Ready-made pizza dough from the chiller cabinet, vegetable stock from a tin and deep-frozen fried eggs – convenience food can mean heavily processed ingredients and dishes that are more or less ready to eat. But with too much salt and sugar, saturated fatty acids, huge amounts of calories and a long list of chemical additives such as flavour enhancers, stabilisers, artificial flavourings and thickening agents, many ready-made products fill us up quickly but are not especially healthy. A long shelf life and quick to prepare, attractive to look at and preferably filling – that is their requirement profile. But there is a problem. It seems that a constant diet of heavily processed food is not very good for our health. Ready meals make us pile on the pounds and are suspected of causing type 2 diabetes. And a large-scale study carried out in 2018 concludes that ultra-processed products could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. But it is worth having a closer look.
What exactly is convenience food?
Not all convenience products are highly processed – far from it. They can be divided into different levels of processing. The individual groups vary slightly from country to country, but most systems contain 5 or 6 processing stages:
- ready-to-prepare foods such as boned, cut meat and cleaned vegetables
- ready-to-cook foods such as tenderloin, pasta, frozen vegetables and frozen fruit
- prepared foods such as salad dressing, instant mashed potato, custard powder
- reheatable foods such as individual components or complete meals that only need to be heated up
- ready-to-eat foods such as cold sauces, pre-prepared salad, fruit preserves and desserts
Products in groups 3–5 frequently live up to their dubious reputation as ultra-processed foods. But even here there are alternatives: METRO has committed to use significantly less salt, fat, sugar and additives in its own brand products by 2030. Internationally, 603 products have already been reformulated to reduce their salt and sugar content since 2018. Products in the first 2 categories are extremely useful in a professional kitchen, saving time without compromising on freshness, quality, nutritional content or taste.
The other kind of convenience: fresh, delicious and healthy
The current trend is for ultra-fresh products that are minimally pre-processed. The best example is cut meat that lands hygienically packed and pre-portioned as pork tenderloin on the chopping board. Or salad, washed and cut or picked. And of course rice, flour or millet. For the kitchen this means a lot less prep, as all the cutting has already been done. Given the shortage of skilled workers and the thin staffing levels in many establishments, this is a welcome relief. But what customers see and taste tells them that everything here is freshly prepared. Another bonus is that these products make planning easier. 2 kilos of cauliflower florets are 2 kilos of usable ingredient. Portions can be reliably planned, and apart from the packaging there is no waste. And last but not least, the dishes made with the pre-prepared ingredients have the same high quality.
Complicated salads and trendy bowls, vegan and vegetarian dishes and seasonal classics - a small number of pre-prepared convenience products give restaurateurs plenty of scope to jazz up their menus with modern and seasonal options and attract health-conscious and environmentally aware guests with high-quality takeaway dishes in environmentally friendly disposable containers without major effort.
The following time-savers are useful in every kitchen
2. Fresh, ready sliced, diced or julienned vegetables
3. Fresh, washed, chopped herbs
4. Fresh, washed shoots and sprouts
5. Peeled potatoes, whole or cut
6. Tinned coconut milk and oil
7. Tinned peeled tomatoes and cooked chickpeas
8. Grated cheese
9. Ready-to-roll gnocchi dough made from fresh potatoes
10. Cut, pre-portioned meat