The pictures on the bags of frozen schnitzel at the supermarket show luscious cuts of breast on a bed of lettuce with a side of salad, or served with oven-gloved hands. Alluringly described as “crispy,” “natural” or “real,” they make us feel like we’re buying a quality meat meal suitable to supplant home cooking.
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But our check of a range of products sold at Israeli supermarkets shows these ready-made frozen schnitzels are a far cry from the source. Their protein levels fall short of real chicken; their salt content is double that of homemade schnitzel; they’re chock-full of saturated fats; and some contain superfluous additives such as sugar, stabilizers and food coloring.
“Some aren’t even worthy of being called schnitzels because they contain so little chicken meat. It isn’t even their first ingredient,” says dietitian Dana Tal. In other words, chicken isn’t the biggest component in these schnitzels.
TheMarker checked schnitzel content with the help of two senior dietitians: Tal, from the Maccabi health maintenance organization’s central district; and Adina Bachar, of the Clalit HMO Sharon-Shomron district.
Bachar feels the only thing that should be completely off the table is soft drinks, but adds that mass-produced schnitzel shouldn’t be relied upon on a daily basis. “In general, it’s better to scale back choosing processed food to once a week, and it’s always important to diversify foods,” she notes.
What you should check and what we found
1. Meat: Most shoppers assume the main ingredient of frozen schnitzel is chicken. But only five of the 10 products we sampled were based on 50% chicken or more.
The first ingredient in Top Chef’s “Animal Festival Schnitzels” isn’t animal protein but chicken fat. Next on the list is water, and only third in the hierarchy was chicken, which comprised only 13% of the product. That’s a very low proportion by any criteria. The proportion of chicken in the other products we sampled ranged from 44% to 62%.
Top Chef commented: “We make various products, starting with ones containing 13% chicken meat plus chicken fat, and others with 79% chicken meat, so one must know what product one is comparing.”
Worse are such products as Tibon Veal and “Hamutag” schnitzels, which leave the shopper in the dark. Both start their ingredient list with “Chicken meat and fat – 50%.” Asked for clarification, the manufacturer, Neto, stated that the proportions were “a trade secret.”
In any case, the schnitzel market is dominated by Mama Off (Tnuva – off being Hebrew for chicken) and Off Tov (94% of sales in 2014, according to Nielsen). Both explicitly state the meat and fat content, and type of cut (chicken breast).
2. Protein: Protein from an animal source is an important nutrient for children and teenagers, and meat is also a source of zinc and iron (which are also crucial to proper growth). “Children should get 15 to 20 grams of protein in a meat meal,” says Tal. The egg in the schnitzel coating adds protein, too. A home-cooked schnitzel from chicken breast with egg has around 26 grams of protein, she estimates, adding that frozen schnitzel usually does contain egg.
For schnitzel to be the daily meat meal, check if the type you’re contemplating has at least 15 grams of protein, Bachar and Tal say. Only four of the 10 we checked met that standard.
3. Sodium: Long-term consumption of large amounts of sodium in processed foods increases children’s risk of high blood pressure in their teens. The frozen schnitzel we sampled contained high amounts of salt. That higher amount represents 23% of the daily salt intake recommended by the Health Ministry (2.4 grams).
Home-cooked schnitzels made from chicken breast also contain salt, added during the kashrut process. Cooking often involves breading with ready-made crumbs, which contain more salt, and the diners may shake yet more salt onto their food. One way to reduce this sodium intake, which can’t be measured precisely, is to soak the breast in water before cooking, to leach out salt.
Only two of the 10 frozen schnitzels we sampled had less than 400 milligrams of salt. The highest-ranking in terms of meat and protein content, and low-saturated fat, also happened to have the highest rates of sodium.
“Western nutrition is characterized by surplus sodium. As damage control, it’s better to forgo the processed french fries and oil, and not to add salt to meals,” says Tal. People should also add fresh produce like cucumber and tomato to their diet: the potassium they provide helps regulate body sodium, she adds.
4. Saturated fat: This is solid fat that increases the level of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) in the blood, which can lead to occlusions and raises the risk of cardiac disease and obesity.
Most health authorities recommend reducing consumption of saturated fat to less than 30% of daily calorie intake. A 100-gram portion of home-cooked schnitzel has about 1 gram of saturated fat – which is 5% of the dish’s 190-calorie count.
The highest-ranking schnitzel, Mama Off’s “No-fry Schnitzel,” contains about the same amount of saturated fat as the home-made product. The rest had 2-5 grams each (about 7% to 23% of their calories). According to the decidedly lenient Health Ministry directives, the proportion of saturated fat in a processed meat product should be less than 13%. Only six of the 10 products we checked met that standard.
5. Sugar: Children like the taste of processed meat because it contains added salt and sugar, and is easy to chew. Some get so accustomed to the industrial flavors they won’t eat fresh meat.
A teaspoon of sugar is 5 grams. Off Tov schnitzels had between 1.7-1.8 grams of sugar, while the rest – according to the manufacturers’ statements – had less than 1 gram, which is considered an insignificant amount that is hard to measure.
6. Private-label schnitzels: Smaller manufacturers often complain that price comparisons and the like only cover big brands, and encourage unwise consumer habits. Private-label consumption is only 7% of total food consumption in Israel, compared with 22% in the United States and 45% in Britain – and, if anything, it’s been trending downward in the last couple of years.
Kniya Hahama and Hamutag private-label schnitzels – which are sold at discount chains like Victory, Rami Levy and Bitan Wines – are cheap: 2.20-2.40 shekels ($0.58-$0.63) per 100 grams, compared with 4.60-6.80 for the leading brands. But they fail utterly in nutritional terms. Hamutag, made by Neto, also failed in transparency by saying the proportion of meat in the schnitzel is no less than a “trade secret.”