WE ARE WHAT WE EAT.
YES, IT'S AS BAD AS THAT.
This rumination first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in April 2018.
You are what you eat. And it’s a chastening thought. It was first uttered by the French writer on food, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as long ago as 1825. His actual words were: tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.
Well let’s put that question to the country at large. What is it that we Irish eat, what constitutes the greatest part of the national diet?
You might imagine that this is a difficult issue to interrogate.
After all, we are no longer entirely a people who have our dinner in the middle of the day, to quote former Taoiseach Enda Kenny. We are no longer the number one consumer of potatoes, having long given way to Belarus, a country that now also leads the world league for alcohol consumption; there was a time when we would have been contenders but, in fact, we have been drinking less and less alcohol in recent years.
As our consumption of potatoes declines and the notion of meat and three veg – all traditionally overcooked to the point of disintegration – being our dinner of choice, we are consuming more and more rice and pasta. We have long ago embraced the notion of spicy food, even what passes for Indian and Chinese in the average takeaway.
My grandparents would be astonished by what ordinary Irish citizens eat these days; they would be convinced that Ireland in 2018 was no longer the Emerald Isle but some strange alien planet with a similarly damp climate.
So, if we are what we eat, are we healthier, more discerning, more interested in cooking, properly concerned about what we put on our plates, what we feed to our children?
Well, frankly, no. Consider another league table, very recently published, this time of nineteen European countries and their consumption of highly processed foods.
And before we delve into the figures, let’s be clear that “highly processed” is not a vague yet judgemental phrase bandied about by food snobs or do-gooders who want to reform our diets.
In some quarters, particularly those close to Big Food, there’s a view that all such talk of processed and ultra-processed food is nonsense, that cooking an omelette is a form of food processing. Such people would probably argue that putting icing on a cake makes it ultra-processed.
In fact such terms have specific meanings under the NOVA classification which is used by the international Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other major bodies. Essentially “processed” runs from stuff that can be done in your average kitchen to certain relatively simple factory processes; “ultra-processed” involves stuff that you certainly won’t have in your store cupboard at home. And the domestic kitchen certainly doesn’t have the equipment, either.
So, where do we stand? We’re number three, after the processed food champions, Great Britain and the runners up, Germany. A little over 45% of food consumed in Ireland is ultra-processed; by contrast, the Portuguese diet contains a little less than 10% of such stuff.
What does this mean for us, for what government agencies like to call Ireland, The Food Island? It means a lot, and none of it good.
According to a recent report in the British Medical Journal, ultra-processed foods are increasingly linked to cancer. Even though the chemicals used in food processing are classified as “safe” within certain limits it would appear that when the human diet includes not just a handful of such substances but multiples of them in various combinations in a significant proportion of the food consumed, this has frightening implications for health.
It has also been claimed, recently, that processed foods have a negative impact on the gastrointestinal “flora” of beneficial bacteria that thrive only when a varied and relatively natural diet is followed.
It means something else, too. It means that Irish consumers are allowing themselves to be duped into eating – and even enjoying – products that are pale imitations of actual food. Think of those sausages that contain minimal meat, of ham that is mainly water, of bread that is largely air, of dairy and other “spreads” that require a laboratory of chemicals to make a risible parody of butter.
Butter that is made from cream and salt, full stop. And next time you buy bread, consider this. All you need to make bread (if you have the time and a little easily acquired skill) is flour, water, yeast and salt. Now look at the list of ingredients in your sliced pan. The chances are, you’re eating ultra-processed food.
Professor Moubrac of the University of Montreal, one of the authors of the 19 countries study, says this of industrial food: “The key ingredients are refined flours, cheap oils and fats, sugars, starches, protein isolates and salt… We are moving further and further away from food that nourishes us.”
It’s an unpleasant fact that the food industry is notorious for transforming the sow’s ear of cheap ingredients into the silk purse of ostensibly attractive and often addictive food. They don’t do this for the good of their health and certainly not for the good of ours.
Food processing is sometimes presented as a kind of technological triumph, part of humankind’s irrepressible impetus to feed the hungry and generally improve our lot.
By and large, the food processing industry is hell bent on one thing: profit. And there’s nothing wrong, in itself, with that. It’s what makes the world go around.
But when quality and wholesomeness becomes subservient to profit, we consumers suffer. We are fed products made with inferior raw materials treated in such a way to make them look much more attractive than they actually are. Fat and sugar and salt are added in quantities unthinkable in homemade food. Shelf-life is enhanced, using substances most of which no home cook has ever heard of; have you ever added a dash of humectant to your sponge cake? Of course not, you will have it eaten up before it goes stale; you are not planning on keeping it moist for a month.
You can’t blame the many decent people who are short of money and time, with small children to feed, for being seduced by the convenience and the false promise of highly processed food. We should never forget that a shocking number of people are eating just to survive, not for actual pleasure, and certainly not as the luxury of cultural experience.
However, something needs to be done to reduce our dependence on food products – I hesitate to say “food” – that are both duping us and, it would appear, making us sick.
If we are what we eat, then logically we’re a nation of couch potatoes gorging on chemically-manipulated refined flours, cheap oils and fats, sugars, starches, protein isolates and salt, to use Professor Moubrac’s list. My grandparents’ generation wouldn’t recognise half of what’s eaten these days, as food.
If we are to reverse this, we need to teach children how to cook. Nothing elaborate, just a few basics, empowering them to have control over what they eat. And, as a people, we need to interrogate what we eat. To look at that list of ingredients and ask why? Ask is this for my benefit, or for the manufacturer’s?
Ask, above all, do we want to our children to discover, in time, that we fed them inferior, manipulated, ultra-processed, ultimately harmful food because we just lacked the concern, the curiosity, the care that our national diet deserves?