In defence of people who don't have the time or the cash to cook from scratch
The latest food survey condemning the high level of utra-processed foods in our shopping baskets should be taken with a pinch of salt
According to a new survey, our average shop contains a whopping 45.9% ultra-processed foods. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times
For a long time we’ve basked in surveys that show that Ireland is one of the best places to live in the world; we’ve read that the Irish are among the happiest, friendliest people on Earth. However, this week things aren’t looking so good. Our national broadband strategy is in tatters, the Dáil looks like an episode of The Riordans, and now it seems we could be heading for a collective stroke due to our abysmal food choices.
Nutritionally speaking, we’re on the naughty step, with nearly half the national shopping basket made up of ultra-processed food. According to a survey of surveys, published in a special issue of the Journal of Public Health Nutrition, our average shop contains a whopping 45.9 per cent ultra-processed foods, making Ireland the third-highest consumer of such foods after Britain (50.7 per cent) and Germany (46.2 per cent).
Meanwhile, Portugal (can it do no wrong?) comes out bottom of the table, in a good way, with just 10.2 per cent of its shopping basket made up of highly processed food (the rest is presumably sardines and custard tarts).
What’s ultra-processed? It’s food that’s heavy on salts, sugar, oils and fats, food that has been factory-made to imitate a delicious meal but with real ingredients missing.
Think Pot “Noodles” where the noodles are mostly fat, or a chicken nugget that has barely any chicken in it. A breakfast cereal that’s predominantly sugar. It’s food that comes from a facility rather than a farm, with dollops of chemical flavouring that leave you hungry for more – like Dorito dust.
It’s disappointing to see ourselves near the top of the league here. The Irish food scene is booming, with fresh food producers all over the country excelling in the quality and creativity of their products.
There’s wonderful meat, great milk, cream and cheese, fabulous fish and an abundance of fruit and veg to be had. There’s a good news story in the confidence of Irish chefs who are winning awards internationally and creating a buzz at home with new eateries and fresh ideas. New Irish cuisine is something to be proud of.
Ireland's food problem needs to be looked at in tandem with other issues
But a different story is being played out in supermarkets and convenience stores across the land, where frazzled shoppers are making poor food choices because they don’t have the time or the money to do things differently. Yes, I do realise that nutritious meals can be cooked from scratch for about the price of a frozen pizza, if you have the knowhow and the hours to spare. A lot of people just don’t.
Try making a decent vegetable soup from scratch that tastes good and that children will eat. All that chopping and sweating and the result can be bland or even downright unpleasant, depending on the turnip/parsnip ratio.
A homemade pasta sauce? Great if you have some quality ingredients on standby – tinned tomatoes, pine nuts, olive oil, anchovies, pecorino and so on – but again, lots of effort and no little expense to come up with something delicious when there is a perfectly ok jar at hand.
The mania for celebrity cookbooks and TV chef shows has given us all an idea of what good food is, but the trouble is that we’re watching and reading but clearly not doing enough of the real thing.
Good food has been elevated to an art form by all the pizzazz – the glistening cookbook photography, the luscious Insta shots – but cooking is a craft, not an art, and it needs dedication and practice. So a real ragu sauce cooked for hours is far superior to something concocted in a factory, but tell that to someone who has been marinating in a cubicle all day, who has to scurry to collect a child from the creche, who has a punishing commute, and who can barely muster up the energy to boil some pasta and add some, possibly ultra-processed, goop.
The skill needed to make cheap cuts of meat sing, or to make a lovely cheese sauce or a fresh apple dessert, is not one that’s being encouraged among young parents. They’ve too much on their minds, what with working like crazy to meet the rent or mortgage payments, paying for decent childcare and keeping the health insurance up if they possibly can.
Our mothers worked wonders with potatoes, veg, chops, mince, some class of fish on Fridays and a Sunday roast, but that kind of cuisine, carried out by an army of stay-at-home women, is dead, largely replaced by easy to assemble meals with an Italian twist.
Oh, we are awful – killing ourselves and setting our kids on the road to obesity, one bowl of Coco Pops at a time
Cooks like Lilly Higgins of this parish are showing the way, suggesting practical, easy recipes that don’t need too many ingredients, but sometimes there’s just no time to cook. Thank God for porridge , a hero food that got a lot of people through the recession and is the mainstay of many millennial diets – with the obligatory sprinkling of seeds and nuts.
Surveys of this kind stoke a kind of national scorn for ourselves that is never far from the surface and that goes hand in hand with the self-destruct gene that makes us drink and eat to excess. Oh, we are awful – killing ourselves and setting our kids on the road to obesity, one bowl of Coco Pops at a time.
But the problem needs to be looked at in tandem with other issues, such as the abysmal lack of affordable housing near employment centres, and precarious employment contracts that make people nervous and afraid.
Never go shopping when you are hungry, as the old Weight Watchers mantra goes. But don’t go when you’re stressed and time-pressed either, or you’ll never choose cabbage over carbonara.