/ Food & Drink

How much sugar is in your ready meal?

Sugar on spoon

Picking up a microwavable meal is tempting after a long day, but how unhealthy is this time-saving habit? With newly proposed guidelines for sugar consumption, we wanted to see how easy it was to max out the limit.

The World Health Organisation’s draft guidelines suggest keeping our added sugar consumption to 25 grams per day. That measures out to just five teaspoons – not much wiggle room for the odd treat. I found out it’s quickly used up with my Dairy Milk fix – there’s 25.5 grams of sugar in a standard 45g bar.

But, while I think of ready meals as high in salt, I was surprised that some contained as much as 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Sugar-filled supermarket meals

Sifting through supermarket shelves and websites, we soon found the worst meals for high sugar content were sweet and sour dishes. I’d expected these to be sweet, but didn’t think they’d contain up to 50.7g of sugar in a single serving – which is what you get from Sainsbury’s Sweet and Sour Chicken with Rice.

That’s equivalent to 10 teaspoons of sugar per pack – almost double that of a standard-sized Dairy Milk, and three teaspoons more than a can of Coca-Cola. Personally, I’d choose the chocolate.

It’s not all in the name

Of ready meals that were widely available at Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose, we found the second worst for sugar content was Tesco Everyday Sweet and Sour Chicken with Rice, which has 48.4g of sugar per serving.

But one surprise was Tesco Thai Chicken Pad Thai with Rice Noodles, which to me sounds like a healthy option. However, it contains 37.8g of sugar per serving. This is another example of how useful it is to have clear nutritional labelling.

Sugar in ready meals

Clear targets for calorie reduction

Part of the Government’s responsibility deal asked manufacturers to cut calories, but with these meals there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Our nutritionist and food expert, Shefalee Loth, says:

‘Added sugar is the third or fourth ingredient in all of these meals and the main source of sugar. We want the Government to give clear targets for calorie reduction in all foods as a priority.’

Have you found any other foods that are more sugary than you’d expected? How often do you check the sugar content on packaging?


I believe it is best to assume that convenience foods are not a healthy choice. They are very handy if you are short of time, but not something we should be eating regularly.

Look out for the traffic light nutrition labels that are gradually appearing. Whether it’s sugar, fat or salt, there are rather a lot of REaDy meals. 🙂

It’s a bit frightening that one is able to consume these quantities of sugar and fat in foods. Served these ‘raw’ one would be ill at the thought of eating them, but processed, they suddenly become appetising…. well, eatable, anyway. Fruit juices are another sugar intense item and most things out of a tin notch up the daily allowance of foods we need to eat with caution. With the supermarkets stacked full of ‘danger’ foods it is difficult to avoid the occasional overdose especially if one is in a hurry and buys a quick meal to keep going. I do try and cook with basic ingredients when I can but must admit to being too busy/lazy to keep a check on everything we eat. Then there’s that Lindt white chocolate and those caramelised coffee biscuits that tend to slip into the trolley when I’m not looking. Modern living and modern shopping tend to stack the odds against complete healthy eating, one just has to try and be sensible and get on with it.

You’d think that by serving healthy food supermarkets would have customers live longer therefore buying more of their wares. I guess that’s too obvious for them.

I looked at some Bramley apple pies in sainsburys they only had a price tag on.I e-mailed Sainsbury customer service they denied this.Yesterday I went into my local sainsburys proved my point to customer services I asked them to contact their on-line customer service they phoned .I got an apoligy also a £20 gift Voucher Result.I explained that I am not a diabetic but I always read what I am looking to buy.I like Jam but most are just fruit flavored sugar substances. Even those that claim to be preserves actually are poor.STUTE Diabetic Jam contains less fruit than Streamline which i rate as best Jam on the market.One would think there would be pressure on supermarkets to reduce sugar in food from govenment but unforunatly that does not happen.Our MPs want the NHS to save money but do nothing to reduce sugar in foods that damages the Nations health and costs the NHS bigtime.

Have you tried St. Dalfour fruit spreads? They don’t contain added sugar only naturally occuring ones and are quite good.
There is also one called Superjam. Have a look at the Ocado website to check them out.

I’m sure that the health food police would rather that ready meals didn’t exist, and they’re backed up by the puritans who believe that anyone who doesn’t cook from scratch every day doesn’t come up to their judgemental standards as a human being. It seems the tactic is to destroy them by stealth. Once you’ve removed the salt, sugar and fat from a dish it becomes completely tasteless, Once you’ve reduced the calories by replacing much of the bulk with water (and some ready meals are already very runny) or glooping it up with cornflour it isn’t worth eating at all as the main meal of the day. You’ll just snack on other unhealthy stuff later to maintain energy levels.

Ready meals are very useful and welcome for those who work long and late. Let those who want them have them and decide on their nutritional attributes themselves. The alternative to ready meals for many is takeaways, which even most aficionado agree shouldn’t be eaten on a daily basis!

If you are referring to ready-meals made for those on a diet, I agree that they can be rather bland, but I don’t accept that food with little salt, sugar and fat is necessarily tasteless. Once you get accustomed to using little salt, you may find that food has more flavour. Certain foods benefit from salt, but home-made soup for example is fine with little or no salt. It is not too difficult to choose healthier food that is easy to prepare or can be eaten cold.

