Processing our food CHOICES
ALMOST half of all food bought by families in Ireland is now “ultra-processed”. A total of 45.9% of Irish families’ diets are made up of such foods: Sugary cereals, industrially made breads, ready meals, and reconstituted meats. The study containing these findings has just been published in the Journal of Public
Health Nutrition, which surveyed 19 European countries.
Dieticians and cancer researchers here are not all that alarmed by the research for several reasons, including terminology, socioeconomic conditions, and lifestyle factors.
“We are using very broad terms and then putting all breads, for example, into it. Flour comes from a grain that has undergone a process. So we need to be careful what it is we are actually talking about,” Sarah Keogh, dietician and founder of Eat Well, tells Feelgood. “You could have a processed cereal that has vitamins added and for a low-income family this is a very important product.”
People’s social and economic situations play a major role in their food choices, she says, therefore, we cannot afford to “condemn” processed foods. “Fresh food is great if you’re middle class and have lots of time, but sometimes ready meals are the only option for people. We are having very middle-class conversations about nutrition, talking about blueberries and avocados when there are people living in horrific social situations.
“We need to really understand what is going on in people’s lives before we condemn ultra-processed foods.”
On a daily basis, of people aged between 18 and 64, 78% consume white bread, 66% eat cheese, 65% consume syrups or preserves, 62% eat biscuits, 61% consume ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, and 47% eat meat products or some form of processed meats. This is according to the National Adult Nutrition Survey carried out by the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance.
Keogh points out that several “easy-toeat” or processed foods contain macro and micronutrients that people should bear in mind while shopping. “People often look at what is easy to eat. A yogurt is easy to eat and it contains iodine, calcium, B12, and protein. If it is a plain yoghurt then any sugars are naturally occurring.
“The consumption of wholegrain breads, when eaten in reasonable amounts, have been linked to a little less breast cancer and a little less heart disease. Cheese has also undergone a process but it contains calcium, B vitamins, and protein.”
The dietician also points out that “ultraprocessed foods” alone might not be the problem. “Is it the ultra-processed foods that are the problem or is it that you’re not eating fruit and vegetables and wholefoods that are protective?”
In terms of protection against illness, another recently published study found that ultra-processed foods could be linked with an increased risk of cancer.
The study, published in the British Medical
Journal, found that a 10% increase in ultra-processed food intake was associated with a 12% increased risk of overall cancer.
Dr Robert O’Connor, head of research at the Irish Cancer Society, says we need to interpret the study cautiously. “We have to be cautious in interpreting this kind of association study and it doesn’t mean that we should completely avoid all ultra-processed foods to reduce our risk of cancer,” he tells Feelgood.
“This paper clearly indicated that other lifestyle factors were very important in understanding the findings. For example, the data clearly shows that those with higher levels of processed food intake were also more likely to be smokers and exercise less, two lifestyle factors which we know increase the risks of several common cancers.”
Overall, Irish people are mindful of their health and the role that nutrition plays in it. In the aforementioned National Adult Nutrition Survey, taste (41%) followed by health and nutrition (36%) were considered the most important motives by the majority (77%) of adults living in Ireland.
With the advent of technology, we are accessing information on food and recipes from more and more places and major national influencers come from different sources. These include food journalist Suzanne Campbell, blogger and social media influencer Roz Purcell, and founders of the Ballymaloe Cookery School Darina Allen and Rory O’Connell.
However, taste and nutrition aside, according to August 2017 research from Kantar World Panel, 38% of us say price is the “most important” factor when buying groceries, with 72% “shopping around” to make sure we get the best offers.
TROLLEY CHECK: A study has found a link between an increase in ultra-processed food intake and the risk of developing cancer.