By Consumer Reports
Barbecued pulled pork with garlicky greens. Spicy tuna rolls with avocado. These days, you’re likely to find dishes like these at your local supermarket.
Nutrition experts and secret shoppers from Consumer Reports recently investigated the prepared-food cases at six major supermarket chains in the Northeast. Their testing and analysis revealed some surprising findings that smart food consumers need to know.
• “Freshly made” doesn’t always mean fresh ingredients. Not all stores promise that the dishes they sell are fresh and not processed. But that’s certainly the implication; by going to a bustling counter with chef-like personnel, you might think you’re getting a meal that’s something close to homemade in the traditional sense of the word. But you’d be wrong to assume that there are always cooks in the back dipping chicken cutlets into egg and bread crumbs. In fact, only about half of the dishes Consumer Reports purchased for its tests were made on the premises, according to the store clerks who were quizzed by its secret shoppers. What’s more, the investigation revealed that some dishes weren’t even prepared in the same ZIP code as the store.
• Pass the salt — again and again and again. Most of the sodium in our diet comes from salt added to processed and restaurant foods. But Consumer Reports’ testing revealed that there’s also loads of sodium hiding in the dishes you find in the prepared-foods department. Who would guess that a cup of The Fresh Market’s delicate lemon orzo was a salt bomb, with 938 milligrams per serving? That’s about 40 percent of the daily recommended limit of 2,300 milligrams per day.
• Stores can stonewall on nutritional information. The Food and Drug Administration requires packaged foods to carry Nutrition Facts labels, but it isn’t mandatory for many fresh-prepared foods to have those same labels. And that’s not likely to change significantly anytime soon, even with some new FDA nutritional-labeling rules set to go into effect at the end of this year. The new rules will require amusement parks, coffee shops, movie theaters, restaurants and vending machines with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts for the food they sell and make other nutritional information available upon request. So will grocery stores, but the rules won’t apply to all fresh-prepared foods there. The FDA says the information will be required for food intended to be “eaten on the premises, while walking away or soon after arriving at another location.” That covers such items as sandwiches prepackaged or made to order at a deli counter, or food you serve yourself at a hot bar or salad bar – but not food sold by weight from behind a counter.
• Don’t underestimate the power of portion control. Unlike packaged foods, most prepared foods have no suggested serving size. With no guidance — and because you buy those foods either by weight or by the piece — a serving size is pretty much up to you to calculate. Another potential trap: Research has found that big containers of food translate into bigger portions spooned onto plates, says David Just, Ph.D., a professor at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.
• The cost of convenience is steep. You may not want to spend your after-work hours julienning vegetables or preparing slow-roasted pork, but the convenience of fresh-prepared foods comes at a pretty stiff price. There are some good deals — rotisserie chicken was $1.66 per pound at Costco, for instance. But Consumer Reports’ thought $4.99 per pound for mashed potatoes at ShopRite was a bit on the high side.
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.