Are packaged instant meals healthy?

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Living out of heat-and-eat instant food packets which promise taste and save on time? Before picking up that ready-to-cook pack again, read on know if they are really good for you.

Remember the TVC where the husband calls home, informing his better half of his colleagues coming over and she supernaturally cooks up sumptuous gajar halwa within minutes? Well, what they didn’t show is that the gang may have fallen prey to a host of kidney disorders, if they continue to drop by without notice.

Ready-to-fry food packets, instant snacks and heat-and-eat products might be a boon for the stressed city slicker, but unrestricted consumption of these might land you in trouble in the long term, especially if you don’t have the most resilient of kidneys, nutritionists feel. Here’s why…

Hidden evils

The convenience of a pre-packed food packet is too much of a price to pay for the threat emanating from them, especially for kidney patients. Most processed foods are laden with sweeteners, salts, phosphorus, artificial flavors and are stripped of natural nutrients. Most of them contain very high level of phosphorous and sodium, which forms a core ground for aggravated kidney problems.

– Phosphorus, an essential mineral found in second-largest concentration in the human body is said to be aggravating kidney problems by a large extent. Explains Dr. Sharad Seth, head of Nephrology, Nanavati Hospital, Mumbai, “For chronic kidney disorder patients, phosphorous is toxic and get accumulated in the body, causing severe harm.”

– Due to the phosphorous retention in the kidney patients, the parathyroid gland, that controls the amount of calcium in blood and bones, increases in size. “In an attempt to raise calcium in the blood, the body extracts calcium from the bones, and eventually the bones are harmed,” says Seth.

– “This not only leads to cardio vascular morbidity among the patients, but the sodium in the packaged foods can cause water retention and thereby put a lot of pressure on the kidneys,” he adds. The combination of too much sodium and too much water can be life threatening for a kidney patient.

Read between the lines

Practically speaking, it is not possible to completely do away with packaged foods in this age, but that doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to the nutritional fact file of whatever you consume.

– Ingredients in a food label are listed according their quantity in the food. The main ingredient is always the first and lesser ones at the bottom.

– If you have kidney disease, you need to restrict sodium, potassium and phosphorus from your diet. “In most cases, sodium is mentioned, but phosphorous is not always listed as it forms a part of what is called additives,” says dietician, Dr, Jyoti Lalwani.

– “In the West, it is mandatory to list all the ingredients, but in India, the labels are not clear,” she says. Pay attention to the serving size mentioned (all food packets list ingredients on per serve basis) and look for words with Phos and sodium on the ingredient list.

– Cured meats, pickles, Chinese foods have high level of sodium whereas phosphorous is mostly present in dairy products, colas, meats and packaged nuts.

How much is too much?

Phosphorus is present in most of the foods that we normally consume such as cereals, meat, milk, nuts and vegetables. “An average requirement for an adult is 700 mg and if the intake exceeds the limit, it can prove highly toxic for an individual. Sodium is very essential and average consumption should be 1,600 mg per day (4 gm salt is equal to 1.6 g sodium).”

– “A pre-packed soup packet may contain monosodium glutamate and preservatives like sodium citrate or sodium benzoate,” says Dr. Lalwani.

– Patients are thus recommended to read nutrition labels carefully and minimize the intake as far as possible. Having fresh fruits and vegetables can balance the damage to some extent,” she adds.

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