Irish families turn junk food into staples of shopping basket
Pricewatch: Average Irish family spends a fifth of its food budget on ‘treats’
Jayna McCloskey (9) and Max Barrett (9) at the launch of Safefood’s report, which shows that families with children spent on average €1,037 last year on highly processed food such as crisps, chocolate and sweets.
News that the average Irish family spends 20 per cent of its food budget on so-called treats full of sugar and fat and empty of nutrition is shocking and depressing and doesn’t even paint the full bleak picture of what children are eating.
The news was contained in a report jointly published by Safefood, the Health Service Executive and Healthy Ireland, and published earlier this month. Although it is pretty comprehensive, it does not include any spending outside of the “big shop” in a supermarket, so all money spent on treats at the cinema or in the corner shop, garage forecourt or fast-food restaurant has not yet been counted.
The consequence of consuming all the empty calories found in processed food is plain to see and is leading directly to dangerously high levels of obesity, type-2 diabetes and cancer.
Families with children spent on average €1,037 in 2017 on highly processed food such as crisps, chocolate and sweets and just €521 on fruit and only €346 on vegetables
Its findings may also explain why as many as 85,000 of the children on the island of Ireland today will die prematurely due to overweight and obesity.
The report shows that families with children spent on average €1,037 last year on highly processed food such as crisps, chocolate and sweets and just €521 on fruit and only €346 on vegetables. Chocolate and sweets made up the largest portion of the treat spending pie on €228 while a further €199 was spent on sugary drinks and the annual biscuits breakdown was put at €161, with the cost of crisps put at €129.
“These foods, which are full of empty calories are now a staple in our weekly shop,” said Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition at Safefood, at the time of the report’s publication. “We accept them as the norm in our children’s daily diet and they are not seen as a real treat any more.”
She said the balance was “all wrong” and families were “under-consuming the vital nutrients in fruit and vegetables because highly processed foods “were everywhere, at all times of the year and are so cheap. it’s no wonder that we are finding it difficult to not overindulge our children and ourselves.”
Her comments echoed a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition which found that the Irish shopping basket contained 45.9 per cent ultra-processed foods, making it 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.
It wasn’t always like this.
While Pricewatch is always reluctant to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, it remembers being a child of the 1970s and 1980s as a time when treats were genuinely treats. There was no treat cupboard and soft drinks appeared only at Christmas time. Bars of chocolate and crisps had to be bought with pocket money.
We’d be lying if we said Child Pricewatch was delighted by the treat austerity and had we had the choice we would have lived on a diet of Chomps and Tayto and Star Bars washed down with Coke and a side order of Soda Stream. But we didn’t have the choice and we were better for it.
It appears to have been the same story in the childhood home of obesity expert Prof Donal O’Shea, who marvels at the widespread availability of treats in our world today. He describes the findings of the report as “depressing” and says they point to a need to “change the argument”. He believes instead of simply highlighting the negatives associated with junk food we should be stressing the positives associated with alternatives.
He believes the report indicates “the scale of the success of the food industry” in promoting unhealthy alternatives and he says to counter that consumers need to be constantly reminded that “unprocessed foods are good while so-called treat foods have virtually nothing of value in them. If the good foods are not in the house then they can’t be eaten.”
You hear people saying to their children that if they are good then they will get a treat despite the fact that there is nothing good about treats
Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School is equally downbeat about the report’s findings and says it reveals “how few people connect the food that they eat with their health and their well-being”.
She says that every time she has banged the drum of “eating real food” she has been dismissed in some quarters as elitist. “People will say they can’t afford quality food but I believe we all make time and money for what we think is important. Why is it that people are prepared to spend money on every goddamn thing out there yet they won’t spend money on food? It seems to be a long way down many people’s list of priorities.”
She says one of the reasons why there seems to be a growing and insatiable appetite for treat food is that people are increasingly unable to cook. “We have to get people cooking again, the health of the nation depends on it.
She expresses amazement that “a treat cupboard now seems to be standard in most Irish homes. You hear people saying to their children that if they are good then they will get a treat despite the fact that there is nothing good about treats.”
What alarms her most is that we appear to be happily forgetting how to look after ourselves. “I think we have two generations who have just lost the skill of being able to cook, and the more deskilled we become, the more we are pushed into the hands of multinationals who are making processed food. The less we can do for ourselves the more they like it.”
‘How much plastic crap do we need?’
We asked people on Twitter if they were surprised by the findings of the report and what they thought it said about us.
“Shocked! probably spend about €70 on fruit, veg and meat per week. €4 goes on sweets to last the week. Now there is the odd sneaky bar here and there. . . Can’t understand how people spend more on junk!” Ann Doherty
“Could well be an overcompensation from generations past whereby there was genuinely very little to be had by way of treats; but more than likely a further example of how things in society now are disposable and fleeting with an unfortunate laziness inherent.” James O Keeffe
“I normally try to buy well but pressure from teens means we need to have junk on standby. Overall I think junk is probably cheaper/quicker than stuff that takes an effort. Our priorities are wrong, I suppose.” Hugh Chaloner
“It means that the Government has no interest in putting producers in their place. What do we get? A sugar tax. Same with waste, companies are not held to account and costs are pushed to the customer! How much plastic crap do we need?!” Sliabh Bae
“Can we make home economics, or a form of it, a mandatory subject all throughout secondary school? Learning how to cook healthily would certainly help create better habits in eating and a healthier society.” Ciarán O’ Driscoll
“I love my junk but would guess that my spend on fruit and veg definitely exceeds my spend on junk every week. When there were six of us in the house I had to ration the fruit.” Siobhan Klimmek
“Pure laziness! Fruit and veg is so cheap. Okay maybe you are not getting organic/best qual in Lidl etc but it’s better than junk food!” Emma Fagan