The recent RTE documentary by Philip Boucher Hayes was eye opening to say the least. As part of the Heart/Land series of programmes screened in May the premise was to rejoice in the land and landscape and explore life in the 21st Century. If I’m honest at the start of the programme I felt we had little to rejoice about. In this documentary Journalist Philip Boucher Hayes took a look inside Ireland’s shopping basket. Armed with information from a national nutrition survey and data from 3,000 households’ food shopping receipts, he argued that we are damaging our health, our economy and our society by what we eat and the way we shop.
In the programme he asserted that a lot of the food the average family eats today is far removed from its origins. It is highly processed and globally produced and this is neither healthy nor economic good sense. He delved into a number of Ireland’s most popular foodstuffs, from chicken to processed pork, and revealed some very unpalatable truths about where they come from and what they’re doing to our health. He went on to discuss how we have been weaned on to a diet of cheap food and the competition between retailers to hold market share is putting serious pressure on many of those that supply our food. It was all very thought provoking indeed.
Some of the facts that emerged were that 43% of the contents of the average Irish shopping basket are made up of highly processed foods. Sausages and sliced ham were considered offenders along with breaded fish. Statistics show that for every €1 spent on fruit and vegetables we spend €1.50 on processed foods. The great Irish staple, the humble spud, has seen consumption drop by 50% over the past 10 years while carbonated drinks consumption has increased dramatically. With these figures it is no wonder that the problem with obesity and related illnesses is getting out of control.
We love salt apparently. So much so that even though it is no longer necessary for preservation, given the advances in refrigeration, processors still inject bacon and ham with brine to maintain the salty taste we have become used to. Of course they are not doing it purely to pander to our tastes, but because it can add 20% to the weight and increase the shelf life; in other words while it makes little health sense it makes lots of euro cents! Studies have shown that consumption of processed meats can increase the risk of bowel cancer; the second highest form of cancer in Ireland.
However outside of the processed food argument I think what was more depressing was the fact that food imports have practically doubled in a short few years. Sadly we are importing foods that can be produced here. The bottom line is money and these items are purchased more cheaply thousands of miles away and flown in. It is a massive hurdle to climb and one that is a constant battle for consumers. A friend of mine recently quoted a simple case of trying to buy Irish scallions in her local supermarket. She was faced with the choice of paying €1.39 for the Irish bunch or €1.09 for the foreign imports. Her conscience plumped for the more expensive Irish ones, but the reality is that not everyone is in a financial position to choose. Cost, value and taste are the constant juggling factors for all retailers and producers. Keeping those three balls in the air satisfactorily can be next to impossible.
Overall the picture was quite distressing but rather than see it as prophetic and full of doom I like to think it was a wake up call to us all. Education is key and the irony is that with all our modern knowledge and information we have been left very, very confused. It’s time to simplify and get back to basics; my cry from this column since it started. Rather than getting bogged down in what we shouldn’t be doing let’s look instead at what we should be doing; simply eating real food! Of course the difficulty lies in the statement and the word ‘real’. Just because it is edible and fit for consumption doesn’t make it real.
Probably one of the better books I have read on the subject was a small slim tome entitled Food Rules by Michael Pollan published by Penguin. This little manual for eating is rich in food wisdom, full of humour and is very unassuming. There are 64 rules that will help you navigate the stormy seas of crazy diets and conflicting health advice. It brings clarity and simplicity to our daily decisions about food and gives us easy guidelines for eating and shopping; putting the pleasure back into food once more. For example: Rule 19 is “If it came from a plant eat it, if it was made in a plant don’t”. Rule 10 “Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not” Imitation butter and artificial sweeteners fall into this category. Rule 8 “Avoid food products that make health claims”. Michael Pollan’s wisdom behind this is that for a product to carry a health claim on its packaging it must first have a package, making it more likely to have been processed. Much of the best food in a supermarket, the fresh produce, doesn’t come in packages. Rule 27, “Eat animals that have themselves eaten well”. You can’t expect an unhealthy animal to produce healthy meat. I can’t speak for everyone but I can stand over the food I produce and sell. All our beef is grass fed and, I’m happy to say, some of our customers have to travel further than the meat does to our shop!
We certainly need to rethink our position on food but we have to educate ourselves and our children about food. We are an intelligent and progressive people so it won’t be hard. Well done to Philip Boucher Hayes for highlighting the problem but now let’s learn and turn from our obvious folly. I welcome your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Food Market Monkstown and Avoca Rathcoole. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers