Over half Irish calorie intake coming from ultra-processed foods

An alarming 52% of the energy intake of Irish people is coming from ultra-processed foods (UPFs), according to research (Murrin et al., 2017). A more recent study put it bluntly:

“There is growing evidence to suggest that the disconnect between Irish society and the land is contributing to a decline in food system sustainability, with diets increasingly reliant on ultra-processed foods and less on fresh, whole foods. This trend has serious implications for both public health and the environment, as ultra-processed foods are often high in calories, salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, and their production is associated with environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions” (p. 342).

It’s against the backdrop of the climate crisis and a burgeoning strain on the health service that the Climate Aware Seasonal Kitchen (CASK) project got underway, with partners gathering on the Greek island of Crete to see how their famed food tradition might bring Ireland back from the brink, to its once-healthy relationship with the land.

A 2010 study, “The Mediterranean Diet and Health: A Systematic Review,” (Sofi et al.), showed that the Cretan diet is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases, as well as with improved cognitive function and mental health. The authors state that:

“The Mediterranean diet, and in particular the Cretan version of the diet, has been associated with a lower mortality and morbidity from several chronic diseases. This is due to its high content of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber, and low content of animal fat and red meat” (p. 1).

Moreover, the Cretan diet is environmentally sustainable, as it relies on local, seasonal foods and emphasises plant-based proteins. This reduces the carbon footprint of the diet and supports local agriculture. A 2021 study, “Sustainability of the Mediterranean Diet: A Systematic Review,” (Chatzopoulou et al.), found that the Cretan diet is associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and land use, compared to Western-style diets.

In addition, the Cretan diet fosters a strong connection to the land and local food traditions, promoting food sovereignty and cultural heritage. This is particularly pertinent in the wake of the supply chain difficulties experienced during the pandemic, and can help counteract the trend towards processed foods and industrialised agriculture. As noted by Tsiouris et al. (2017) in their article “The Mediterranean Diet in a World Context,” the Cretan diet reflects the cultural values of the region, including respect for nature, social connection, and a focus on pleasure in food.

The EU-funded CASK project, therefore, is examining the Cretan diet is a model that could help address the problem of disconnection from the land and reliance on ultra-processed foods, promoting both health and environmental sustainability. This doesn’t mean that the Irish partners will start shipping feta in by the shipload. It is the ethos of the diet that they are working with Irish chefs to capture. By emphasising fresh, local, plant-based foods and cultural heritage, the Cretan diet could provide a path towards more sustainable food systems.

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