Published by BBC NEWS - 6th May 2022

Supermarket trolley and shelves

Image source, Getty Images

A government minister has urged people to choose supermarket value brands, to cope with the cost-of-living crisis. But what effect, if any, will eating cheaper food have on people’s health?

Food has become more expensive as producers push their rising energy costs on to consumers – and value items may help cut costs.

Earlier this week, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary George Eustice said choosing value brands would help shoppers “manage their household budget” – comments shadow Treasury minister Pat McFadden described as “woefully out of touch”.

UK households had the lowest food expenditure in Europe, Mr Eustice said, thanks to a “very, very competitive retail market, with 10 big supermarkets”.

And with “the four main ones competing very aggressively – particularly on some of the lower-cost, everyday value items for households, so things like spaghetti and ambient products – there’s a lot of competition to keep those prices down”.

But he added it would difficult to keep down the price of fresh chicken because of the cost of feeding the birds and the already super-low profit margins involved in poultry farming.

The NHS says people should:

  • have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • use starchy foods such as potatoes, rice and pasta as a base for meals
  • include some form of dairy, or dairy alternative, and protein such as beans, fish, eggs or meat

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar – and various oils and spreads – should be included in small amounts.

But it can be hard to find supermarket value products that fit in with these guidelines, particularly when it comes to dairy and protein.

Of the 24 items in one of Britain’s biggest supermarket’s meat and fish “basics range”, just one fits in with the NHS guidelines – a pack of pollock steaks – with other options in breadcrumbs or sauce.

Value ranges also offer less variety for customers looking for “healthier choice” options such as reduced salt, sugar or fat versions of their favourite foods.

And cheaper products will often be bulked out with less costly ingredients to achieve the same volume as their more expensive counterparts but with less nutritional value.

One value pasta sauce contains:

  • 13% tomatoes and 6% tomato puree, with the rest topped up with water

A similarly sized jar of its expensive branded counterpart contains:

  • 74% tomatoes, 21% tomato paste and no water

The value sauce is lower in sugar and salt but contains less herbs and spices.

Luxury supermarket ready meals often cost more than £5 each and boast a recipe list full of fresh and organic ingredients, with many stores also offering calorie-controlled nutritionally balanced meals.

But this is difficult to find within value sections.

One supermarket’s value range includes an 85p minced beef hotpot meal.

It contains 19g (0.6oz) of protein, nearly 40% of the recommended daily amount for an adult, but also a third of the recommended amount of salt and 4.4g of saturated fat.

A beef meal from the store’s healthy range, however, contains 23.5g of protein and 2.6g of saturated fat.

A pack of eight value burger patties costs £1.50, meanwhile, the standard ones £5.50.

Both contain similar levels of salt and fat – but:

  • the more expensive up to 90% beef with seasoning
  • the cheaper 64% bulked out with flour

The standard range also offers leaner burgers with less fat, which the value range does not.

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Tips from a nutritionist

Jenna Hope

Image source, Emma Pharaoh Photography

There are lots of ways to eat “a nutrient-dense diet on a budget”, nutritionist Jenna Hope says.

“It can sometimes appear more challenging as it does require shoppers to be savvy with their choices and can require extra planning,” she tells BBC News

These are her top tips:

Load up on beans and pulses

Beans and pulses can be a great addition to any meal as they are a source of protein and rich in fibre.

They are also a cheaper way to bulk out mince-based dishes, such as meatballs, shepherd’s pie or burgers.

Dried beans and pulses are more cost-effective than canned – but soaking them pre-cooking is essential to reduce undesirable compounds.

Shop in the evenings

Fresher produce is more likely to be in the clearance section in the evenings, because of the shorter expiry dates, and if uneaten by the use-by date can be stored in the freezer.

Rely on the frozen section

It is a common misconception frozen produce is less nutritionally replete than fresh.

It can be just as nutritionally dense, if not more, as nutrients are often locked in when frozen.

Fruits and vegetables are much cheaper in the frozen section and often sold in larger quantities.

Frozen vegetables are brilliant for adding to soups, stews and curries.

Frozen fruit can be made into compote and served with yoghurt or added to smoothies or porridge.

Frozen meat and fish can be a good choice too.

Opt for canned fish

Fresh fish can be more pricey – but canned, such as sardines, is a great way to consume omega-3, a vital nutrient for brain health and cognitive function.

Stock up on wholegrains

Wholegrains can be a brilliant way to increase diversity in diet.

Foods such as rice (brown if possible), wholegrain bread and oats are cheap and nutritious.

Avoid more expensive pre-cooked or microwaveable rice.

Look for own-brand wholefoods

Often, buying own-brand wholefoods, such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, fruit and vegetables,and cooking from scratch can be cheaper than the convenience versions.

But when it comes to the more processed foods, the cheaper products can have more additives and bulking agents than the more expensive brands.

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