Everything That's Not Healthy About Frozen Dinners

Frozen dinners present an easy and quick fix when cooking dinner just isn't in the cards. For all their convenience, though, these foods aren't exactly known for being healthy. While the ease factor may be more appealing than the fact that your frozen meal isn't quite a salad, it's still good to know what's going into your body and why you may want to limit your intake of frozen dinners — or, if you really enjoy frozen meals, make the smartest possible choices based on what's available

Sometimes that may feel like it's besides the point. You just simply might not have time to whip up a meal from scratch, or even to cook up something fairly easy and healthy. Frozen meals are just easy. When the temptation of a meal beckons from behind the freezer doors, it may be too great and too appealing to ignore. You aren't alone there. With dishes like pizza, pasta, meats, breads, and so many other options available in the freezer aisle, there's certainly no dearth of variety. That means you're likely to find something you really like somewhere in the mix.

At the same time, there's a fairly high possibility that your frozen meal of choice isn't very nutritious. It may not be very balanced, or it may contain an excess of salt or sugar. Knowledge is power, though, and understanding what to watch for can help you make better dietary decisions in the freezer aisle. Here's what's just plain unhealthy about frozen dinners.

They contain excessive sodium, sugar, and saturated fats

Even the frozen meals that masquerade as "healthy" could be hiding something nefarious in their nutritional profiles. Unfortunately, not everyone glances at the stats before digging into the food. For all their convenience and their extended shelf life, the truth is that they may harbor excessive amounts of sodium, sugar, and saturated fats. These additives are often used to enhance flavor, extend preservation, or improve texture, but consuming too much of them could potentially contribute to various health issues such as hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.

A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition also linked consumption of ready-made meals, including those that are frozen, to an increased incidence of obesity. Findings showed a specific correlation between a lack of time available to prepare healthy meals and the convenience of simply putting a frozen meal in the microwave and enjoying hot food quickly. Unfortunately, some of the most common frozen foods, like pizza and meat, are the culprits most often associated with higher saturated fat and sodium content.

While freezing itself does not necessarily increase the sodium, sugar, or saturated fat content of food, the processing and preparation methods employed in the creation of frozen meals often involve the addition of these less-than-healthy ingredients. A 2018 paper in The BMJ reveals evidence that highly processed foods may increase the risk of developing some types of cancer. Carefully scrutinizing labels and becoming familiar with ingredients commonly used in frozen foods can help you make smarter choices in the future.

Healthy isn't always really healthy

Even the dishes that may seem like they would be a great addition to your well-rounded diet aren't always all that they might seem. They can be very highly processed and might have fewer nutritious ingredients than you might expect. The key when shopping is to focus on the ingredients, which are vital to the food's nutritional value and any benefit you might take from the food.

Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDCES, a registered dietitian, explains to the Cleveland Clinic, "The best meals have a nice portion of colorful vegetables, a lean protein source (like chicken, turkey, beans or fish/seafood) and either a whole grain or a starchy vegetable." She suggests adding whatever component is missing from this list as a side dish to round out your meal. For example, you could prepare a salad to go with your turkey and potatoes.

Taylor stresses that the language on the packaging is equally important — but you should always do your homework. For example, she says, "Compared to traditional frozen entrees, 'lean' and 'light' varieties typically shave off considerable calories, saturated fat and sodium." Research beforehand what these varieties are so you aren't left overwhelmed by the sheer number of options lining the shelves at the store. She adds that consumers should stay away from anything labeled "family-size" or "hearty," as these indicate large portion sizes meant to be shared. They can occasionally be the right choice if you plan to share them with others!

They may contain harmful preservatives

Not all frozen foods have preservatives, since freezing alone is a way of preserving the food. However, many do contain these additives. Unfortunately, preservatives could be carcinogens that are potentially detrimental to human health. These are typically added to prolong the shelf life of the food, prevent premature spoilage, and make it easier for manufacturers to ship foods at great distances without any risk. While they may be effective for those purposes, preservatives can also pose significant health risks when consumed in excess.

