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The Vacuum Issue 3 spacer Issue 3
The Northern Irish Diet - Is It Changing?
by Eileen M Stewart
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What do you associate with the typical food of Northern Ireland? The first thing that springs to mind is of course the Ulster Fry, a famous dish usually comprising bacon, sausages, eggs, black or white pudding, soda bread and potato bread, all good local produce. However, our diet today is much more varied than the Ulster Fry. This is due primarily to the variety of foods readily available from the diverse range of restaurants and pubs that have emerged in the province over the last decade or from the multiple retailers which are gradually taking over from the local independent shops. Eating is now one of the greatest past-times and pleasures in the life of the people Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast and we are spending more money on food than ever before. Shopping for food is now officially regarded as a leisure pursuit!
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According to the latest National Food Survey carried out by DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), the estimated average expenditure per person per week from Northern Ireland on food increased from £13.97 in 1999 to £15.45 in 2000. The survey divided Northern Ireland into three geographic areas, 'Belfast', 'Urban' and 'Rural'. The survey showed that, from 1996 to 1999, people in rural areas consumed the most milk and cream, vegetables, bread and other cereals while those in Belfast consumed the least. On the other hand, it was found that there was a tendency for people in rural areas to consume less alcoholic drinks than those in Belfast. Compared to the rest of the UK, we in Northern Ireland consumed, for example, 9% more milk and cream, 26% more carcass meat, 24% less fish, 66% more butter, 60% less margarine, 78% more fresh potatoes, 15% less other fresh produce, and 52% less fruit juices. People living in London consumed nearly twice as much fruit and vegetables as people living in Northern Ireland. Notably, there was little difference in the fat and saturated fat intake of different income level groups whereas there was a much higher intake of fruit and vegetables in households with higher incomes. As an example, the volume of leafy salads and fruit juice consumed proved to be three times as great in the richest 10% of households compared to the poorest.
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In 1996, the Health Promotion Agency (HPANI) set out its Food and Nutrition Strategy for Northern Ireland. The target, by the year 2000, was to reduce the average contribution of total fat to dietary energy to 35%, reduce the average contribution of saturated fat to energy to 10% or less, and increase the average consumption of fruit and vegetables to at least five portions per day. Statistics are not currently available to determine if these targets have been achieved but the availability of a wide range of low-fat food in retail outlets as well as all round availability of an enormous variety of fruits and vegetables will certainly have contributed towards reaching the goals of HPANI.
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A bit of good news that made the headlines in January of this year was the significant fall in the death rate from heart disease over a 25-year period. This news is most welcome when one takes into account the fact that according to the British Heart Foundation Statistics, in the year 2000, over 3,000 people died from coronary heart disease in Northern Ireland alone. One of the reasons for this improvement in health may be the availability of an improved diet, and healthier lifestyles, which are the result of the variety of foods currently available as well as a plethora of new leisure facilities.
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There is certainly evidence to suggest that the Northern Ireland diet has changed and is continuing to change. According to Michael Bell, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), in a recent interview given to the Ulster Grocer (January 2003), "the key trend to have impacted upon the Northern Ireland food and drink over the last five to six years has been the globalising of eating habits. Consumers want to eat a much wider range of foodstuffs from different parts of the world, with ethnic flavours and ethnic ingredients". This is very much in evidence when visiting the supermarket where typical food ingredients and ready-meals from around the world are now readily available. In Belfast a number of Asian supermarkets have become well established in the community, selling ethnic food ingredients which cannot be purchased in the larger multiple retailers. Such retailers meet the demand of the increasing number of people of ethnic origin in Belfast who have come mainly to work in the city or study at Queen's University.
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Another more recent means of obtaining fresh produce in Belfast has been the 'Farmers' Market' initiated in 2000 at the historic St George's market complex close the city's Waterfront area. Producers from all over Northern Ireland put their fresh farm wares up for sale to a capacity crowd on Saturday mornings. The concept of the market is to allow consumers to buy agri-food produce from the primary producer and helps sustain rural communities at a time when they are experiencing hardship in farming. People can come to the market and enjoy a real farmer's breakfast cooked with only the finest of local produce sourced fresh from the market that morning. The market has proved a real success with shoppers enjoying the opportunity to come face to face with the person who actually produce the food they are going to eat.