There’s no need to avoid ready-meals completely, but there are good reasons for the guidelines about sugar, fat and salt consumption.

Kess says:
25 May 2014

I just love these types of debates. Do you know, most of your food is processed and most contain sugar. Drink milk or eat breat? Got sugar in them both and processed. Why is it that ready meals seem to cause a great deal of people to get on their high horse about how they never eat processed food and pour scorn on those that dare. Um, everyone eats processed food. Personally, I try and cook as much as I can myself but once a week a have a ready meal as a back up. Meal bland? Spice it up with pepper or chipotle chilli. I’d rather have a blander meal I can spice up myself than one that is expensive, says it’s quality but contains so much fat, sugar and salt it’s not worth it. It seems to me this debate is also about money and class. It you buy a ready meal from M&S is it better than one you buy at Asda? No. But the thought process is that the more you pay the better it is therefore somehow less processed. That people who go organic free range fair trade (When I was younger, earning more and living at home, I was one of those, NOT anymore!) etc etc are somehow better than the rest of us because they don’t eat processed. Yes you do! We ALL do in some form.
WHAT the REAL tragedy and shocking fact is that labels are still not showing the true picture and that sugar is now in everything where it does NOT need to be. The fact is, unless you grow your own food everything you eat and drink is processed in some form and contains crap. So what are you going to do? Lobby the food industry to be honest with their labels,and take out the sugar or pretend you don’t eat processed food?

When you are a diet-controlled diabetic, you look at the labels of everything you buy. We use a guide of keeping sugars below 4%. This and a blood glucose tester has worked for over 10 years.

Nearly every breakfast cereal is too high in sugar as are many ready meals.

But, Emma I have looked at the ingredients for the Sainsbury’s Sweet & Sour Chicken you mention and your statement is slightly misleading. Many of the ingredients have naturally occuring sugars in them, some worse than others.

We have always used agave nectar instead of sugar as it is supposedly low G.I (Glycemic Index) but I have read recently that this might be not be as good as previously claimed.

Carbohydrates and sugars are quite a complicated subject but I do agree with you that 11.8% sugars is too high.

I don’t understand, Alfa. It is the total sugar content of food that matters, and that is what is listed on the packet.

Diabetics (and the rest of us who wish to avoid becoming diabetic) should also give thought to the refined carbohydrate in foods because that can very quickly be converted into glucose in our bodies.

Hi Wavechange,
I could get myself into a mess over this one and why I called it a complicated subject that I do not profess to know enough about which is where a blood glucose tester comes in !!!!!

The article states that Sainsbury’s Sweet & Sour Chicken contains 10 teaspoons of sugar which is not quite right. It has naturally occuring sugars in the pineapple, rice, tomato, orange juice, soya beans, so the amount of actual sugar will be less.

When ingredients are listed, the actual amount of refined sugar is rarely listed. I wish it was as it would make it life easier. When looking at the carb/sugars content of a product I look to see what it is made up of.

All carbohydrates need to be considered for a diet-controlled diabetic. When my other half was first diagnosed, we asked to see a dietician and went along with a list of everything we ate.

She told us our diet was very good but don’t have orange juice and not too much coconut milk were her only comments.

Going on the internet and reading the diabetic forum found we could get a free blood sugar tester. We then discovered our diet was not that good and had to make major changes – basically low-carb or better carbs. i.e. sweet potato instead of normal potato, low-gi bread, no wheat cereal for breakfast.
Over 10 years later we seem to be doing ok !!!

OK, the article could be clearer, Alfa. But we all need to know that what really matters is the total sugar in food.

With the help of a glucose meter and a little willpower, many diabetics manage their food intake very well indeed. At one time, diabetics were advised to eat a high-fat diet, but the dangers of this are now understood. It is better to focus on eating the right carbohydrate, which you clearly understand.

Just for interest:
portion of no-added sugar muesli 6.3gm sugars
apple 10gm sugars
portion of carrots 3gm sugars
portion of peas 3gm sugars
100ml semi-skimmed milk 5gm sugars

Adds up to 27.3gm sugars which is over the daily allowance in the article.

From the introduction: “The World Health Organisation’s draft guidelines suggest keeping our added sugar consumption to 25 grams per day.” Alfa has prompted me to discover that the WHO is referring to FREE sugar rather than ADDED sugar, which is a bit of a difference.

Obviously it is not helping us cut down the amount of sugar we consume if food manufacturers include it in so many foods. Why do we need sugar added to savoury foods?

” Why do we need sugar added to savoury foods?” .. because it wouldn’t then be *sweet* and sour chicken, which is the dish we are all po-faced about?

I was thinking more of savoury foods such as soup, where only food manufacturers would think of using sugar.

From the WHO website:
“The suggested limits on intake of sugars in the draft guideline apply to all monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) that are added to food by the manufacturer, the cook or the consumer, as well as sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates.”

It would be very helpful if these sugars were listed separately to naturally occuring sugars in the nutritional data or the percentage amount in the ingredients. It would take the guesswork out of trying to decide which sugars are which on products.