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Last Updated: Friday, 1 February 2008, 15:11 GMT
'Not all' fast food unhealthy
Ready meals
There is a wide variation in nutrition content of convenience food
Some convenience food can be as healthy as home cooked meals, say food experts.

The advice comes as stricter controls on the health claims made on food are being drawn up by the European Commission.

A group of scientists and policy experts said expecting people to cook all food from scratch is unrealistic and not necessarily healthier.

Instead people should be encouraged to check labels and avoid foods with high levels of salt and fat.

Increasing levels of obesity have fuelled the debate about the impact of the food we eat on our health.

Clearly it depends on how much you eat and how often you eat them as to whether that's going to improve the diet
Gill Fine, Food Standards Agency

With more and more people turning to obesity drugs to lose weight, some are concerned that mixed messages about a healthy diet, is making the public confused.

People now only spend 20 minutes a day preparing food compared with two hours in 1980.

Gill Fine, director of consumer choice and dietary health at the Food Standards Agency, agreed some convenience food could contribute to a balanced diet.

She added constant media stories about high levels of fat, salt and sugar in processed foods feeds the assumption that all such products are bad.

"All these sorts of foods will have different nutrients.

"Clearly it depends on how much you eat and how often you eat them as to whether that's going to improve the diet."

What is important, she said, was that people had good information about nutrition though better education, improved labelling of foods as well as encouraging the food industry to reformulate their products.

She added that campaigns by celebrity chefs to get people to cook food at home did little to encourage nutrition education if people did not know the calorie or fat content of the recipes.

Time pressure

Dr Becky Laing, from the MRC Human Nutrition Research Centre at the University of Cambridge said most people relied on convenience foods due to lack of time.

But they are not automatically "junk", she stressed.

Frozen fruit and vegetables can be better than the fresh versions and smoothies, low-fat yoghurts or quick-cook pasta and rice were all healthy but convenient foods, she said.

"If we continue to press the message that it is impossible to eat healthily while eating convenience food we make healthy eating unobtainable and too difficult."

"We need to encourage people to look at what they are buying," she said.

By 2010, food manufacturers across Europe will only be able to make claims from an approved list, and any new claims will have to be supported by evidence.

The FSA will announce next week plans to reduce levels of saturated fat in processed food.

The Agency said some progress had been made with reducing salt content but more work was needed.

Dr Peter Wilde, a scientist at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich said some advances had made processed food healthier, such as low-fat spreads and foods with cholesterol reducing properties.

He has begun work on trying to slow down the absoprtion of fat from foods in order to make them more filling.

"Research is going on to try and maximise the health aspects of certain foods," he said.



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