Get whole grain breads, fresh ingredients and low-fat and low-sodium condiments. Since you know exactly what goes into a sandwich you make, you can be sure that there’s no unwanted hidden sugar, salt or fat.
We had out resident in-house chef Tony Reynolds whip up a recipe for nice chicken salad sandwich you can make for yourself.
But if you really must buy meals from somewhere else, pick a place which tells you the nutritional content right on the packaging like the supermarket or coffee stores. And be sure to read it! By being informed, you’re more able to make good decisions separate of marketing and advertising.
The “healthy option” might not really be all that healthy – just be sold by a very good salesman. Keep an eye on the total salt and saturated fat that the sub contains, and try to find one that is low in both. Don’t let the price fool you – just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s actually healthier. Which? found that the healthiest chicken salad sandwich was in the middle of the pack when it comes to price. While Which? looked at chicken, the same thing goes for roast beef, ham, and any other sandwich you might crave.