Surprising amount of sugar in "healthy" meals

Added sugar found in Weight Watchers frozen meals.

Weight Watchers frozen meals

In a survey of 22 savoury frozen meals, we found two-thirds had the equivalent sugar (or more) of 4 squares of Whittaker’s Creamy Milk chocolate.

Our survey also looked at frozen meals presented as healthy or low-sugar options, such as Weight Watchers meals. Weight Watchers Classic and Gourmet ranges carry health star ratings on the front of the pack and are touted as nutritionally balanced.

Yet 4 of the 5 Weight Watchers meals we looked at had the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar in them. Some of this will come from the sweetcorn, tomato and mangoes in the meals. But every Weight Watchers’ ingredient list we reviewed contained some form of added sweetener, from raw sugar and sweet chilli sauce, to lesser-known alternatives, such as dextrose.

The company’s Beef Cannelloni is described as “a perfect combination of wholesome and nutritious ingredients, flavour and balance”. But in the ingredient list, you’ll see sugars both in the sauce and the pasta filling – something you wouldn’t go out of your way to add to a home-cooked version.

All 5 products had less than 5g of sugar per 100g and qualify as low-sugar options. But the 300g+ serving size of these meals means the sweetness adds up.

As well as plum juice, brown sugar and dextrose appeared on the ingredient list of the Beef in Spiced Plum Sauce meal: the 340g portion contains the equivalent of 3.5 teaspoons of sugar.

Considering the branding, many consumers are likely to be surprised they’re bumping up their added sugar intake with these meals.

What's in them?

Weight Watchers Beef Cannelloni (320g)

Teaspoons of sugar per serve: 3.2
Ingredients: Napoli sauce [tomatoes (puree and diced), skim milk, onion, red capsicum, cream, zucchini, spinach, tomato ketchup, brown sugar, maize thickener, salt, garlic, beef stock powder, spice, herb, natural colour (paprika extract), mineral salt (calcium chloride)]; filling [tomatoes (puree and diced), beef, onion, red wine, carrots, maize thickener, wheat semolina, potatoes, sugar, wheat flour, garlic, salt, spice, herbs, mineral salt (calcium chloride)]; cooked pasta (durum wheat semolina, wheat flour); parmesan cheese.

Weight Watchers Beef Cottage Pie (320g)

Teaspoons of sugar per serve: 2.7
Ingredients: Beef filling [tomatoes, beef, water, carrots, peas, mushrooms, red wine, onion, flavours, maize thickener, garlic, sugar, yeast extract, salt, spice, mineral salt (calcium chloride)]; mashed potatoes [potatoes, milk, margarine, salt, emulsifier, acidity regulators, herb, spice]; parmesan cheese, paprika.

Weight Watchers Beef In Spiced Plum Sauce (340g)

Teaspoons of sugar per serve: 3.5
Ingredients: Spiced plum sauce [plum juice, water, brown sugar, soy sauce, sherry, maize thickener, malt vinegar, garlic paste, ginger paste, spices, yeast extract, flavour]; steamed brown jasmine rice; cooked marinated beef [beef, water, potato starch, dextrose, salt, marinade (contains mineral salts)]; green beans; yellow carrots; baby corn; red capsicum.

Weight Watchers Lime & Coriander Fish (340g)

Teaspoons of sugar per serve: 2.2
Ingredients: Lime & coriander sauce [blue grenadier fish, water, coconut milk, red onion, cauliflower, lime juice, fish sauce, red chillies, raw sugar, soy sauce, maize thickener, coriander, garlic paste, salt]; steamed brown jasmine rice; yellow and orange carrots; shelled edamame soy beans; red capsicum; broccoli; herb.

Weight Watchers Mango Coconut Chicken (340g)

Teaspoons of sugar per serve: 3.5
Ingredients: Mango coconut sauce [water, mango puree, coconut milk, onion, sweet chilli sauce, fish sauce, garlic, lime juice, maize thickener, spices, salt, red chillies, stabiliser, food acid]; cooked long grain rice; cooked marinated chicken [chicken, water, marinade (contains mineral salts)]; red capsicum; sweetcorn; green capsicum; cooked wild rice; spring onion; celery; spinach; herb.

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.

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