Hidden sugar in frozen food

Added sugar makes it harder to sort the savoury from the sweet. We looked at the sugar content in 64 savoury products from the supermarket.

Hidden sugar in frozen food

If you’re keeping an eye on your sugar intake, you’ll need constant vigilance. We found teaspoons of the sweet stuff in savoury products you’d least expect to find it, from ready-bake dinners to crumbed chicken and fish.

Our table of 64 frozen products reveals just how much sugar they’re packing.

Ready-bake meals

Of the 22 frozen meals we looked at, 15 had more than 2.5 teaspoons of sugar (10g) in them – the equivalent of 4 squares of Whittaker’s Creamy Milk chocolate.

Sweet is the watchword in Magic Panda’s Sweet & Sour Pork – the 400g meal has more than 10 teaspoons of sugar. That’s more than the adult daily maximum of 6 teaspoons recommended by the World Health Organization.

Magic Panda’s Sweet & Sour Pork had more than 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Watties’ snack-sized (250g) version of sweet and sour pork came close to this limit with 5.9 teaspoons of sugar per serve. But also surprisingly high in sugar were McCain’s Pork Riblets (4.2 teaspoons) and Watties Meal Sensations Teriyaki Beef (3.8 teaspoons).

Four of the 5 Weight Watchers meals we looked at had about 3 teaspoons of sugar in them. Some of this will come from the sweetcorn, tomatoes or mango in the meals. But every Weight Watchers’ ingredient list we reviewed contained some form of added sweetener, from raw sugar to sweet chilli sauce.

The company even added sugar to its beef cannelloni and cottage pie meals – an ingredient you wouldn’t go out of your way to add to a home-cooked version. Considering the branding, many consumers are likely to be surprised they’re bumping up their added sugar intake with these products.

Chicken and fish

Thirty-nine of the 42 chicken and fish products we assessed also had added sugar.

Sugar was lurking in many of the fish fingers and chicken nuggets in the freezer section of the supermarket.

Tegel Tempura Battered Nuggets had 1.8 teaspoons of sugar per serve.

Of the 9 chicken nugget products, all had added sugars. Five had more than 1 teaspoon of sugar per serve.

Raw chicken and fish have no sugar content in and of themselves. The sugar in the items we looked at primarily came from the batter or crumb the manufacturer uses.

Tegel Tempura Battered Nuggets had the most sugar, with 1.8 teaspoons in a 120g serving of 6 nuggets. Conversely, Waitoa’s Gluten-free Free-range Chicken Nuggets contain very little of the sweet stuff.

Compared with the nuggets, fish fingers were lower in sugar. Out of 7 fish finger varieties, the product highest in sugar (Sealord New Zealand Hoki Oat Crumb Fish Fingers) had 0.7 teaspoons per serve.

All the chicken tenders and all but one of the fish fillets in our survey also had some sweetener, whether this was sugar or alternatives such as glucose, fructose, dextrose or maltodextrin.

The sugar issue

The hidden sugar in savoury items, on top of that in sweeter treats, means the average New Zealander gets more than 6 times the recommended amount, or 37 teaspoons, of sugar a day, says Malaghan Institute of Medical Research Professor Mike Berridge.

Even if you read the label of every food or beverage you buy, you’ll find keeping track of the added sugars you’re eating challenging, Professor Berridge says. Nutrition information panels lump added sugars in with naturally occurring ones, which aren’t such a dietary concern.

“There’s no way to sort one from the other. It’s a ridiculous situation,” he says.

In his new book Sugar, Rum and Tobacco: Taxes and Public Health in New Zealand, Professor Berridge and co-author, tax expert Lisa Marriott, argue food labels should include added sugar levels.

To address the rising rates of diabetes and other diseases linked to Kiwis’ high sugar consumption, the authors also call for the government to implement a tax on sugar, starting with sugar-sweetened beverages.

The simplest way to avoid hidden sugars is to limit convenience foods and make your meals from scratch – including crumbing your own fish and chicken, and prepping your own sauces, Professor Berridge says. “Otherwise, you virtually can’t get away from added sugar.”

Intake guidelines

World Health Organization guidelines recommend free or added sugars be limited to a maximum of 10% of your daily energy intake – and advise that sticking to less than 5% would offer additional health benefits.

For an adult, 5% equates to 25g or 6 teaspoons of sugar. For a child aged 4 to 8, this is 17g or between 4 and 5 teaspoons a day.

The guidelines apply to all sugars added to food by the manufacturer, cook or consumer – and to the sugars present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. They don’t apply to sugars that naturally occur in milk and fruit.

Products compared

Fat and salt

Some products in our survey had high levels of saturated fat and salt.

One 300g frozen meal, Dakshin’s Butter Chicken, had 80% of an adult’s maximum daily intake of saturated fat as recommended by the Ministry of Health. McCain Veal Cordon Bleu contains 50% in its 320g portion.

As well as nearly 3 teaspoons of sugar, Magic Panda’s 350g Pork Fried Rice contained almost two-thirds of your maximum daily limit for sodium.

A 6-year-old eating a 100g serving of Fisherking Crumbed Fish Fingers, Ingham’s Original Chicken Chipees or Tegel Super Tasty Bites would get nearly half their daily sodium limit.

A 123g serving of Tegel Take Outs Southern Style Chicken Tenders is a third of an adult’s and nearly two-thirds of a kid’s maximum sodium intake.

Member comments

Get access to comment