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The availability of a farmers' market, such as that in St George's, can help meet the demand of another food trend currently emerging, that is, "retro products". The population of Northern Ireland is aging dramatically, and as people age, they are becoming nostalgic and yearn for the foods and products of their youth, according to Michael Bell of NIFDA. One example, he cites, of a food making a comeback is "Dry cure bacon" or "bacon like it used to be". So although there is a trend for new ethnic foods, there is also a demand for fresh, high quality home made produce harking back to the days of old when the choice of foodstuffs available was a far cry from what it is today. Or perhaps this is a reaction to the availability of ever cheaper foods by those people to whom eating quality is more important than price.
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The Food and Nutrition Strategy for Northern Ireland, indicates that consumer demand for food is increasingly being influenced by health awareness. An area of the food sector being identified as healthy by the consumers is "functional foods" or as they can also be termed "designer foods". These are foods which promote health beyond providing basic nutrition and have been marketed in countries such as Japan for many years, the market being worth over US$2 billion. Examples of such foods being retailed here in Northern Ireland include bio-yoghurts, bio-drinks, cholesterol-lowering spreads and yoghurts, fortified drinks, etc. Although there are issues regarding the regulation of functional foods, most western governments are aware that they can play an important role in the improvement of health in the general population and thus the subject is taken seriously. Research into the development of functional foods is being carried out in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in order to eventually expand the range of such products on our supermarket shelves.
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Research is also being carried out on another range of "niche" market food products, namely those processed with high pressures. Typically pressures greater than 300 MPa (or 45,000 pounds per square inch) are applied for a few minutes at room temperature. A pressure of 300 MPa is equivalent to the weight of three elephants standing on a strawberry and 500 MPa is equivalent to twenty family cars on a postage stamp! This is sufficient to destroy many bacteria and decay-causing enzymes without affecting nutrients such as vitamins. Although the pressures used are immense, the processing conditions are designed so that foods are not squashed and they do retain their shape. Some high-pressure treated foods are already available in other parts of the world. For example, pressure treated orange juice can be bought in France and Japan, pressure treated guacamole and salsas are available in the USA and pressure treated ham is on sale in Spain. Pressure treated fruit smoothies are available in UK supermarkets and other products will be on the shelves soon both on mainland UK and here in Northern Ireland. "High pressure processing" is known as a "minimal process" as it allows foods to be treated in such a way so that they are safe to eat yet maintain the qualities of a fresh product with no additives, thereby meeting current consumer demands for "natural" foods.
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Organic foods are also widely available in major supermarkets and health foods stores thereby catering for the consumer who want "natural" food that is chemical free, not genetically modified and produced with respect for animal welfare and the environment. This is certainly commanding a greater share of the marketplace here in Northern Ireland as people are becoming more health conscious and environmentally friendly.
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Time is now becoming more precious and money more readily available and as a result a "cash-rich, time-poor" society is emerging. Also, the number of women working, of single-person households and of households with two incomes is also increasing. Consequently the "ready-meal" or "convenience food" market is an emerging trend here in Northern Ireland following on from the United States, Europe and the UK. Certain consumers now want foods that can be prepared quickly with the minimum of ingredients and minimum of effort so that time normally spent in the kitchen can spent on other activities whether they be work or leisure related. The idea of "TV-dinners" is certainly becoming more a realism here in Northern Ireland than ever before which could subsequently impact on our health and, potentially, our family values.
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So, in summary, the food we eat has changed immensely since the days when our dinner would have consisted of meat and two veg and is certainly much more diverse than the Ulster Fry. It is said that variety is the spice of life and here in Northern Ireland and Belfast, there is certainly plenty of variety available in the food we can eat and where we can eat it.
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The Northern Irish Diet - Is It Changing?
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