What is behind the term and what should be taken into account when consciously purchasing and eating? Regular consumption of processed and ready-to-eat products has the reputation of being unhealthy and causing body fat to rise steadily. However, these statements should be considered in a more differentiated way, as there are certainly some ways of using convenience food sensibly. However, some things have to be considered and consciously implemented.
What is convenience food?
The English term can be understood in German as "bequemes Essen" (comfortable food). It includes ready-made foods in various stages of processing, which are described in more detail in the next section1.
The purpose of convenience food is to save consumers time and effort in the preparation of food. This trend has already gained more and more importance some years ago, as the professional activity of the total population has increased and especially women are more and more entering the career ladder and therefore have less time capacity and motivation for food preparation. Comfortable eating appeals to a broad target group; singles, working people, hurried consumers, but also health-conscious consumers who want to prepare something quickly from vegetables and salads that have already been prepared2.
The different processing stages:
Convenience food is divided into 5 different processing levels, which are illustrated in the following table
Percentage of processing
Must be prepared before cooking
Vegetables & fruit, washed/cleaned
Only needs to be cooked
Sliced & washed vegetables, marinated meat,
Partly ready: Prepared & cooked, only needs to be warmed up or mixed
Mashed potatoes powder,
Level IV Ready to regenerate
Just needs to be put in the oven or microwave
Level V Ready to eat
Fully prepared meals that can be consumed directly
Bread & Baked Goods,
Problems with convenience food – ecological, economic and health-related
From an ecological point of view, processed products must be viewed critically in many respects, as their energy consumption is often much higher than that of completely natural food. This insight takes into account the entire value chain.
A lot of packaging material is used for the meals, some of which are ready to eat, but also for portioned products that are still to be prepared. Plastic, cardboard, glass and aluminium are the most commonly used materials for this. Even though some of them can be recycled and wood is a renewable resource, every gram of packaging requires a considerable amount of energy during its life cycle - from production to the waste it generates. It is no secret that packaging materials should therefore be reduced as much as possible. Level IV and V in particular are relatively harmful to the environment5. In addition, the energy consumption comes from frozen products4.
Convenience food should also be examined more closely from a private economic perspective: Many products - especially ready-made dishes - are many times more expensive than if they had been prepared in-house. Portioned rice pouches, for example, sometimes cost three times the conventional price per kilo. Consumers also have to dig deep into their pockets when it comes to packaged and cut fruit or vegetables1.
Furthermore, processed foods are often problematic for health. On the one hand, this is the case because many micronutrients (vitamins & trace elements), antioxidants and dietary fibres are removed by the processing processes.
On the other hand, ready meals in particular contain a lot of sugar, salt and trans fats, which are produced by the industrial processing of cheap vegetable oils. In addition, there are artificial additives such as fillers, binders and preservatives4.
Potential allergens such as cow's milk, gluten and soya are also constantly present. Many of these ingredients have massive effects on the health of the intestines and thus the entire organism. The consequences are short-term or chronic inflammation and an increase in body fat6.
Advantages of convenience food - time-saving and uncomplicated
Of course the products of comfortable eating make everyday life easier: Especially for very busy professionals, it is a great relief to quickly get something in the supermarket that is ready to eat and does not require waiting time like in a restaurant1. In addition, there is hardly any need for basic products such as spices, vinegar, oil or mustard. This is very helpful for people who often want to dine on the road or in the office4.
Since some people lack cooking ideas or even basic cooking skills, convenience food is a good alternative to not having to go to an inn every day. Convenience food is also suitable from a hygiene and durability point of view: Frozen and preserved foods sometimes last for years and the risk of food contaminated by bacteria or pathogens is very low4.
Convenience food is also a great everyday help for elderly or sick people.
Even if it initially seems contradictory to the arguments of the convenience food problem mentioned in the previous section, the nutrients of frozen products can still be mentioned here: Vegetables and fruit that are freshly harvested, raw or only briefly blanched and frozen without any additives, usually have a higher nutritional value than fresh goods in the supermarket. This is due to longer transport and storage of fruit and vegetables, during which important micronutrients can be lost. Often the frozen products are actually cheaper. Therefore, a differentiation must be made here within the various convenience levels.4.
Conclusion: Conscious shopping and combining convenience food with natural products
Dealing with the subject matter creates an awareness with which a purchase can be made carefully and in such a way that time is saved and the budget is not exhausted too much. The following points facilitate purchasing decisions:
- Pay attention to natural ingredients that are harmless to health.
Note: If the name of the ingredients is barely legible on the packaging, E numbers are included, palm oil, hydrogenated fats, additional sugar (which has many names: fructose, maltodextrin, agave syrup, fructose, galactose, lactose, dextrose, sucrose, etc.), gluten/ wheat, powdered milk or soy, then an alternative product should be considered.
- Berries and fresh vegetables, fish or meat in organic quality from the freezer are useful, as long as no additional sugar or any other ingredients have been added.
- Keep it simple:
Also for an uncomplicated healthy lunch or a snack that does not contain any industrially processed ingredients, something can be quickly put together in the supermarket or, ideally, in an organic food store: How about a portion of natural almonds/nuts with a few fresh berries as a snack? Or nut puree that can be dipped with two carrots? At lunchtime, a ready-made leaf salad mix with vinegar, oil and salt and rice wafers with beef ham from the fresh food counter could be combined.
- Ask yourself if cooking the rice in a bag actually saves you time, or if portioning it yourself requires less budget and the extra minute can be put up with.
- Deliberately choose products that require little packaging material and recycle waste as much as possible.
Combining convenience food with uncomplicated cooking
Food Preparing, a word that is used a lot by athletes or in the bodybuilding scene, can be integrated adaptively into everyday life in its own way. Preparing one's food for several times, ideally alternating with one's partner or friends, saves time and counteracts the aforementioned problems with convenience food, for example with the following dish:
Frying a large portion of frozen vegetables in pasture butter and adding fresh herbs and spices, cooking a lot of quinoa, millet or rice with it and frying some chicken as required will take you between 30 and 45 minutes on a Sunday evening. With a reasonable amount you can have 6 meals prepared, 3 for your partner, 3 for yourself. If your partner prepares a different meal in this amount for both of you, both of you will already have 6 prepared, tasty and healthy meals for the week. It is as simple as that: #keepitsimple
1 Städeli, Ruth (2017): Ernährung und Gesundheit – Convenience Food. Basel: FHNW PH SekI -Professur für Gesundheit und Hauswirtschaft. FW HW 1.2 Woche 5.
2 Schreiner, Prof. Dr. Monika (2009): Die Rolle des Verbrauchers in der Wertschöpfungskette. Landbauforschung: Sonderheft 330. S. 102-103.
3 Höhn, Jakob: Convenience Food. In: Alnatura Magazin online. [https://www.alnatura.de/de-de/magazin/kultur-und-gesellschaft/gesellschaft/kunden-fuer-kunden-pro-contra-convenience; 08.08.19]
4 SGE (2008): Convenience Food. Bern: Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Ernährung. S. 1-5.
5 Alnatura: Convenience Food. [https://www.alnatura.de/de-de/magazin/kultur-und-gesellschaft/gesellschaft/kunden-fuer-kunden-pro-contra-convenience; 14.08.19]
6 Axt-Gadermann, Dr. Prof. Michaela (2015): Schlank mit Darm – Mit der richtigen Darmflora zum Wunschgewicht. München: Südwest Verlag.