Almost half of food in Irish shopping baskets is ultra-processed

Future generations will look at today’s food consumption in the same way we view sending children up chimneys, says obesity expert

Future generations will look at today’s food consumption in the same way we view sending children up chimneys, obesity expert Prof Donal O’Shea has said. “Wind on 50 years and people will look back on current consumption and say, ‘really?’”

O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, was responding to a recent study ranking Ireland third highest in the consumption of ultra-processed foods among 19 European countries.

The study in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition said the Irish shopping basket contained 45.9 per cent ultra processed foods, making Ireland the third highest consumer after Britain (50.7 per cent) and Germany (46.2 per cent). Portugal and Italy had the lowest consumption levels at 10.2 per cent and 13.4 per cent respectively.

Ultra-processed foods contain, besides salts, sugars oils and fats, substances such as additives that imitate the taste and texture of foods prepared from scratch.


“Historically, Ireland has a very poor system of regulating the kind of foods that are marketed and the food industry is doing huge amounts of work marketing these hyper-convenient foods,” O’Shea said.

Our embracing of ultra-processed foods like cereals, sugary and savoury snacks, highly processed bread and ready meals and sauces, was down to “something in the Irish psyche”, he said. “We see it in our pattern of drinking, especially in our young people. We’re very much an all or nothing society.”

These foods were incredibly attractive from a food producer point of view, O’Shea said. “Darina Allen has this lovely phrase and I’ve used it in talks. She says: ‘when you go to the supermarket buy food, not ‘food-like products.’” Highly processed foods are calorie dense but not filling, he said. The food industry has been “very clever at making food actively less satiating. The less satiating the better because then you grow your market.”

‘Bliss points’

Food scientists had actively worked out “bliss points in terms of taste according to age, so it’s different for a three-year-old, an eight-year-old or a 50-year-old. This is not paranoia speaking on my part. It’s what they do. It’s what they have to do.”

He also said the food industry was “running amok” on social media aimed at young people “actively targeting ultra processed top shelf foods through social media,” an area that is “completely without regulation.”

Asked if the authors were overstating the damaging health effects of ultra processed foods he said the main problem with these foods was how full you felt after eating them.

“It is about total energy in and total energy out. If you get 150 kilocalories from an ultra processed food and 150 kilocalories from an apple and half a banana there is no difference to the effect on weight or your metabolic health. However an hour after eating your highly processed food you will need to have something else to eat, compared to two and a half hours after your banana and apple.”

O’Shea said the Government’s obesity policy action plan implementation group could look at calling for the reformulation of food products. We need “clearer language,” he said. Highly processed brown bread should be called “brown coloured bread,” he said to differentiate it from wholemeal brown soda bread. A socio-economic gulf was widening where the “better off and better educated are getting healthier,” while the worse off and poorly educated are becoming less healthy.

That entitlement to good taste and good quality is something the French have naturally. They see the point of it and seek it out

Food writer Trish Deseine, who lived and worked in France for years said the relatively low proportion of ultra processed foods in the French diet (at 14.2 per cent) was down to many things including the strength and viability of French markets and the continued culture of home cooking. “A lot of it is historic and cultural but I don’t think we should beat ourselves up over it and say ‘why can’t we be more like the French or the Portuguese?’

“The French are most ahead of us in terms of palate, having had exposure to what the pure simple taste of an ingredient is. And here that is the remit of the middle class foodie bubble of those who’ve travelled or have the means to go to a good restaurant or buy really good ingredients. That entitlement to good taste and good quality is something the French have naturally. They see the point of it and seek it out. It’s so egalitarian.”

Safefood’s chief specialist in nutrition, Dr Marian O’Reilly, said we could take a number of steps to increase fresh foods in our diet. O’Reilly said the topic of ultra processed foods had been “rumbling in the nutrition world for a while.” The study might overstate Ireland’s poor ranking compared to other European countries, “but we know from the [UK] National Diet and Nutrition Survey that intakes of processed food are higher than they should be. People aren’t consuming enough fruit and veg and the World Cancer Research Fund has recommended we limit processed meat because it is a known factor in colon cancer.”

Fresh produce

As consumers we have “a good understanding of these processed foods,” she said and we needed to “move back towards more fresh produce, where we take out the knife and chop up fruits and vegetables, use lean cuts of meat, so a lean piece of pork rather than a sausage.” People could add frozen vegetables into a ready meal to make it more healthy. “Small steps help. Everything doesn’t have to be absolutely from scratch.”

Dr Francis Finucane, consultant endocrinologist at Galway University Hospital, questioned the strength of the study, which used data from between a decade and 27 years ago, not all of it comparable across the 19 countries. He said policy makers should consider ways to change environmental determinants of diet at individual level, to try to persuade people to make responsible food choices and that meant marketing food and beverage products more honestly.

“We need legislation or an office to review the advertising of products and prevent companies from saying things that aren’t true ... The first thing that needs to be said in tackling obesity is eat less unhealthy food. It’s not about physical activity. What determines how overweight you are is how many bags of crisps and sugary drinks you consume.”

Neuroscientist Prof John Cryan of UCC said the figure on the Irish reliance on ultra processed food was “somewhat alarming” given what is beginning to emerge about the impact of these foods on gut bacteria. “Emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners have a really negative impact on the diversity of the microbiome and we have to remember these foods are also replacing a high fibre diet.”

Alternatives to ultra-processed foods 

Porridge oats are cheaper, healthier, perfect for cold mornings. Soaking the oats in water or milk overnight reduces the cooking time. Add nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dried fruit, a drizzle of maple syrup and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

For an alternative and cheaper pasta sauce fry a chopped onion gently in olive oil until it has softened. Add a tin of chopped tomatoes and a splash of vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Salad dressings
Make your own vinaigrette without the emulsifiers and other assorted gloop. Crush a garlic clove with some salt. Add a teaspoon of mustard to form a paste. Stir in olive oil and add cider vinegar to taste. Put the mix in a clean jam jar and top up with oil and vinegar to your tastes. Shake the jar each time to mix the oil and vinegar before using on salad.

Breadmakers have come on a lot since they popped out a slightly sad leaden loaf after hours of noisy churning. Add flour, yeast, salt and water switch on and the machine kneads and bakes your loaf. Cheaper still mix up a large batch of brown bread mix - wholegrain flour, bran and white flour. Store in a Tupperware container and when you want to bake tip the right amount into a bowl, add buttermilk (or yoghurt and milk) and a teaspoon of bread soda. Pop in a loaf tin and you've got homemade soda bread.

That handy bag of pre-grated cheese? There's potato starch in there to stop the cheese shreds clumping together. Buy a cheese grater, mind your fingers and grate your cheese from a block of good Irish farmhouse cheese.

Make them yourself. You can control how much sugar you add, use fruit as a sweetener and you'll only add one kind of sugar as opposed to several ingredients ending in "ose" ... dextrose, sucrose, fructose etc.

Ready meals
Avoid them by doubling or trebling the quantity when you have the time to cook and freezing portions in batches. Alternatively, Dr Marian O'Reilly, Safefood's chief specialist in nutrition, advises adding vegetables (fresh or frozen) into a ready meal to make it healthier and help it go further.