High Price and High Calories of Convenience

<i> Tribole is a registered dietitian</i>

A quick look in the deli section of any grocery store reveals new and growing space for ready-made lunches. Instant brown bagging--brought to you by Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables, Louis Rich’s Lunch Breaks and Hillshire Farm’s Lunch ‘n Munch. They may have taken the dilemma out of what-should-I-pack-in-my-sack, but do you pay too high a nutritional price for the convenience?

Typically, these lunch boxes pack a variety of crackers, deli-meats and cheeses (the sliced meats and cheeses conveniently fit the size of the crackers). Some deli lunch boxes provide a napkin and condiment; others throw in dessert ranging from a small chocolate mint to chocolate chip cookies. Although these deli meals appear more like snacks or appetizers doubling as a lunch (usually eight each of crackers, cheese and meat)--the calorie content is meal-size, up to 480 calories.

While they are not promising to be the Lean Cuisine of the deli set, the food-label descriptions can be misleading on all three brands. “They’re all loaded with fat and salt, regardless of the claims on the front of the package,” says Jayne Hurley, associate nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.

At first glance, food label descriptions such as Louis Rich’s “97% fat free” on its smoked turkey Lunch Breaks, and Oscar Mayer’s “lean” on its ham and Swiss Lunchables sound nutritionally enticing. While the meats themselves may be lean, a thorough label inspection reveals that these packaged lunch meals are anything but low in fat. Fat content ranges from 20 to 40 grams per meal--providing 47% to 75% of the calories from fat. Even the turkey-based lunch packs are not fat-proof and fall into this high-fat range. (Health experts recommend no more than 30% of daily calories come from fat--which is equivalent to 10 grams of fat for every 300 calories you eat, or 50 grams of fat in a 1,500 calories diet.)


Lunch ‘n Munch appears deceivingly low in fat--stating on the food label there are only three to five grams of fat per serving. However, their serving consists of only one cracker with one piece of meat and cheese. But who will eat just one of those cracker sandwiches for lunch? That’s like expecting someone to drink only one-eighth of an individual carton of juice. “These are clearly designed and packaged for one (person) and are not designed to split with seven of your friends,” says Hurley. A little computation (multiply everything by eight) reveals that one box (eight cracker sandwiches) will give you fat and calorie levels similar to the other brands.(See accompanying table.) Nutrition information is conspicuously absent on their pepperoni variety, even though it is listed on the other Lunch ‘n Munch meals.

The sodium levels of these deli lunch boxes are high (from 1,280 to 1,875 milligrams per meal). That’s the equivalent of eating nine to 14 one-ounce bags of potato chips. (The maximum sodium recommended for the entire day is 2,400 milligrams.)

When comparing the deli lunch box meals to a sack lunch or a fast-food meal, the latter generally fares better nutritionally. A home-packed lunch of turkey sandwich on rye with mustard, one apple, one bag of pretzel sticks (one ounce) provides 416 calories and eight grams of fat (11% fat calories). Selective choices at a fast-food place, such as a junior roast beef sandwich, small salad and an orange juice at Arby’s, provide 325 calories and nine grams of fat (25% fat calories.) Even a small fast-food hamburger fares lower in fat (generally 245 calories with 11 grams of fat--or 40% fat calories).

Although these deli meals rate high in convenience, you may be getting a lot more fat than you intended. Unlike frozen meals, where consumers have a wide nutritional range of products to choose from (from ultra-lean to ultra-heavy in calories), there is currently no nutritional standout in the deli lunch box category. If you’re looking for leaner meals--better pack your own lunch. “Until a manufacturer is able to come up with one that has a fat-free cheese in it, a really low-fat meat and whole-grain crackers,” says Hurley, “I would avoid that section of the grocery store entirely.”


Packaged Deli Lunches

Listed below are calories, fat and sodium for packaged deli lunches.

Product Fat % Sodium Cal G. Fat Mg. Louis Rich Lunch Breaks Oven Roasted Turkey 410 26 57 1,715 Smoked turkey 400 25 56 1,665 Turkey ham 380 22 52 1,875 Turkey salami 420 29 62 1,595 Hillshire Farm Lunch’n Munch Bologna 480 40 75 1,440 Cooked ham 360 24 60 1,360 Pepperoni and American cheese n/a n/a n/a n/a Salami 480 24 54 1,280 Smoked chicken 360 24 60 1,360 Smoked turkey 360 24 60 1,520 Oscar Mayer Lunchables Bologna and American 460 33 65 1,500 Lean ham and Swiss 340 19 50 1,630 Lean turkey and cheddar 360 22 55 1,620 Salami and mozzarella 420 20 62 1,350 With dessert: Honey ham and American (choc. pudding) 400 21 47 1,380 Honey turkey and cheddar (trail mix) 470 26 50 1,280 Lean ham and Swiss (choc. chip cookies) 370 20 49 1,310

Source: manufacturer’s data and food label data.