Hidden sugar in frozen food

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.

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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.
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.
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.

Sugar content of 64 products

Frozen foods[width=40%]Price[width=15%]Serving size (g)[width=15%]Sugar per 100g (g)[width=15%]Teaspoons of sugar per serve[width=15%]
Ready-bake meals
Dakshin's Butter Chicken With Rice$3.493004.13.1
Dakshin's Lamb Rogan Josh With Rice$3.493001.00.8
Magic Panda's BBQ Pork Fried Rice$5.953503.02.6
Magic Panda's Sweet & Sour Pork With White Rice$5.9540010.210.3
McCain Pork Riblets$7.893205.24.2
McCain Veal Cordon Bleu$6.493203.22.6
Super Snack Beef Lasagne$3.502503.01.8
Super Snack Butter Chicken$3.502502.81.8
Tomorrow's Meals Roast Chicken$10.594001.51.5
Tomorrow's Meals Sticky Asian Pork Belly$9.994003.33.3
Watties Butter Chicken$4.192502.11.3
Watties Chicken Schnizel$8.494002.92.9
Watties Meal For One Moroccan Chicken With Pearl Couscous $8.594002.32.3
Watties Meal For One Thai Red Prawn Curry $8.594002.72.7
Watties Meal Sensations Honey Soy Chicken$4.693003.42.6
Watties Meal Sensations Teriyaki Beef$4.993005.03.8
Watties Sweet & Sour Pork$4.192509.45.9
Weight Watchers Beef Cannelloni$5.993204.03.2
Weight Watchers Beef Cottage Pie$5.503203.42.7
Weight Watchers Beef In Spiced Plum Sauce$7.493404.13.5
Weight Watchers Lime & Coriander Fish$7.493402.62.2
Weight Watchers Mango Coconut Chicken$7.493404.13.5
Chicken nuggets and fish fingers
Birds Eye Hoki Fish Fingers$4.99751.40.3
Captain's Choice Crumbed Fish Fingers$3.891001.30.3
Countdown Crumbed Chicken Bites$8.501000.20.1
Fisherking Crumbed Fish Fingers$6.791001.30.3
Ingham's Chicken Breast Tempura Nuggets$12.001002.60.7
Ingham's Original Chicken Chipees$15.991002.30.6
Pams Tender Tempura Chicken Nuggets$9.791203.91.2
Sealord NZ Hoki Classic Crumb Fish Fingers$6.251001.10.3
Sealord NZ Hoki Oat Crumb Fish Fingers$6.251002.80.7
Select Battered Chicken Nuggets$9.801253.91.2
Select Crumbed Chicken Nuggets$9.801253.91.2
Select Fish FingersB$10.00750.20.0
Shore Mariner Crumbed Fish FingersB$12.00750.80.2
Tegel Super Tasty Chicken Bites$10.991005.71.4
Tegel Tempura Battered Nuggets$9.901206.11.8
Waitoa Gluten-free Free-range Chicken Nuggets$13.00100Less than 1.00.2A
Chicken tenders and fish fillets
Birds Eye Beer Battered Hoki Fish Fillets$6.50702.20.4
Birds Eye Lightly Battered Hoki Fish Fillets$6.50702.30.4
Birds Eye Original Fish Strips$8.49752.20.4
Birds Eye Tempura Battered Hoki Fish Fillets$6.50704.10.7
Countdown Crumbed Chicken Tenders$8.501000.30.1
Countdown Sweet Chilli Chicken Tenders$8.501003.91.0
Ingham's Original Chicken Breast Tenders$10.991001.80.5
Ingham's Sweet Chilli Chicken Breast Tenders$10.99604.90.7
Pacific West Beer Battered Snapper Fillets$12.001606.62.6
Sealord NZ Hoki Classic Crumb Fish Fillets$7.991602.81.1
Sealord NZ Hoki Kaffir Lime & Coconut Crumb Fillets$10.001203.71.1
Sealord NZ Hoki Lemon Pepper Crumb Fish Fillets$7.991603.31.3
Sealord NZ Hoki Pale Ale Beer Batter Fillets$10.001102.10.6
Sealord NZ Hoki Parmesan & Rosemary Ciabatta Crumb Fillets$7.501501.70.7
Sealord NZ Hoki Tempura Batter Fish Fillets$7.991502.71.0
Sealord NZ Hoki Wholemeal Crumb Fillets$10.001203.21.0
Sealord Orange Roughy Wholemeal Crumb Fillets$6.991353.01.0
Tegel Free-range Panko Chicken Tenders$10.99110Less than 1.00.2A
Tegel Glazed Satay Chicken Tenders$10.991207.12.1
Tegel Golden Crumbed Chicken Tenders$10.991204.31.3
Tegel Panko & Pepper Chicken Tenders$10.991002.30.6
Tegel Take Outs Crispy Crumb Chicken Tenders$13.691501.20.5
Tegel Take Outs Southern Style Chicken Tenders$13.691231.10.4
Waitoa Free-range Ancient Grains Chicken tenders$10.991002.70.7
Waitoa Free-range Gluten-free Parmesan & Black Pepper Chicken tenders$9.79971.10.3
Waitoa Free-range Original Chicken Tenders$8.991003.10.8

GUIDE TO THE TABLE PRODUCTS are listed alphabetically. PRICE is based on what we paid in July 2017. SUGAR PER 100G and TEASPOONS OF SUGAR PER SERVE calculated from nutritional information on label and company websites. Aestimated using 0.9g per serving. Bserving size determined by Consumer based on 3 fish fingers.

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.

By Olivia Wannan
Investigative Writer