Two of the most commonly used are butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Found in everything from frozen burritos to TV dinners, these preservatives are identified by the National Toxicology Program as "anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Per a review in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, studies have found links between BHA and thyroid dysfunction, endocrine disorders, and neurotoxicity, among other serious concerns. Another common preservative found in frozen food is tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ). This is an antioxidant that protects flavor and prevents ingredients from going rancid by preventing oils and fats from breaking down. While TBHQ is approved by the Food and Drug Administration at levels of 0.02% or less, studies have linked consumption at higher doses to potential carcinogenic and cytotoxic defects (per a review in Toxicology Reports). 

Take a more proactive approach by reading the ingredient labels carefully before purchasing. Focus on organic frozen meals in particular, as these are more strictly regulated and are likely to contain fewer, if any, preservatives.

They could affect your blood pressure

While everyone should be mindful of how much sodium they consume daily, people who suffer from high blood pressure must be especially careful. Even a small amount of additional salt could cause damage; according to the American Heart Association (AHA), within just half an hour of consuming excess salt, the blood vessels can no longer dilate as efficiently. This can increase the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. 

The AHA also finds that nine out of 10 people in America consume more sodium than they should. They recommend that people consume 2,300 milligrams or less per day, and that those with hypertension limit their intake to 1,500 or less. Making a frozen meal part of your daily recommended intake can be a challenge following these guidelines. Registered dietitian nutritionist Kaleigh McMordie of LivelyTable.com explains to the New York Post, "Frozen dinners can have upwards of 1,000 milligrams of sodium, often from sodium-based preservatives, contributing more than half a day's recommended amount of sodium."

She advises people to choose the lightest possible version with the least amount of sodium. Slashing the serving size in half and adding a healthy side dish to your meal is another way to stay satiated while still enjoying a taste of the frozen food you crave. For example, you might pair a side salad or a serving of fresh roasted vegetables with a portion of a light and low-sodium frozen meal for a healthier and more well-rounded alternative.

They may lose valuable nutrients

While some ingredients, like fruits and vegetables, are generally very nutritious, they may lose some of that value during the freezing process. Freezing is a common method of food preservation that helps retain the texture, flavor, and nutritional content of many kinds of foods. However, the process can lead to nutrient degradation, especially in the case of certain vitamins and antioxidants. Exposure to low temperatures for extended periods may result in the breakdown of cell structures and impact the overall quality of the food.

One way around this if you consume a considerable amount of frozen food is to balance your diet by incorporating a variety of fresh and frozen foods. This way, you can replace anything that might otherwise get lost in the consumption of frozen food, especially when you supplement frozen fruits and vegetables with other nutrient-rich foods. This can help compensate for any potential losses and contribute to a more nourishing and nutritious diet overall.

Impact varies among different types of nutrients. Water-soluble vitamin C, for example, is more susceptible to degradation than fat-soluble vitamin A, according to a 2021 study in Foods. And in some cases, freezing can be a beneficial preservation method because it may help slow the growth of microorganisms (per the USDA) and preserve food for longer periods without the need for additional preservatives. Plus, advancements in freezing technologies, like flash freezing, may be useful in minimizing nutrient loss and preserving the nutritional value of frozen foods more effectively.

They could affect your heart health

Some varieties of frozen food are loaded with artificial trans fats. These can have a detrimental effect on the heart in the long term, increase the "bad" cholesterol in the blood, and elevate the risk of developing serious health issues, such as type 2 diabetes and stroke. According to a paper in Paediatrics & Child Health, artificial trans fats are created through a process called hydrogenation, which converts liquid oils into solid fats to enhance both shelf life and texture. However, these fats pose significant health risks.

Consuming frozen foods high in trans fats can contribute to the accumulation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, commonly referred to as "bad" cholesterol. Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream can lead to atherosclerosis, a condition that causes the arteries to narrow, harden, and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke (per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Additionally, excess trans fat consumption is associated with insulin resistance, which raises the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes (via the World Health Organization).

