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Packing for a staged self-sufficient ultra. Photo credit: RunUltra.

The best freeze dried meals unwrapped

05-Jan-16

Last updated: 16-Aug-18

By Rin Cobb

Freeze-dried meals are an obvious choice when planning your food for a multi-day ultra. Lightweight, easy to prepare and jam-packed full of energy, they offer a hefty bang for your buck but is it a simple matter of taste when choosing the right one for you? Rin Cobb investigates. Download the comparison data here.

Best energy to weight ratio

Scrutinizing labels to find out which meal will give you the most energy for the least amount of weight is what many of you will be going by, particularly for those self-sufficient races where you’re filing down your toothbrush to save that extra few grams.  As you might have already discovered, comparing meals can be somewhat challenging depending on how each brand displays its nutrition numbers. Where possible, comparing per 100g of dried product is the most effective way but you may need to consult the company’s website for a full breakdown and even do some of your own sums to get the answer.

Quite surprisingly even within the same brand, the range in energy to weight ratio can vary significantly so whilst they may all look to contain the same amount of calories per meal, portion weight can differ which will affect the energy to weight ratio so be sure to check which meals give you the most bang for your buck. For breakfast, of those tested, Extreme and Mountain House offered the best energy to weight ratio at 486kcals per 100g dried weight. For main meals, Lyo had one flavour that provided the most energy at 620kcals per 100g with Expedition Foods coming in next at 585kcals per 100g but had a wider variety to choose from.

Whatever you do, if weight is a real consideration, don’t do as a fellow runner once did and choose the one flavour for all your meals based on it having an extra 10kcals per meal, believe me you won’t thank yourself on day two of a week long race.

Best nutritional composition

Just to confuse matters further and contrary to what many of you may believe, it’s not all about calories. Very rarely will you meet all your energy needs during an ultra and even less so the more days you race for, especially if having to carry all your food for the duration. So, looking at where your calories are coming from is also important to help fuel you right. If you are running at a high intensity, in the heat or at altitude you’re body is going to want more carbohydrate to fuel itself. If your meal has a higher percentage of calories from fat you can see where your fuel may be mismatched to your engine. 

For breakfasts, Lyo offered the highest carbs at 84%, bearing in mind they offer the lowest energy to weight ratio with Fuizion offering up to 68% calories from carbs. For main meals, both Lyo and Expedition Foods have meal options providing the best carb content but it should be noted the latter has a stark range between 26-64% so make sure to check which meals offer the higher carb content.

Protein content is also crucial as it will aid recovery during multi-day races but there is an optimal amount as too much will compromise carb content and there is only so much your body can use. Extreme had the best protein content with regards to range of 10-18% as the other brands either provided too little or too much when considering single meals.

Photo credit: Rin Cobb.

Best value for money

Whilst we all know ultra runners are generally not averse to forking out for that new bit of kit or a race half way round the world, there will be some of you where the cost of your food for a race is an important factor. Some companies offer discounts at certain times of year or if you spend a certain amount and if you are sourcing online, postage and packaging will also need to be considered. As already mentioned portion sizes can vary significantly between brands so rather than comparing price per serving, I’ve worked out price per 100kcals for fairness. For breakfasts, Mountain House came out the cheapest at 80p per 100kcals and for main meals Expedition Foods at 87p per 100kcals.

Most like real food

One of the main grumbles I hear time and time again is that freeze-dried meals are not always the most palatable, as by their very nature often have a stodgy texture. Over the years however and certainly during my time sampling different culinary delights for expeditions and such like, freeze-dried meals have come a long way. I must say Lyo really has paved the way when it comes to producing freeze-dried meals that are most like what you’d eat at home from a texture and taste point of view. The down side to this though is some of their meals have a much lower energy to weight ratio and they can be more pricey which needs to be weighed up when making your choices.

Best choice for special diets (allergies, veggies)

More and more of you are following special diets either for medical reasons or as a lifestyle choice so what a brand can offer in this department may be how you choose your freeze-dried meals. All of those tested had vegetarian options although the variety in choice could vary significantly and for vegans, Lyo had the best choice as Extreme only had one vegan option.

As for gluten free breakfasts, only Fuizion caters for this type of diet as they can use gluten free oats. For those following a gluten free diet but can tolerate oat gluten, all brands except Lyo would be suitable. As for main meals, there’s far more choice with all brands having gluten free choices.

Of note, with enough fore warning, Fuizion offer custom made meals which may be useful for those with more severe allergies or cannot risk cross-contamination with gluten such as those with Coeliac disease.

Photo credit: Rin Cobb.

Best made with cold water

Quite often, unless stipulated as part of the essential kit list, stoves and their fuel can be cast aside to save on weight. What I would say is whilst all the freeze-dried meals tested can be made with cold water, there can be a notable difference between how well they rehydrate and the time this can take compared to preparing as recommended with hot water so I would suggest you try this out beforehand to make sure they work for you if debating whether to take a stove or not. Exceptions to this are the breakfast. They fared well across the board when made with cold water.

Of the main meals, Expedition Foods were the best from a time and texture perspective when made with cold water but of note, I wouldn’t advise relying on cold water if using Extreme or Mountain House main meals as they did not rehydrate well and the latter’s ingredients separated.

Just like your nutritional needs, how you choose your freeze-dried meals is individual to you. There is no right or wrong so figure out what matters to you, try them out preferably under race conditions and voila you should have a menu fit for an ultra running king! It may mean a combination of brands, flavours and even real food options thrown into the mix but you can be confident it meets your very own race needs and desires.

Thanks to Expedition Foods, Extreme, Fuizion, Lyo and Mountain House for supplying a stash of their meals to sample for this review.

DOWNLOAD the comparison data here.

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“contrary to what many of you may believe, it’s not all about calories”

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