What is really in ready-made shepherd’s pie?

You would assume the cheaper the pie, the less meat it has, but that’s not necessarily so

Making cottage pie or shepherd’s pie from scratch takes time, which is why may of us opt for the readymade version

Making cottage pie or shepherd’s pie from scratch takes time, which is why may of us opt for the readymade version

 

On a cold winter’s evening, there’s little better for dinner than a casserole straight from the oven. Making cottage pie or shepherd’s pie from scratch takes time, however, which is something most of us don’t have to spare. This may be why cottage pie is a staple of supermarket readymeals. Tesco alone has three versions at different price points. You might expect that the cheaper the pie, the less meat it has. That’s not necessarily so, which is why it is always worth checking out the label.

Take the 400g Traditional Cottage Pie from Birds Eye. On the cover it says, 100 per cent “Irish and UK beef, onions, carrots and peas topped with mashed potatoes”. So the meat is Irish or British or both together. But what about the vegetables? It’s not clear, nor does it mention on the ingredients. Turn it over and there is a proper surprise: the dish is made in Belgium. So the meat is being shipped over to the continent for processing, then back again. What a lesson in expanding one’s carbon footprint.

The packaging is very enticing and it is expensive, so surely there is plenty of meat? No. The Birds Eye traditional cottage pie has a rather untraditional 13 per cent meat. Looking at the photograph on the front of the box, you would expect it to be at least 50 per cent. When it comes to readymeals, however, you can’t trust the pretty pictures.

The main ingredient is potato at 39 per cent followed by water and then beef. It also has onion, carrot, peas, sunflower oil, cornflour, tomato purée, skimmed milk powder, Worcestershire sauce, wheat flour, salt, yeast extract, onion powder, vegetable stock, sugar, rice starch, herbs, herb extracts, spices, spice extracts, garlic puree and spices. The vegetables and starches, in the form of wheat, cornflour and rice starch, help to thicken and bulk up the meaty element.

The list of ingredients looks long because it names all the components of the Worcestershire sauce and the vegetable stock. The Worcestershire sauce is a standard version and includes roast barley malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, molasses, water, sugar, salt, anchovy, tamarind extract, onion, garlic, spices and flavourings. When you break it all down, this is not a bad recipe.

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Cully and Sully’s “comforting” 400g Cottage Pie comes in equally attractive packaging, but has about 60 per cent more meat than the Birds Eye one. There is, though, a lot of marketing guff about how two lads from Cork set up the brand – it is now owned by American food giant Hain Celestial, though they are still directors. More importantly for consumers, there is no clue on the packaging where the product is made or where the ingredients are from. Coeliacs will be happy to see it is gluten-free.

The main ingredient is potato at 40 per cent followed by beef mince at 21 per cent. Then follows a list of hearty ingredients, including plenty of vegetables. 

This meal for one person has added sugar and molasses (aka treacle), but then so did every ready-made cottage pie that I found. Added sugar is common in readymeals, despite the publicity against it.

Supervalu’s own brand 400g Cottage Pie has a similar list of ingredients. It says it uses “minced Irish beef in a rich gravy topped with creamy Irish rooster mashed potato”. Sounds great and it starts with 46 per cent potato and 21 per cent beef.  

That size is intended for one person. If you buy the 1.2kg sharing packet, each serving costs about half the price of the smaller, single serving ones.

Straightforward

Tesco’s products are straightforward too. The 400g cottage pie from its expensive Finest range, which uses British beef, costs about twice as much as one in its own basic Hearty Food Co range, which used to be called the Everyday Value range.

The codes on the back show they are made at the same facility in Leicestershire. The biggest difference is that the Finest product has twice as much meat and a lot more ingredients overall. It also has a red traffic light on the front for high saturated fat and salt levels. The Finest pie has 47 per cent potato and 32 per cent beef as compared to 59 per cent potato and 15 per cent beef in the Hearty product, which sports green traffic lights for fat, saturated fat and salt.

So those trying to cut back on meat could save a few cent too.

FOOD LABELS SERIES
Bread
Soup

Crisps
Sliced ham
Cream crackers
(search other food labels articles here)

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