Five convenience foods that aren’t as healthy as you think
When it comes to convenience foods, marketing teams go hard with buzzwords: healthy, nutritious, energy, wholesome, grain-filled, fat-free, sugar-free!
There’s a lot of money that goes into ensuring you’re making a good choice when choosing a ‘protein bar’ over a bar of chocolate, or a ‘breakfast drink’ over plain old chocolate milk. The reality is many items construed as healthy options are not even close. But these easy picks proliferate for a reason: we don’t all have oodles of time to ensure we have food at the ready that are able to be eaten on the go.
However with a little know-how and just a few minutes of time (not much more time than it takes to rip open a packet) it can be blissfully simple to eschew those really not so healthy packaged foods. Here’s a few ideas:
The situation – The mad morning rush.
You reach for – A breakfast drink.
The downside – Scan the ingredients. In between all the added vitamins and minerals there’s a hefty amount of sugar. Knocking back a high-energy breakfast drink only to be sat at your desk for the next few hours is not wise.
Instead you could – Spend literally 2 minutes making a smoothie. Personal blenders can be bought for as little as $30 and allow you to whack all your ingredients in, push a button, then detach the bottle and take your drink with you. Then just rinse out the bottle at work and you’re done.
For one person, half a banana or one date adds plenty of sweetness – no sugar or honey required. Use whatever fruit and leafy greens you have on hand, for example banana, apple, spinach, kale, lemon, orange, kiwi and mango. Add milk, nut milk or yoghurt if you like it that way, or just a little water or coconut water, and a handful of ice. Experiment with flavourings – cacao powder, maca powder, ginger, cinnamon etc. There are no rules.
The situation – Post work-out or on-the-run energy boost.
You reach for – A protein bar.
The downside – Thanks to the persisting vendetta on carbs, high-protein anything is a hugely growing category, and protein bars are now as popular with all-round busy people as they are with gym-goers post-workout. Some aren’t so bad, while others offer you as many calories as a chocolate bar, just with added protein. Check the ingredients list: how many unpronounceable words are there? Any dubious chemical sweeteners? If so, perhaps this isn’t really what you want to be fueling your hardworking body with.
Instead you could – Make your own low-carb, high protein bars and keep them handy for when you need them. Google will reveal hundreds of recipes but basically, you’ll want nuts or nut butter for protein (add all-natural protein powders if you insist), something like dates or apple to sweeten a little, and any number of ingredients to zhuzh: coconut, chia, linseed, hemp seeds, cacao powder or cacao nibs.
The situation – The 3pm sugar craving.
You reach for – Dried fruit.
The downside – Fruit is naturally packed with sugar in the form of fructose, but because fresh fruit is very filling, we tend to self-limit our intake. But dried fruit, without all the liquid, can be a bit too easy to snack on, and shop-bought dried fruits commonly contain sulphites as a preservative. Some dried fruits (cranberries for example) are sweetened with sugar and dried fruit blends often contain cheap oil to prevent the fruit from sticking together. None of these are great news.
Instead you could – Invest in a dehydrator (from about $60) and make your own preservative-free, no-added-sugar dried fruits. Or look for freeze-dried fruits. They’re pricey, because freeze driers are a heinously expensive piece of technology, but the concentrated, all-natural flavour of the various fruits is truly delicious, and even a small handful of freeze-dried fruit is enough to satisfy a serious 3pm sugar craving.
The situation – You’re not a big fan of plain water.
You reach for – Vitamin water or flavoured water.
The downside – Sugar, or artificial sweeteners are what’s giving this water its flavour – and possibly artificial flavours, too. Increasingly flavoured waters are sweetened with the plant-based stevia, but while stevia isn’t known to have any downsides the fact is scientists haven’t quite worked out how our bodies process it, so there is a question mark hanging over its use.
Instead you could – Infuse water with slices of fruit. Any citrus works well – just pop in a slice or two. Add mint for another dimension, and a cinnamon quill for extra sweetness. Of course, you’ll still be getting a little fructose from the fruit, so this isn’t a calorie-free option, but it’s better and far cheaper than buying a costly marketing drive in a plastic bottle.
The situation – Lunch at your desk.
You reach for – A nice leafy green salad. It comes with a pre-made dressing, because you’re not a rabbit, are you? It has to be better than carbolicious sushi or sandwich, right?
The downside – Lies in the dressing, which should have ingredients printed on it if it’s packaged. There will be oil (most likely a cheap one), sugar, gums or starches, emulsifiers, preservatives and often artificial flavours as well as more salt than necessary.
Instead you could – Keep a pack of mixed salad leaves in the fridge at work or even better, shred a big pile of cabbage, carrot, broccoli and other veges at the beginning of the week. If stored well, they’ll keep this way for several days – so ten minutes of slicing for up to a week’s worth of healthy lunches. In a small jar, shake a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice (both of which have health benefits), a little grainy mustard, a pinch of salt and pepper, and keep the jar alongside salad at work. Then it’s a two minute process to get lunch ready, no different to prepping the bought salad. Add proteins as you please – shredded poached chicken is easy to prepare, or a can of plain tuna in springwater for no trouble at all.