Irish shopping basket contains 45.9% ultra-processed foods.

The food industry has been “very clever at making food actively less satiating.

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Future generations will look at today’s food consumption in the same way we view sending children up chimneys, obesity expert Prof Donal O’Shea has said. “Wind on 50 years and people will look back on current consumption and say, ‘really?’”

O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, was responding to a recent study ranking Ireland third highest in the consumption of ultra-processed foods among 19 European countries. The study in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition said the Irish shopping basket contained 45.9 per cent ultra processed foods, making Ireland 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.

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“Historically, Ireland has a very poor system of regulating the kind of foods that are marketed and the food industry is doing huge amounts of work marketing these hyper-convenient foods,” O’Shea said.

Our embracing of ultra-processed foods like cereals, sugary and savoury snacks, highly processed bread and ready meals and sauces, was down to “something in the Irish psyche”, he said. “We see it in our pattern of drinking, especially in our young people. We’re very much an all or nothing society.”

These foods were incredibly attractive from a food producer point of view, O’Shea said. “Darina Allen has this lovely phrase and I’ve used it in talks. She says: ‘when you go to the supermarket buy food, not ‘food-like products.’” Highly processed foods are calorie dense but not filling, he said. The food industry has been “very clever at making food actively less satiating. The less satiating the better because then you grow your market.”

‘Bliss points’

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Food scientists had actively worked out “bliss points in terms of taste according to age, so it’s different for a three-year-old, an eight-year-old or a 50-year-old. This is not paranoia speaking on my part. It’s what they do. It’s what they have to do.”

He also said the food industry was “running amok” on social media aimed at young people “actively targeting ultra processed top shelf foods through social media,” an area that is “completely without regulation.”

Asked if the authors were overstating the damaging health effects of ultra processed foods he said the main problem with these foods was how full you felt after eating them.

“It is about total energy in and total energy out. If you get 150 kilocalories from an ultra processed food and 150 kilocalories from an apple and half a banana there is no difference to the effect on weight or your metabolic health. However an hour after eating your highly processed food you will need to have something else to eat, compared to two and a half hours after your banana and apple.”

O’Shea said the Government’s obesity policy action plan implementation group could look at calling for the reformulation of food products. We need “clearer language,” he said. Highly processed brown bread should be called “brown coloured bread,” he said to differentiate it from wholemeal brown soda bread. A socio-economic gulf was widening where the “better off and better educated are getting healthier,” while the worse off and poorly educated are becoming less healthy.

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