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Are super cheap foods good for you?

Healthy eatingTonight a new food TV series begins on ITV called Save Money: Good Food.  The show, starring presenter Susanna Reid and chef Matt Tebbutt, aims to help families eat well for less with tips on meal planning, cooking and budgeting.  I helped compare supermarket own label value foods against the more premium, branded options with some surprising results!  So when you buy a super cheap version of a food, are you really compromising on health or taste or could you be bagging yourself a healthy bargain?



This breakfast staple is actually nutritionally very similar, whichever brand you buy.  All consist of mostly maize with some added sugar, salt, vitamins and minerals.  What’s really interesting though, is the value-range cornflakes actually had half the sugar and a third to a half less salt than the branded version.  Kelloggs Cornflakes have 8g sugar and 1.1g salt per 100g, while Morrisons M Cornflakes have 3.7g sugar and 0.5g salt per 100g (Asda Smartprice have 3.9g and 0.7g respectively).  So while they might not be as tasty at first, you’re actually getting a healthier option and your taste buds will evolve towards preferring less sweet and salty tastes with time.


Remember, none of these brands are high in salt or sugar – they would get an amber traffic light for both nutrients.  Even the Kelloggs Cornflakes provide only 3% of the reference intake (guideline daily amount) for sugar in a suggested serve and 6% of the reference intake for salt.


In this case, a lot of the cost-saving on the cheaper brands is from the use of less expensive packaging, with fewer colours to save on printing costs, for example.  You choice is therefore down to taste and cost (Kelloggs cost £1.75 for 450g compared with under 40p for 500g of the value brands).


Baked beans

Again, most canned baked beans are pretty healthy – there is a little added sugar and salt (though lower sugar and salt versions are available) but they offer one of your 5 a day and are a source of fibre and protein.  In fact, Heinz Beanz and the supermarket value brands are all low in sugar (5g sugar per 100g or less) and all have an amber traffic light for salt, so whichever you choose, you’re getting a fairly healthy option.


When you buy the value versions, the thing that is missing is often just some of the beans!  Branded and supermarket standard range beans tend to be around 50% beans whereas the super-cheap ones are around 45% beans.  There will be slightly less protein and obviously more sauce than beans but the sugar and salt content are similar to the standard range and branded versions.  They are all still a source of protein and fibre and all are low in fat.


Again, some of the cost comes out of the packaging too.  The branded products and standard ranges often have more colourful labels and sometimes a handy ring pull, whereas the value ranges use fewer colours and need a can opener to access the beans.  There’s not a lot in it nutritionally.  The biggest difference is taste and of course, cost.  So if you’re looking for a cheaper product, the value beans are still a healthy option at a third of the price of the branded version (75p for a can of Heinz Beanz versus around 25p for the value beans).


I’ve done a few more comparisons below, that weren’t featured on Save Money: Good Food, just to show that cheaper foods aren’t necessarily bad for you!


Ready meals

I compared a Sainsbury’s luxury Taste the Difference Cottage Pie with a Basics range one.  Both were a single serve at 400g.  The biggest nutritional differences were down to the meat content.  The luxury version is 33% beef whereas the value version is 19% – beef is expensive, so having less in the pie makes it cheaper.  This impacts the calories (512kcal in the luxury pie vs 349kcal in the value one) and the fat and saturates (both red traffic lights in the luxury version but amber/green in the value product).  So while the value version won’t taste as luxurious, it’s nutritionally better and still provides a source of protein and iron and costs less than a third of the price of the luxury product.


Taste the Difference Cottage Pie Basics Cottage Pie
512kcal 349kcal
33% beef (more protein and iron) 19% beef (less protein and iron)
High in fat and saturates Medium in fat, low in saturates (less beef)
Less added water More added water
Beef stock Yeast extract
No added sugar Added sugar
Added cheese No added cheese
£3.60 £1.00


Fresh chicken soup

I compared the premium Yorkshire Provender Roast Chicken and Vegetable Soup with Asda Smartprice Chicken and Vegetable broth.  Both soups are a healthy option for a light meal, albeit low in both calories and protein but the premium brand has considerably more chicken and also more variety of vegetables and total percentage of veg.


Yorkshire Provender Chicken and Veg Soup Asda Chicken and Veg Soup
6% chicken 3% chicken
Stock 24% chicken Stock 3% chicken
Approx. 44% veg (incl. potato) Approx. 34% veg
Wider range of veg Fewer veg types
156kcal per serve 136kcal per serve
Higher in fat and saturates (but still low in both) Lower in fat and saturates
£2.50 £1.38



I looked at the luxury brand Dorset Cereals and compared their Simply Delicious Muesli (850g for £3.49) with Asda Smartprice muesli (1kg for £1.18).  Overall, arguably the cheaper muesli is healthier as it provides less sugar and more fibre, plus less salt than the premium version.  Obviously the cost has been removed by reducing the amount of fruit and nuts and also by having much less variety of ingredients.  The packaging will also cost less in the value muesli as it’s just a simple plastic packet, rather than the premium card and cellophane packaging of the Dorset Cereals muesli.  There will be fewer vitamins and minerals coming from the fruit and nuts in the value muesli but overall, while it might be less tasty, the budget version is healthier.


Dorset Cereals Muesli Asda Smartprice Muesli
24% fruit 9% fruit
7% nuts/seeds 1% nuts
17g sugar per 100g 7g sugar per 100g
More fruit, nut variety Less variety
21p per serve 6p per serve


What does this mean for shoppers?

To summarise, the biggest difference between the brands and the value products could be taste, so if you’re opting for the budget foods, you may need to get creative with your seasoning – a little parmesan or strong cheddar, grated onto a potato topped pie or pasta dish goes a long way and a few extra bits of veg or pulses with a meal or soup, or fruit on cereal can boost the taste and get you closer to your 5 a day.  And in time, your taste buds adjust to a less sweet or salty taste.


So what do we conclude?  You can certainly get a healthy option when you buy the value brands.  It’s not always the case but in the examples I found, generally, the cheaper products were healthier when it comes to salt, fat and sugar.  You may be compromising on protein and some vitamins and minerals but when money is tight, it’s reassuring to know that your store cupboard favourites aren’t short changing you on health.




All product information taken from retailer websites in March 2017.

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