What does the term mean and what should you pay attention to when shopping and eating consciously? Regular consumption of processed and ready-to-eat products has a reputation for being unhealthy and causing body fat to steadily increase. However, these statements should be viewed more differentiated, because there are definitely some ways to use convenience food sensibly. However, a few things must be taken into account and consciously implemented.
What is convenience food?
The English term can be understood in German as “comfortable food”. It includes pre-prepared foods in various processing stages, which are described in more detail in the next section 1 .
The purpose of convenience food is to save consumers time and effort when preparing food. This trend has become more and more important a few years ago, as the number of jobs in the population as a whole has increased and women in particular are increasingly entering the career ladder, meaning there is less time and motivation for food preparation. The convenient food appeals to a broad target group; Singles, working people, consumers in a hurry but also health-conscious consumers who want to quickly prepare something from vegetables and salads they have already prepared 2 .
Different processing stages:
Convenience food is divided into 5 different processing stages, which are illustrated in the following table:
Percentage of processing
Level I Kitchen ready
Needs to be prepared before cooking
Vegetables & fruits, washed/cleaned
Just needs to be cooked
Sliced & washed vegetables, marinated meat,
Stage III Ready to mix
Partially ready: Prepared & cooked, just needs to be warmed up or mixed
mashed potato powder,
Stage IV Ready to regenerate
All you have to do is put it in the oven or microwave
Level V Ready to eat
Fully prepared meals that can be eaten straight away
Bread & baked goods,
Problems with convenience food – ecological, economical and health-related
From an ecological point of view, the processed products should be viewed critically in many respects, because their energy consumption is often much higher than that of completely natural foods. This insight takes the entire value chain into account.
A lot of packaging material is used for the meals, some of which are already ready to eat, but also for portioned products that still need to be prepared. Plastic, cardboard, glass and aluminum are the most commonly used materials. Even though some of it can be recycled and wood is a renewable raw material, every gram of packaging requires a considerable amount of energy throughout its life - from production to the waste generated. It's no secret that packaging materials should therefore be reduced as much as possible. Stages IV and V in particular are relatively harmful to the environment 5 . In addition, the energy consumption comes from frozen products 4 .
Convenience food should also be examined more closely from a private economic perspective: many products - especially ready-made meals - are many times more expensive than if they had been prepared yourself. Portioned rice bags, for example, sometimes cost three times the conventional price per kilo. Consumers also have to dig deep into their pockets for packaged and cut fruit or vegetables 1 .
Furthermore, processed foods are often problematic for health. On the one hand, this is the case because the processing processes remove many micronutrients (vitamins and trace elements), antioxidants and fiber. On the other hand, ready meals in particular contain a lot of sugar, salt and trans fats, which are caused by the industrial processing of cheap vegetable oils. There are also artificial additives such as fillers and binders as well as preservatives 4 .
Potential allergens such as cow's milk, gluten and soy are also constantly present. Many of these ingredients have massive effects on intestinal health and therefore the entire organism. The consequences of this are short-term or chronic inflammation and an increase in body fat 6 .
Advantages of convenience food - time-saving and uncomplicated
The products of convenient eating make everyday life easier - as the German translation suggests: especially for very busy working people, it is a great relief to be able to quickly pick up something from the supermarket that is ready to eat and does not require a waiting time like in a restaurant 1 . 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 go or in the office 4 .
Since some people lack cooking ideas or even basic cooking skills, convenience food is a good alternative to not having to go to a pub every day. Convenient eating is also suitable from a hygiene perspective and for reasons of shelf life: frozen products and preserved foods sometimes last for years and the risk of foods contaminated by bacteria or pathogens is very low 4 .
Convenience food is also a great everyday help for older or sick people.
Even if it initially seems contradictory to the arguments regarding the problem of convenience food 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 if necessary and frozen without any additives usually have a higher nutritional value than fresh produce in the supermarket. This is due to longer transport and storage of fruits and vegetables, during which important micronutrients can be lost. The frozen products are often actually cheaper. A distinction must therefore also be made within the various convenience levels 4 .
Conclusion: Shop consciously and combine convenience food with natural products
Dealing with the topic creates an awareness with which shopping can be made carefully and in such a way that time is still saved and the budget is not exhausted. The following points make purchasing decisions easier:
- Pay attention to natural and health-safe ingredients.
Note: If the name of the ingredients on the packaging is difficult to read aloud, 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, milk powder or soy then an alternative product should be considered.
- Organic berries and fresh vegetables, fish or meat from the freezer make sense, as long as no additional sugar or any other ingredients have been added.
- Keep it simple:
You can also quickly put together something in the supermarket or, ideally, in the health food store for an uncomplicated, healthy lunch or snack that does not contain any industrially processed ingredients: How about a portion of natural almonds/nuts with a few fresh berries as a snack? Or nut butter that can be dipped with two carrots? At lunchtime, a ready-made lettuce mix with vinegar, oil and salt and rice cakes could be combined with beef ham from the deli counter.
- Ask yourself whether you actually save time by cooking the rice in a bag, or whether portioning it yourself requires less budget and the extra minute can be tolerated.
- Consciously choose products that require little packaging material and recycle waste as much as possible.
Combine convenience food with uncomplicated cooking
Food preparation, a word that is used a lot by athletes or in the bodybuilding scene, can be adaptively integrated into everyday life by everyone in their own way. Preparing your food several times, ideally alternating with your partner or friends, saves time and counteracts the problem mentioned with convenience food, for example with the following dish:
Frying a large portion of frozen vegetables in grass-fed butter and adding fresh herbs and spices, cooking a lot of quinoa, millet or rice and, if necessary, frying some chicken takes between 30 and 45 minutes on a Sunday evening. With a reasonable amount, you can already have 6 meals prepared, three for your partner and 3 for yourself. If he prepares another meal for both of you in this workload, both of you will already have 6 prepared, delicious and healthy meals for the week . It's that simple: #keepitsimple
1 Städeli, Ruth (2017): Nutrition and Health – Convenience Food. Basel: FHNW PH SekI Professorship for Health and Home Economics. FW HW 1.2 week 5.
2 carpenters, Prof. Dr. Monika (2009): The role of the consumer in the value chain. Agricultural Research: Special Issue 330. pp. 102-103.
3 Höhn, Jakob: Convenience Food. In: Alnatura magazine 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: Swiss Society for Nutrition. pp. 1-5.
5 Alnatura: convenience food. [ https://www.alnatura.de/de-de/magazin/kultur-und-gesellschaft/gesellschaft/kunden-fuer-kunden-pro-contra-convenience ; 08/14/19]
6 Axt-Gadermann, Dr. Prof. Michaela (2015): Slim with your intestines – achieve your desired weight with the right intestinal flora. Munich: Südwest Verlag.