The takeaway dilemma

CHOICE compares the most popular dishes and provides healthier, cheaper alternatives.
 
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01 .Our findings

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In brief

  • Takeaways can pack in plenty of kilojoules and often have too much fat and salt for healthy eating.
  • CHOICE provides plenty of alternatives that cost less.
  • Takeaway makes for a quick and easy dinner when you’re pressed for time. Even in the midst of a global economic crisis Australians have increased their reliance on this convenient, but not always cheap, option. On average, we spend 10% of our food budget on takeaways and after a lull last year this percentage is on the rise again.

Takeaways are usually a family-pleasing option and, although there’s nothing wrong with them occasionally, many contain too much salt and artery-clogging saturated fat for regular eating.

  • Chinese and Thai dishes, such as pad Thai, tend to have too much salt and some are loaded with saturated fat due to their high coconut milk content.
  • Indian food is generally less salty, creamy dishes such as butter chicken contain far too much saturated fat, not to mention flab-forming kilojoules.
  • Most pizzas are very bad for salt, fat and kilojoules, especially those with stuffed crusts or extra toppings.

You don’t have to compromise on nutrition for speed and convenience. CHOICE found plenty of foods in the local supermarket that will make a healthy dinner in less than 15 minutes – and cost less than half the price of a comparable takeaway. What’s more, you don’t need Jamie Oliver’s cooking skills to prepare them.

Please note: this information was current as of May 2009 but is still a useful guide today.


Our investigation

We examined the nutritional composition of a wide range of popular takeaway meals from local Chinese, Thai, Italian and Indian restaurants. The same meal cooked by different restaurants can vary widely in nutrient content, so we used average values from Australian food composition tables.

In the table, we’ve ranked the meals within each cuisine by energy (kilojoules) per 100g – the more energy a meal packs in, the more likely it is to expand your waistline (see Healthy Eating). We’ve also used a “traffic light” system as a guide to the nutritional quality of these meals in terms of total fat, saturated fat and salt.

Red light means the food is high in something you should try to cut down on, so it should only be eaten occasionally.

Orange light means the food isn’t high or low so it’s an OK choice – but you shouldn’t eat too much of it or too often.

Green light means the food is low in fat or sodium. The more green lights, the healthier the choice.

Our findings

Best and worst

Most takeaway meals are nutritionally very ordinary, scoring amber lights. On average, Chinese and Italian takeaways (other than pizza) are better for your waistline but not for saturated fat and salt, while Thai stands out as the unhealthiest choice overall. When it comes to individual dishes, the Healthy Choices list which dishes to choose and which to avoid.

Compare prices

On average, a takeaway dish from a local restaurant will cost about $12 (and that’s excluding the cost of delivery and the extra you’d pay for rice if it’s Chinese, Thai or Indian, or garlic bread if it’s Italian). But we found big differences in prices – a range of $9 to $16.80, for example, for a serving of Chinese beef with black bean sauce, and $9 to $11.50 for spaghetti bolognaise. You may be able to save money by looking beyond your favourite local.

Fast food chains

We compared a basic fast food meal of chicken and chips from KFC, Oporto (not available in Tasmania and WA) and Nando’s. KFC had the most kilojoules, while all three got amber lights for fat and salt. We also compared supreme, vegetarian and Hawaiian pizza from Pizza Hut and Domino’s. Although one of the cheaper options, pizza packs in more kilojoules than most other takeaways, and on average hits you with more saturated fat and salt. Pizza Hut’s Super Supreme Perfecto, for example, gives you nearly half your maximum recommended daily intake of salt in just one serve (half a pizza).

 
 

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Healthy eating

Nutritional excesses to avoid in takeaways are energy (kilojoules), fat and salt. Too much sugar is generally not a problem with meals of this type, so we don’t include a rating for sugar in either table.

Kilojoules per 100g Nutritionists call this the food’s “energy density”. We tend to eat a fairly consistent amount of food over a period of a few days, and studies have shown people whose diet consists on average of foods of low energy density consume fewer flab-forming kilojoules overall. To keep the weight off, avoid too much energy-dense foods such as cheesy pizzas, fatty meat and creamy pasta sauces, and pick options with plenty of vegetables as these generally have low energy density.

