By Nick Moloney
Ireland’s eating habits are certainly far from any sort of ‘Gold Standard’ and according to a recent survey, we are the third biggest consumer of “Ultra processed” foods in Europe.
Is this surprising? I mean, Tallaght is home to one of the busiest Domino’s Pizza in the world. Yes, a town with 278,749 people is literally out eating the rest of the world in pizza.
If some of the recently published surveys are to go by, we really do have a problem. In 2016, a national survey that looked at 900 people found that one in five are eating processed foods at least three times a week (If you include fast food takeaways the figure increases to one in three).
The most worrying aspect of this study is that some scientists have suggested links between consumption of ultra-processed foods to cancer, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The biggest issue with these foods isn’t that people are eating them while living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. In the research paper, it suggested that the coupling of other lifestyle choices like, not exercising enough and smoking regularly while consuming too much processed food led to higher risks of cancer and other related diseases.
The survey carried out in 2016 by The Wholefood Revolution, an Irish recipe box service provider estimated that eight out of ten hospital admissions are because of lifestyle related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes.
It also showed that two-thirds of us eat less than five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The “5-a-day” rule was never set out as a maximum effort, it is actually the minimum you should be eating a day.
Do not fear. To help you through this sinister mess The Edition teamed up with DIT’s Nutrition Society who did some research into the ins and outs of ultra-processed foods, how to avoid them and why.
According to Sarah Nagel, who conducted the research alongside other members of the Nutrition soc, we must first look at the difference between processed and ultra-processed food.
“‘Processed’ foods are any food that has been altered in some way during production…. an ultra-processed food is one made from complex processing techniques with substances rarely found in the kitchen,” Sarah said.
A ‘processed’ food can mean they were, frozen, canned or that ingredients like salts, sugar and flavourings have been added. This is done for reasons like improved shelf life, convenience when cooking and even just to add colour to an otherwise colourless food.
Examples of these foods include: Breakfast cereals, tinned and frozen vegetables, bread, crisps, chocolate, sweets and flavoured milks.
What makes a processed food an ‘ultra’ is the use of flavourings and additives. This category of food is usually of poorer nutritional value and provide empty calories.
“They tend to be higher in salt, sugar and fat for example cakes, chocolate, crisps,
packet soups and noodles and, readymade meals. Try to avoid over-reliance on processed
meats as they tend to be high in salt, fat and nitrates like burgers, cured meats or meat
products,” Sarah said.
However, Sarah also acknowledges: “It is important that our diet is varied and well-balanced so that we get essential nutrients to keep us healthy. While yoghurts, cereals and frozen vegetables among others are considered ‘processed’ foods they are an important part of the diet and should not be excluded.”
Tips and tricks to a healthier lifestyle
The Nutrition Soc comprised some tips to keeping us on the right track throughout our day.
When out shopping:
- Make a shopping list and stick to it.
- Don’t be tempted by marketing ploys in shops i.e. convenience foods and treats at the checkouts, luxuries are at eye level.
- Use fresh produce where possible i.e. fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
- Avail of special offers and reductions in fresh produce.
- Choose own-brand as these tend to be more affordable yet of similar nutritional quality.
- Avoid shopping when hungry as you tend to choose foods that are more processed with higher fat, sugar and salt contents than you would if you weren’t hungry.
- Read labels and look out for the traffic light symbol – this highlights food which are high in fat, sugar or salt and marks them as red.
When cooking remember:
- Double the recipe and freeze portions to avoid opting for readymade alternatives
- Mix and match fresh ingredients with processed ingredients i.e. pasta bake which uses cooked ham and pasta, Bolognese which mixes tinned tomatoes with fresh mincemeat and vegetables
- Avoid adding salt during preparation – instead opt for pepper, herbs, spices and seasonings
- Base sauces and dressings on fresh produce and avoid reliance on high salt and fat shop-bought alternatives
- Use the food pyramid as a guide when planning meals.
With Special thanks to Nutrition Soc, Sarah Nagel and contributors to the research: Rachel Lee, Nicole Desmond, Maria Kennedy, Aine Rouine, Aebhin Sheridan, Mary Mahon, Ingrid Brockie and Lisa Murphy.