Mixed bag: How much fat and salt is there in meal kits?

The food box revolution may turn us into better cooks, but the contents can be surprisingly high in fat and sodium.

Question:

Are meal-kit subscription services generally healthy? We use HelloFresh for a few nights each week, and I’ve often wondered if it’s better for our health.

Answer:

Meal-kit subscription services have changed the way consumers source their food and are growing exponentially. Global revenue passed the US$1 billion mark in 2015, according to research by Technomic, and analysts predict it could reach US$20 billion by 2027.

For many New Zealand households, a weekly delivery of a box containing fresh ingredients and recipes to create delicious meals is now a part of life. Whether that box is from My Food Bag, Hello-Fresh, Woop or any other supplier, the premise is the same – the food-delivery service takes the effort out of meal decisions and sourcing ingredients. But are they a healthy choice?

Research has shown that higher consumption of home-cooked meals is associated with a healthier diet, primarily because these meals are typically lower in energy, fats including saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium than takeaways or restaurant dinners. They also have higher levels of dietary fibre, minerals and other nutrients.

However, that research assumes consumers are sourcing their own ingredients and recipes. When they use a food-subscription service, their ingredients may include commercial sauces, dressings and other components that significantly alter the nutritional profile of the meal.

Two recent Australian studies investigated the nutritional qualities of meal kits. In the first, University of Sydney researchers analysed the nutritional qualities per serve of 12 recipes from each of five subscription companies: HelloFresh, Dinnerly, Marley Spoon, Pepper Leaf and Thomas Farms Kitchen. They found the kits, on average, provided adequate servings of core foods, particularly vegetables, and a good supply of micronutrients. They also provided enough dietary fibre for women but not quite enough for men. On the downside, the cooked meals were high in fat and sodium.

In the second study, Adelaide researchers analysed recipes provided in Australian HelloFresh kits between July 2017 and June 2018. The resulting meals contained about one-third vegetables. Other positives included adding unprocessed vegetables to meals, olive oil for cooking, and using herbs, spices, citrus and alliums to flavour dishes rather than salt. Nonetheless, some meals still contained high sodium levels – on average, 839mg, nearly half the recommended daily limit in Australia of 2000mg.

The Sydney researchers recommended that providers reduce the added salt and fat in their meal kits and increase fibre content. The meals would then more closely align with dietary guidelines for optimal health and prevention of chronic disease.

As a nutritionist and user of meal-kit services, I modify these meals to suit my nutritional goals. For example, I don’t add the recommended salt to meals if they already contain stock powder or cheese – two ingredients that are already high in salt.

Meal kits also encourage positive behavioural changes that many consumers have noticed after using the service. They can lead to improved cooking skills and food literacy for starters, which can then translate to using a wider variety of ingredients, food prep and cooking techniques in other meals. Studies have found that increased cooking skills and confidence with vegetables are likely to translate into eating more vegetables and more home-cooked meals, improving dietary intake.

And, as the Adelaide-based research team pointed out, a meal-kit subscription service becomes a “powerful commitment device” to stick with home-cooking rather than ordering takeaways, given consumers have prepaid for the meals, often through a weekly direct debit.

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