Ireland’s growing appetite for fast food
We spend more on fast food than 19 European countries – but is fast food the main cause of obesity?
We like our chips. And burgers, kebabs, snack boxes and whatever you’re having yourself. Irish people spent more money per head on fast food than 19 other European countries in 2012, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.
Defining fast food as food bought from counter service for immediate consumption, it calculated that we spent a whopping €322 per head on this food, compared with the next-most enthusiastic fast-food aficionados in Finland, who spent €294.50. The UK came next at €278.80.
In total, we spent €1.44 billion in outlets selling fast food in 2012. Euromonitor predicts this will increase to €1.5 billion by 2017. That’s a whole lot of cheeseburgers, taco fries and spicy chicken wraps.
The figures wouldn’t surprise David O’Laoghaire. He does weekend security work at fast-food outlets and sees many of the same faces every Saturday night. “I’m no slim Jim myself, but when I look at some people I do think, you could do with not eating here so much,” he says. “But I also see other women coming in every Saturday night and they have hourglass figures, not a pick on them. So you see all sorts.”
He usually eats at the restaurant before going home. “Generally it’s a snack box, chicken and chips, occasionally a sausage thrown in there for luck too.”
He forgoes fizzy drinks for water. “It’s not the greatest thing to be doing, eating that late at night, but the hunger is kicking in by that stage and I’ve generally a 30- to 40-minute drive ahead of me.”
‘A treat at the end of the week’
Martin Lavery, who lives in Dundalk, gets a takeaway every Saturday night. “It could be a Chinese, pizza or the chip shop. It’s a treat at the end of the week.”
Is he concerned about the calorie content of the meals? “No, it wouldn’t bother me, to be honest. It’s just once a week.”
You might assume that McDonald’s has the biggest share of our fast-food market. Not so. The Musgrave Group, which includes SuperValu, Centra and most recently Superquinn, held a 14.2 per cent share of the fast-food market in Ireland in 2012, according to Euromonitor. All those sausage rolls, wedges and rolls that people queue up to buy at lunch hour meant sales in its hot-food and sandwich counters easily dwarfed the fast-food giants. Spar and Londis had the next-biggest shares.
Abrakebabra was the first fast-food chain to appear on the list, in fourth place, commanding a market share of 3.8 per cent. There are just 35 Abrakebabra outlets, but the group owns 150 stores in total, including O’Briens, Chick King and the Bagel Factory outlets, all of which fall into the fast-food category.
Subway comes next, followed by Supermac’s. The latter chain, with a 2.9 per cent market share, is the biggest indigenous fast-food chain. McDonald’s comes next with a 2.5 per cent market share.
Who is buying it?
So who is buying all this fast food? It’s 1.30pm on a sunny Thursday and the lunchtime rush is in full swing on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. There are several fast-food outlets on the street, including Burger King, McDonald’s and Supermac’s, so it’s as good a place as any to check out the customers.
McDonald’s is by far the busiest outlet, with 22 people ordering, waiting for food or scanning the menu. The age group is from late teens to early 30s, and just one toddler is spotted. McDonald’s says the Big Mac is its most popular item in Ireland and this is borne out by the trays of food that pass by. This outlet also has a cafe selling drinks and bakery products, but the main demand is for hot food at this time.
McDonald’s has 84 restaurants in the State. Asked if we have different tastes to our European neighbours, the company says Irish consumers have “very discerning tastes” and are particularly interested in locally sourced food. It says demand has grown in areas such as wraps, salads, coffee and breakfast, and it has added Flahavan’s porridge to its breakfast menu.
Burger King is the quietest of the three outlets on the day we call, with eight people hovering around the till area. Almost every tray seems to contain a burger. It has just introduced a new crinkle-cut chip, which it says has 30 per cent less fat than its competitors’ fries.
A giant rabbit is standing outside Supermac’s, advertising the chain’s milkshake range and offering free balloons. Inside, about 14 people are studying the massive menu board. It has a wide choice of food, including pizza, chicken, fish and burger products. There are at least eight varieties of fries, from coleslaw fries to the unusual combination of curry and cheese fries. The latter offering is growing in popularity, according to Supermac’s founder Pat McDonagh. We’ll take his word for it.
