Mars Food, the company behind many household brands including Uncle Ben’s and Dolmio, recently made headlines when they said that people should only eat their products once a week because of their high sugar, salt or fat content. This might have come as quite a shock to many people who look at a ready-made pasta or cooking sauces as a weekly go-to for a relatively healthy meal solution.

Many of us are now aware that certain “savoury” non-dessert foods, such as sauces, dressings and condiments, do contain certain levels of sugar. But there are plenty of ready-made foods that contain it, too – some in small amounts, to act as a preservative, but others in larger amounts to make the product more palatable.

Why should we be concerned?

We know that desserts, cakes and chocolate contain high levels of sugar, but they are (usually!) seen as treats, and so not consumed daily. On the other hand, many people consume ready meals and sauces on a weekly or even daily basis, none the wiser to the levels of sugar lurking within. They don’t expect that there will be high levels of sugar in their so-called “savoury” dishes, and so don’t look out for the dreaded sugar figure on the back of the pack.

What can we do about it?

Manufacturers are of course wrong to pack ready meals with high levels of sugar to make them taste better, giving people a preference for a sweeter tooth as they do so. However, there is a lesson to be learned from this, and we can avoid falling into their traps by becoming better educated consumers.

By law, every food product in Europe requires a back-of-pack label stating its nutrition per 100g, as well as an ingredients list. Here in the UK, we also have a voluntary traffic light front-of-pack labelling system, which classes products as red, amber or green in terms of the levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt they contain. This makes it quicker and easier for people to make healthier choices.

What do the numbers and colours mean?

The sugar figures on these food labels refer to total sugar, which includes both naturally occurring sugars and sugars that have been added to the product. The reference intake % next to this figure refers to the percentage of your 90g daily recommended intake of total sugar (rather than the recommended intake of 30g for free sugar – read more about the difference between total and free sugars).

  • Green: A green traffic light label indicates that a product contains less than 5g of sugar per 100g
  • Amber: An amber traffic light label indicates that a product contains between 5-22.5g of sugar per 100g
  • Red: A red traffic light label indicates any product that contains more than 22.5g of sugar per 100g

What so-called “savoury” products should I expect to see sugar in?

The nature of some savoury foods means that they will always contain some added sugar. These foods include:

  • tomato ketchups
  • barbecue sauces
  • HP sauce
  • hoisin sauce
  • teriyaki sauce
  • sweet chilli sauce
  • relishes, chutneys and pickles
  • salad creams and dressings
  • mint sauce
  • tartare sauce

The trick is to adjust our portion sizes accordingly and limit the amount of them we consume.

As for the ready meal and cooking sauce issue, the best way to overcome this is to cook from scratch. That way, you’ll be completely in control of how much added sugar (and salt) goes into your food – you might not even choose to add any. Check out our quick and healthy options for cooking simple and delicious dinners from scratch, and trust us, you’ll never pick up a ready-made dinner again!

About Rozzie Batchelar

Rozzie is a nutritionist in Jamie's food team, but her university degree also qualified her in sports and exercise science. Sport (along with food) is one of the loves of her life, and she is a self-confessed exercise junkie and running addict. Despite being a nutritionist, Rozzie also has a not-so-secret addiction to baking and chocolate, and loves combining her nutrition and baking knowledge to experiment with speciality recipes.