Stock reviews

Are packaged stocks anything like the real deal?
 
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01 .Introduction

Stocks

In brief

  • Most liquid chicken stocks are reconstituted and are not as close to homemade as you’re led to believe.
  • Supermarket liquid stocks can cost 25 times more per serve than powders and cubes.

When a recipe calls for stock — whether it’s for soup, risotto or gravy for the Sunday roast — not everyone has the time to make it from scratch. It’s simpler to buy a stash and keep it in the pantry.

The grocery value and volume of stock sold in supermarkets is steadily increasing, particularly liquid stock. However, if you’re hoping the typical liquid stock you find in a supermarket is close to homemade, or superior to a quality stock cube, our findings tell a different story. Most are simply reconstituted, but not labelled as such.

CHOICE looked at 25 liquid, cubes and powdered stocks and discovered that the common marketing terms “real” or “natural” don’t always stand up to scrutiny. Focusing on chicken stock, arguably the most popular and versatile flavour, we highlight the ones that are most like homemade, the ones with the least salt and the ones we believe represent the best value.

Please note: this information was current as of October 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Where's the chicken?

CHOICE’s hunt for chicken as an ingredient in stock proved elusive. This may seem strange given the labels say “chicken stock”, but only 16 of the 25 stocks we looked at contain animal products. Generally, if the product name has the word “style” or “flavour”, it’s made using flavours rather than actual chicken. This might seem good for vegetarians, but the catch is these flavours may still be derived from animal products and you often can’t tell from the label.

The chicken flavour of both Chefs’ Cupboard (ALDI) and Massel stock is produced without animal products. Massel stock is in fact endorsed by the Halal Certification Authority and K Pareve, meaning it's certified to be meat free and is suitable for people who need to avoid meat for both dietary and religious reasons, The flavours in Continental Chicken Style Stock Cubes, however, aren’t suitable for vegetarians, according to the manufacturer.

“Natural”, “nature-identical” and “artificial” flavouring substances are officially classified as additives, but don’t have additive code numbers and may be labelled as “flavouring” or “flavour”. According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the vast array of flavourings permitted in food means it wouldn’t be feasible to list them individually. So the only way to be sure if the flavour in a product has animal content is to contact the manufacturer.

 
 

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Best value liquid stock / Best lower salt stock

  • Gravox Real Chicken Stock Salt Reduced Stock-gravox

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best value stock powder

  • Maggi Chicken Stock Powder Stock-maggie

 


 

 

 

 


Closest to homemade stock

  • Maggie Beer Chicken Stock

 Stock-MaggieBeer

Table_stocks

Liquid stocks

Chicken stock is the liquid resulting from cooking chicken, vegetables and seasoning in water (see our recipe). So, if you’re looking for stock that’s closest to homemade, you’ll want a liquid made only from chicken and a handful of other familiar ingredients. Of the 10 liquid chicken stocks we found in stores, only two aren’t reconstituted.

Not surprisingly, the genuine liquid stocks, Maggie Beer and Moredough Kitchens, are the most expensive. These “gourmet” stocks, typically found in grocers, not supermarkets, cost up to 10 times more than the cheapest liquid stock and far more than cubes and powders. They are worth the investment if non-reconstituted stock closest to homemade is your priority, but making your own costs about 37c a serve (250mL), compared with $6 for the Maggie Beer. As well as water and chicken, Maggie Beer stock contains celery, carrots, onion, herbs and spices. Moredough Kitchens is almost half the price but contains added “flavour”.

The other liquid stocks, although cheaper, are reconstituted — a fact only Woolworths Select reveals on its carton, albeit in fine print in the ingredients list — so a portion of what you’re paying for is added water. Campbell’s and Gravox stocks are reconstituted from a liquid concentrate, and Woolworths Select is reconstituted from liquid and powder. But Chef’s Cupboard and Massel liquid stocks are simply reconstituted powders.

Natural?

Be wary of descriptions such as “real” and “natural” on the label, as these marketing terms aren’t regulated and are open to interpretation. Many packaged liquid stocks contain ingredients you won’t find in the average home pantry, such as vegetable protein extracts and powders, dehydrated vegetables, maltodextrin and flavours.

On a positive note, liquid stocks will appeal if you want to avoid additives. None of those we looked at contain the flavour enhancers (such as MSG) common to cubes and powders and, generally, liquid stocks contain fewer additives. Of the reconstituted liquid stocks, Gravox Real Chicken Stock Salt Reduced is the best option: it’s free of additives, contains the fewest processed ingredients and has the least salt. And, unlike some chicken stocks, it actually contains chicken.

Lower salt alternatives

For a stock with minimal impact on your daily salt intake, you can’t go past Maggie Beer Chicken Stock. It contains only 73mg sodium per 250mL and meets the requirement of a “low-salt” product, according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s Code of Practice. A significantly cheaper option is Gravox Real Chicken Stock Salt Reduced.

If you want a lower-salt stock, don’t be guided solely by “salt-reduced” claims. Campbell’s Real Stock Chicken Salt Reduced may have less salt than its regular equivalent, but still packs a saltier punch than eight others (including cubes and powder versions when made up as directed), half of which don’t carry a salt-reduced claim.

Campbell’s Real Stock, Woolworths Select and Maggi stock cubes are the saltiest on test. Food made with one cup (250mL) of these gives you substantially more than the adult daily sodium requirement of 920mg.

Stock cubes and powders

If price is the most important factor when buying stock, cubes and powders are the cheapest options, with some costing less than 10c per 250mL serve (see the table). Be aware, however, that they’re more likely to contain additives — colours and flavour enhancers, in particular — some of which you may be keen to avoid (see Additives).

For a lower-salt stock with flavour unaided by enhancers, Massel’s Chicken Style Stock Powder and Ultracube Chicken Style Salt Reduced are good options. If actual chicken is a key requirement, Maggi Chicken Stock Powder is your best bet.

The cubes and powders category is home to the one product on test that’s perhaps furthest removed from homemade: Star Chicken Bouillon Cubes. Its ingredient list reads like a chemistry experiment, including:

  • iodised salt
  • palm oil
  • flavour enhancer (MSG)
  • hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • dehydrated onion
  • artificial flavours
  • mechanically separated dehydrated chicken meat

Additives

Some stocks contain a number of additives, many of which perform important technological functions. Acidity regulators help maintain a constant acid level, which is important for taste and helps retard the growth of micro-organisms, while anti-caking agents help stop particles clumping together. The most common additives are colours and flavour enhancers, some of which have been blamed for causing health problems such as skin irritations, headaches or even cancer.

About a third of the stocks reviewed contain the colour caramel (listed as 150a, b, c and d). There are claims (based on animal studies) that some versions are toxic or carcinogenic. On available evidence, the Joint WHO/FAO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) calculated the intake at which there’s no toxicological impact on humans, and levels permitted in food are based on these.

Flavour enhancers are also common. We found them in 10 of the 25 products on test, but only in cubes and powders. Claims that some flavour enhancers lead to health problems are largely unsubstantiated.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG, 621) is an exception. People sensitive to it may have short-term reactions such as headaches, flushing and numbness, and some asthmatics may be susceptible. Knorr, OXO and Star cubes contain MSG. Knorr cubes contain five additives, including three flavour enhancers.

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