The New Food Rules
There was a good discussion last week on the Irish Times Women's Podcast with Darina Allen, Irish Times Journalist Catherine Cleary, restauranteur Domini Kemp and Jane Russell (Jane Russell's Original Handmade Sausages), and I thought it would be interesting to share some of the points discussed.
Their topic was 'The New Food Rules' and they covered the recent WHO cancer research reports, trends in food, intolerances, processing, and the new "fine casual" eating model.
Darina started by discussing the recent WHO cancer research report. She thought the report, and the hysteria around it, was very badly handled. As she said “there’s ham and ham, and sausages and sausages”, and these meat products are very different depending on what exactly goes into them, and how highly processed they are. It’s really important to eat meat in moderation for a start. She recommends knowing how and where the pig has been reared and processed (buying from independent producers and butchers, rather than mass suppliers). The least processed meat is the best quality.
She went on to talk about consumer education and what the customer has become conditioned to. Nitrates and nitrites are added to ham to give it the bright pink colour that we’re accustomed to and customers would be turned off by the natural grey colour of ham and think there’s something wrong with it.
The panel believed that there was nothing new in the WHO report, most people are not eating rashers and sausages every single day, so it’s been very misleading. We need to be cautious when these reports come out and read beyond the headlines.
Processing, Salt and Sugar
They discussed how there is too much salt and sugar in today’s diet. There’s been pressure in the food production industry to reduce the amount of salt added to meat in the curing process. Bacon that is now available bears no resemblance to what we ate 40 or 50 years ago. Then, ham was soaked in water to draw out excess salt, now people are adding more salt.
Darina talked about how so much salt is hidden in processed food, so people have no idea how much is in their diet. There’s more salt in corn flakes that in seawater!
There’s no question that we need to reduce sugar, again so much of it is hidden. Darina has observed in the Ballymaloe Cookery School that the sugar that is available today is more intensely sweet than it used to be, so the School have been reducing sugar in all of their recipes across the board by 20 to 25%.
Constant Change in Dietary Advice
People are immensely confused, but good fats are coming back into fashion, people choosing butter over margarine, lard, dripping, and duck and goose fat. How could a natural product like butter be bad for you? Only 2 vitamins are water-soluble B and C, all the rest are fat-soluble, so you can’t extract nutrients from your food if you eliminate fat from your diet. Now we know that there was no proper research to prove that fat should be eliminated from our diet, and this has incredible implications for diabetes and obesity.
But there are reasons for hope - sale of processed foods in the US have been coming down in recent years, and the food manufacturers are trying to re-position themselves. Consumers are confused, but are looking for something different, there’s been a growing mistrust of large food organizations.
Jane Russell on Modern Meat Processing Methods
- Bacon is typically cured with nitrates, which have been linked to cancer. Traditional curing methods became known as “processing”, but the WHO definition of processed meats doesn’t explain what it’s all about. Processed meats produced in big factories have extended shelf lives far longer that you would expect. Factories inject water into the meat, it’s a speedier method of producing meat.
- Long ago, people didn’t eat as much meat, and sausages were butchered and eaten the next day. Now they are shipped around the country and preserved to give them a longer shelf life.
- We operate in a niche, we try not to use nitrates or nitrites, we use a normal of fat and try to make something you would choose to eat, not something you feel like you shouldn’t eat. Sales were down for about 10 days after the WHO report was published due to consumer's information overload but back to normal the following week.
Domini Kemp’s Year of Healthy Eating
Domini talked about her Irish Times weekly food column. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, she was looking at foods that would enhance her immune system during her treatment. She said that readers have been very receptive of the type of recipes that she’s sharing and now want books for everyday eating, not entertaining and dinner parties.
Catherine Cleary, Irish Times journalist, said that Domini’s weekly Year of Healthy Eating column in the Irish Times combines both pleasure and health in food. Lots of Irish restaurants now are themed, there is a trend of “dirty” food (over-indulgence) vs a denial of everything, and it’s all about selling you something, a different kind of experience. She said that rather than cutting out a food group such as dairy completely, we should look at the type of milk we’re buying. Maybe it’s not the foods, but how they are processed that makes them harmful. There’s a sense that food is worse for us now than it used to be.
What are the 2015 food trends in the US? Danny Meyer, owner of Shake Shack is one of most influential men in food today. He’s predicting a rise in the popularity of the “fine casual” model, instead of fine dining. He describes the “rule of two” - a food business can be fast, good or cheap, but can only be two of these things at once. The Shake Shack model uses the same quality ingredients as fine dining, but in casual surroundings, at a lower price. There’s a generation shift happening and we’re getting rid of the paraphenalia around fine dining to focus on the food.
Darina said that the biggest change she has observed in the 31 years since the cookery school opened is the number of students with food intolerances. in the school’s third year we had our first Coeliac student. Now between a third and half of our students have food intolerances or allergy, dairy or wheat, and some are on what Darina calls “daft diets” when they start the 12 week course.
What’s interesting is that by the end of the 12 week course there might be 2 or 3 students that still say they can’t eat dairy or wheat. In many cases people are allergic to the process, what happens to the food when it leaves the farm, and not the actual product.
The Ballymaloe farm has a small herd of Jersey cows and offers raw milk or organic (pasteurised and homogenized) milk, and makes a totally natural sourdough bread, which people who are intolerant to wheat are able to eat. The eggs are different too, free-range and organic, from happy, lazy hens.
Darina finished by saying that we didn’t used to be frightened of food, but that now it is a total preoccupation. People don’t believe the labels or trust their food. She recommended Joanna Blythman’s book, Swallow This, as essential reading for anyone interested in the topic.