Opt for frozen foods without artificial trans fats and choose those with healthier fat alternatives, such as unsaturated fats. Avoid partially hydrogenated oils, as this is where many trans fats are derived; if you see this ingredient listed on the label, it's a red flag. You can also seek out products with healthier fat alternatives, such as olive oil. In general, highly processed frozen items like fried items and baked goods are more likely to contain trans fats.

Your mental health could suffer

Evidence suggests a link between high consumption of very processed foods, like ultra-processed frozen meals, and adverse effects on mental health. Diets rich in additives, preservatives, and refined sugars might contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress, which in turn may affect mood and cognitive function (per Harvard Health Publishing). Specifically, these foods may disrupt the balance of the gut microbiota and influence the gut-brain axis, which plays a crucial role in regulating mood and cognition. 

Explains Nathan Price, PhD, a chief scientific officer for Thorne HealthTech, to Real Simple, "Think of the gut-brain axis like a communication highway that connects the two together. For example, we now know that microbes in the gut make and modulate a variety of key brain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, glutamate, GABA, and serotonin." The regulation of these neurotransmitters can contribute to your emotional wellbeing, helping you stay calm, focused, and even-keeled. 

Poor gut health may also contribute to increased inflammation, which can also affect mental health. Researcher Melissa Lane, of the Food & Mood Centre at Australia's Deakin University, says to The New York Times, "Interactions between increased inflammation and the brain are thought to drive the development of depression." Dr. Frank Hu, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor of nutrition and epidemiology, told the publication that it works both ways. "When you get stressed, anxious or depressed, you tend to eat more unhealthy foods, in particular ultraprocessed foods that are high in sugar, fat and chemical additives."

They require unhealthy cooking methods

Certain frozen foods are designed to be cooked quickly, often using methods that involve deep frying and the use of excessive oil. While these methods can impart flavor, they can also add unhealthy fats to the diet. Plus, these preparation methods contribute to the elevated levels of saturated and trans fats found in some frozen products and pose potential risks to cardiovascular health. For example, deep-frying is a common cooking technique for frozen items like pre-packaged snacks and appetizers. It can lead to the absorption of significant amounts of oil and increase the calorie and fat content of the food.

Excessive oil usage in the preparation of frozen meals not only adds unhealthy fats but also introduces the risk of oxidized oils, which may produce free radicals and contribute to oxidative stress in the body (via The Detroit News). Air-frying or baking your frozen foods can help you avoid using excess oil and consuming unnecessary additional fat and calories. Per WebMD, air-frying can reduce calories by as much as 80%. You can air-fry virtually anything that you would deep-fry, from onion rings to mozzarella sticks.

You can take further healthier steps by looking specifically for frozen foods that require air-frying, baking, or grilling. All of these methods will reduce added fat consumption. Choosing products with minimal preservatives and artificial additives will also contribute to a more wholesome frozen meal, especially when you pair your food with fresh ingredients to create a balance that benefits your health.

It's easy to go overboard on some varieties

It's easy to overeat some types of frozen foods, especially items like fries, cheese sticks, and onion rings. They're palatable and easy to eat mindlessly while watching TV or working. Plus, there are often multiple portions per package, leading to excessive calorie, fat, and sodium intake. It doesn't help that these types of foods are especially convenient and accessible, making it even more tempting to consume larger servings than you may have intended. Unfortunately, that can lead to increased fat and calorie intake.

Michael Lowe, PhD, a psychology professor at Drexel University, tells Real Simple, "When we eat delicious food, we get a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is part of the reward system in our brain. It makes us feel good, so we keep eating the food to get that feeling." Plus, most of the "bad" frozen foods are tempting for another reason, according to Shayna Komar, a registered dietitian at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. "Processed foods are mainly salt, sugar, fat and preservatives — all of which create a combination of different sensations in your mouth. Your brain is involved as well. Foods that rapidly vanish or 'melt in your mouth' signal to your brain that you're not eating as much as you actually are." Consequently, your mind translates this information as a warning that you aren't actually full yet — even though you may have had more than enough of that frozen food.