18 Dec 2012

TV chef recipes ‘less healthy’ than ready meals, says study

Seen the series, bought the book, baked the salted caramel cheesecake. But experts say recipes from the likes of Nigella and Jamie are less healthy than supermarket ready meals.

Nigella Lawson (getty)

You cannot escape them: the television schedules are packed with more Christmas food specials than the confectionary aisle at Woolworths. Nigella has her Italian twist, Jamie’s making it easy, while over on the digital channels, re-runs of sepia tinged Delia tutorials are showing how it really should be done.

You will have bought last year’s cookery books, of course: this year’s may well be in the post. But a new study in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal – no lingering shots of rum-soaked steamed puddings here – claims that recipes from some of the best known television chefs are less healthy than supermarket ready meals.

The researchers, from NHS Tees and Newcastle University, chose two books by Jamie Oliver, Baking Made Easy by Lorraine Pascale, Nigella Lawson’s Kitchen, and River Cottage Everyday by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

They chose a hundred recipes at random, and compared them to a hundred own-brand supermarket ready meals, comparing levels of fat, saturated fat, energy, protein and fibre.

It’s not a cookery book’s job to police us, it should be up to us to police ourselves. Kay Plunkett-Hogge, cookery writer

The researchers claimed none of the meals met the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation, but said they found much higher figures in the home-cooked food.

“Meals based on television chef recipes were less healthy than ready meals,” they wrote. “The recipes were also more likely to achieve red traffic light labels according to the criteria of the UK Food Standards Agency.”

The researchers went even further, suggesting that the chefs should be subjected to a 9pm watershed and feature nutritional guidance in their recipe books, like the information found on supermarket packaging.

Not practical?

Some cookery writers doubt whether this is at all practical: meals produced in factory conditions have precise amounts of exactly the same ingredients, making it easy to work out calories and other nutritional content, unlike food made at home.

However, despite what seems like a never-ending flood of festive gluttony, many television chefs say they will be turning to “healthier” recipes in their forthcoming shows.

A spokesperson for Lorraine Pascale said her books already contained plenty of salads and soups as well as richer dishes and desserts. “Her books and shows to date haven’t been about healthy eating, they are about cooking.”

By chance, they said, her next book would be focusing on more health-oriented ideas. Even the Hairy Bikers, as famous for their substantial girths as the hearty dishes they promote, have been on diets: all of it, naturally, documented in a prime-time series, complete with another book.

Jamie Oliver, said his company spokesperson, already displays the calorie content of recipes in his latest book, 15 Minute Meals, and more nutritional information could be found on his new website.

Know your nosh

However, they said the most important thing was proper education, so that people could work out which dishes they should be having every day, and which should be saved for the occasional treat

Laura Amos, a former pastry chef whose new book of cake and cookie recipes, The Dessert Deli, has been selling consistently well, questioned whether it was fair to make such direct comparisons with ready-made products.

“When you make something yourself, you know exactly what goes into it,” she said. “Most recipes have about four or five ingredients, all natural things, but supermarket meals have up to 20, so although it might seem healthier, you don’t always know what has gone into it.”

Supermarket chains have come under increasing pressure to cut the amounts of salt, sugar and saturated fat in their products and provide clear labelling. In New York, chain restaurants are now required to reveal the calorie content of everything they sell, while there is a ban on super-sized fizzy drinks.

But as yet, no-one has tried imposing restrictions on home cooked meals. Kay Plunkett-Hogge, author of several cookbooks including the latest from Leon – a group of restaurants which prides itself on offering healthy fast food – said cooking should be all about using fresh ingredients and controlling hidden salts and sugars.

The honest cook

“It is about the ritual of being in the kitchen, hopefully with spouse or family or others helping and sharing the joy of something you have created. It’s not a cookery book’s job to police us, it should be up to us to police ourselves. And that’s down to education both at schools and at home.”

If television food shows are as much about selling a lifestyle as the recipes they promote, perhaps the health researchers have little to worry about. The UK spends around £2.5m on ready meals, reheated, perhaps, while watching a television cookery show.

But many of today’s most popular chefs are also campaigners, like Hugh with his sustainable fishing, Jamie with school meals and basic food education – even the Great British Bake-Off contestants for championing family cooking and local, carefully sourced ingredients.

Healthy eating, they argue, is about more than numbers on the side of a packet – it is all about a balanced diet, and sensible, informed decisions. Make it yourself, and it is possible to have your cake, and eat it too.