Lunchtime meal deals might be saving you money, but they’re not always saving your health. That’s according to a new report which found some meal deals contained up to 30 teaspoons of sugar, the equivalent of eating 79 chocolate fingers.
One of the worst offending meal deals featured a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich from WHSmith, a Mountain Dew Citrus Blast 500ml drink and a bag of Skittles Crazy Sours. In total, the meal contained four times an adult’s daily maximum intake of sugar, Action on Sugar said.
The campaign group, based at Queen Mary University of London, has called on retailers to take responsibility for the high amounts of sugar they’re selling to consumers by removing high sugar drinks and confectionery (such as those that would have a red traffic light label) from their meal deals.
Other examples of high sugar meal deals include:
:: Tesco Smokehouse Pulled Chicken with Mesquite Style Sauce with a Monster Energy 500ml drink and Mars Duo – with 30 teaspoons of sugar and 1,004 kcal.
:: Morrisons’ Sweet Chilli Chicken Wrap with Relentless Passion Punch Energy 500ml drink and Millionaire Shortbread, with 28 teaspoons of sugar and 1,048 kcal.
:: Co-op Meal Pot Blackbean Pulled Beef & Noodle with Rockstar Blueberry Pomegranate Acai energy 500ml drink and Rocky Road Bar with 28 teaspoons of sugar and 855 kcal.
The report did note that low sugar meal deal options were possible - with some combinations containing less than one teaspoon of sugar - however Action on Sugar said the majority of retailers are “failing to promote healthy choices to their consumers”.
Kawther Hashem, registered nutritionist and researcher at Action on Sugar, said: “These excessively high sugar combos can have a detrimental effect on people’s health, particularly if eaten daily. It is staggering that by just making simple swaps at lunchtime, you can reduce your sugar intake by a massive 29 teaspoons of sugar.
“Often it is the drinks included in the meal deals which are extremely high in sugar. The majority of the retailers have more high sugar drinks as part of meal deal promotions than lower sugar drinks; this is not giving consumers enough healthier choices. We strongly urge retailers to replace these with lower or no sugar options.”
Action on Sugar said retailers should remove high sugar drinks, chocolate and sweets from meal deals. They also advised them to stop offering any products high in sugar, salt and saturated fats as part of meal deals and instead offer more healthier choices.
The findings were released to coincide with Sugar Awareness Week (30 October - 5 November).
Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar, said: “Eating too much sugar is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. It may seem like it’s a good deal for our wallets, but some meal deal choices are a bad deal for our health.
“Furthermore, both manufacturers and retailers have a responsibility to their customer’s health and should go well beyond reducing the sugar in their products by 20%, as Public Health England is calling for.”
Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said retailers have a responsibility “to make the healthy choice the easier choice”.
“Promotions, such as meal deals, have a role to play in achieving this and enabling industry to reduce the amount of sugar we buy and consume,” she continued.
“The industry is engaging positively in the sugar reduction programme for which we will publish a report in March 2018 - it will highlight where progress has been made and where further work is needed.”
In response to the findings, a Morrisons spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We offer thousands of meal deal combinations for just £3, many of which include low sugar and sugar free drink options.”
Cathryn Higgs, head of food policy at Co-op, said: “We are committed to helping consumers eat better and have a wide choice of healthy lunchtime products for shoppers. Each part of our lunchtime meal deal includes a healthier option from fruit packs to low fat or calorie sandwiches, salads and drinks without high sugar and all of our lunchtime own label products have traffic light labelling.”
A Tesco spokesperson said: “This example is just one of over 13 million different meal deal combinations so our customers can choose from a wide variety of healthy options. We’re continuously making our products healthier so it’s easier for our customers to make healthy choices. That’s why we’ve already removed 9.4bn calories from the annual consumption of our own label drinks and they all now contain less than 5g of sugar per 100ml.”
Off the back of the report, Action on Sugar issued its top tips for choosing healthier meal deals:
:: Use the FoodSwitch UK app to find healthier choices – simply scan the barcode of your regular brand to get colour coded nutrition information and see a list of healthier alternatives.
:: Choose products with front of pack traffic light colours - pick products that are amber or green for sugar, salt and saturated fat.
:: Choose fruit or vegetables for the snack option.
:: Choose water or sugar-free drinks or smaller portions of fruit juice or smoothies for the drink option.
HuffPost UK has reached out to WHSmith and is waiting to hear back.