He says the chicken-breast sandwich has been the most popular item on the menu for the past four or five years. Supermac’s has 103 restaurants, including three in Northern Ireland, and McDonagh is planning to open one in Sydney.
McDonagh says Supermac’s has an older customer base than its rivals, and he notices an increased demand for fish during Lent. The higher age profile is evident on our visit to the O’Connell Street branch, where the age range extends to people in their 60s. The busiest Supermac’s outlet is still Eyre Square in Galway.
But what about the overweight elephant in the room – obesity? Not surprisingly, McDonagh doesn’t accept the argument that fast food causes obesity. “I often say, ‘Look at our staff’. Most of them eat the food every day when they are working and none of them are obese, because they are busy and they exercise. If you eat a lot of any type of food you are going to put on weight. There has to be a balance.”
Calories on menus
Supermac’s shows calories on its menus, but McDonagh doesn’t think it has made much difference. “At this time of year people are going on diets and are conscious of calories, but if people are out at night time and want to enjoy themselves, they won’t be thinking about calories.”
But Prof Mary Flynn, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s chief specialist in public health nutrition, believes calories on menus do make a difference.
Calories on menus became mandatory for many food businesses in the US in recent years, and she says studies show about 15 per cent of consumers use the information. “Of the 15 per cent who do use the information, they take about 100 calories less. So you are enabling 15 per cent of consumers to make a healthier choice.”
She says some people have no idea that they could be consuming almost their daily calorific needs in one meal, when drinks and desserts are included. “If you ask people how many calories they need in a day, some people say, ‘Oh, 8,000?’, and other people say 100,” she says.
Men need about 2,500 calories a day, while women need 2,000.
Last month, the World Health Organisation published a study that linked an increased number of fast-food purchases with an increased body mass index (BMI). A person with a BMI of more than 25 is overweight, and is obese if it’s more than 30. The study looked at 25 countries, including Ireland, and found that the average number of annual fast-food transactions per head rose from 26.61 to 32.76 between 1999 and 2008, while the average BMI rose from 25.8 to 26.4. Ireland was third only to Canada and Australia for the sharpest increase in fast-food transactions. The authors said governments could slow the rate of obesity by taking measures to counter fast-food consumption.
Subway, which provides calories on its menus, says 43 per cent of its product sales come from its low-fat range, and six of its 10 best-selling sandwiches are in the low-fat range. However, its best-selling sandwich between last May and September was the Italian BMT, which stands for Big Meaty Tasty and is clearly not a low-calorie product. It includes pepperoni, salami and ham, and a six-inch sub clocks in at 396 calories before sauces are added.
But Subway says Irish consumers have a greater preference for healthier options than consumers abroad. “We’ve also seen an increase in consumption of fresh salad items on our subs,” a spokesman says.
UCD professor of food and health Mike Gibney believes fast food is a convenient scapegoat for our obesity problem. “McDonald’s in particular is a popular whipping boy because it’s corporate. It’s easy to blame.”
Gibney says there are many overweight judges, politicians and academics who do not eat fast food. “We get overweight in different ways: eating out, booze, sandwiches, travel. So if you want to solve the problem you have to look at all of the causes and not pick the one that’s popular and easy.”
He believes the obesity problem will only be solved by making public health part of a Haddington Road-style agreement and working with employers to improve healthy eating. He cites incentives such as offering staff time off to go to the gym, providing health checks and subsidising gym membership. “Tackling smoking in pubs came from the environment of work. That’s how this could be solved.”
Flynn agrees that the obesity problem is far wider than fast-food consumption but believes putting calories on menus is an important tool in the battle of the bulge. Some 75 per cent of fast-food chains have added calories to their menus or are in the process of doing so. “And if 15 per cent of their consumers are reducing calories then, yes, it has to be worth it,” she says.
FAST FOOD NATIONS: PER CAPITA SPEND IN 2012
Source: Euromonitor survey