Total fat Fat makes food palatable and is an essential part of the diet, but delivers twice as much energy as the same amount of protein or carbohydrates and most of us eat too much of it.

Saturated fat These fats increase your risk of heart disease and often come from meat, cream or cheese.

Sodium Most of us consume too much salt (sodium chloride). Our bodies need a small amount, but too much sodium increases your risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Healthy choices

When it comes to choosing individual dishes, here are some pointers for picking the healthier options.

Menu plans

Burning off the kilojoules

If you succumb to the temptations of takeaway, how much exercise will it take to burn it off? The figures below are for half a pizza or a standard portion of 300g of other meals. Keep in mind, however, that these times are strictly true only if all the food is surplus to your daily energy needs – even when you’re sitting still you burn about 300kJ per hour.

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Supermarkets have plenty of products that will give you a dinner for less than half the price of a typical takeaway, with no more than 15 minutes’ preparation time. We’ve provided recipes, below, while the Homemade Fast Food table shows comparative costs, nutritional information and preparation times.

Simmer sauce meals

Sauces in a jar (or sometimes a can or plastic pouch) are now a multimillion-dollar industry, and there’s no lack of choice. Chilled sauces have a limited storage life and are more expensive, but you may prefer their flavour. For Asian dishes, you can use precooked rice that comes in a sealed plastic pouch and only needs a quick zap in the microwave.

In the Homemade Fast Food table we’ve included a Thai chicken curry, Indian-style butter chicken and tomato-based spaghetti napoletana, all made following the instructions on the jar. You can easily give the nutritional quality a boost by adding some frozen mixed vegetables. Pappadums can be microwaved to make them crisp – and they then have a lot less fat than the restaurant version.

Heat-and-eat whole meals

Frozen Despite the convenience of frozen meals, some of them are only marginally cheaper than their takeaway equivalents – and nutritionally can be much the same.

Shelf-stable meals These are a relatively new product and you’ll find only a limited range of dishes (in the table we’ve included spaghetti bolognaise and a butter chicken curry). They’re complete meals sealed in one or two plastic pouches that you reheat in the microwave. They don’t require refrigeration (unless opened) and have a shelf life (at room temperature) of about a year.

Home cooking in a flash

Here are three easy meals that take less than 15 minutes to prepare and cost less than half the price of a typical takeaway.

Spaghetti napoletana Spaghetti napoletana

  1. Cook pasta according to the instructions on the packet.
  2. While it’s cooking, lightly fry chopped onion (frozen) and garlic (from a jar) in a little olive oil.
  3. Open a can of good-quality chopped tomatoes or half a bottle of passata and pour into the frying pan.
  4.  Add some fresh or dried herbs, such as basil, oregano or Italian herb mix.
  5. Simmer briefly.
  6. Drain the pasta, put into serving bowls and top with the tomato mixture.
  7. Serve with a little parmesan.
  8. Note: Check the nutrition information panel when buying canned tomatoes, as some brands contain added sodium.

 

Homemade pizza Homemade pizza

  1. Spread pasta or pizza sauce (from a jar) on pita bread, wraps or a good-quality pizza base.
  2. Sprinkle on some oregano, maybe add a few olives or button mushrooms and top with grated mozzarella cheese. Chopped onion, capsicum and fresh tomato are also good additions.
  3. Cook in a hot oven (about 220˚C) until the cheese is brown and bubbly – about 8-10 minutes.
  4. Top with fresh basil leaves, if desired.

Note: To make your own pizza sauce, combine 1 small can of diced tomatoes, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 clove garlic crushed, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, salt and pepper. Leftovers can be frozen for your next pizza.

 

Chicken stir-fry Chicken stir fry

  1. Empty a packet of precooked hokkien noodles into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave them to sit for a couple of minutes.
  2. Heat a wok or large frying pan and add chopped barbecued chicken meat and frozen or fresh stir-fry vegetables (fresh are the pre-cut, packaged version from the refrigerated vegetable section of your supermarket).
  3. Stir until warmed thoroughly.
  4. Drain the noodles and add to the wok or pan and mix through.
  5. Add a little sesame oil and salt-reduced soy sauce for flavour.

Homemade fast food table
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