The Irish Diet

Agriculture in Ireland

Over the millennia the diets of the people of Ireland have been made up of wild foods, agricultural foods and foods imported from other countries. While the first people lived here before agriculture, it has been practiced for thousands of years and has shaped our country. Agriculture is the breeding, cultivation, rearing and husbandry of animals and plants to produce products that are of value. This activity of managing natural systems is generally referred to as farming and dates back to when humans first started domesticating animals and plants for their benefit. Many developments have significantly impacted the success of agriculture with two examples being the selective breeding of superior animals and plants, to produce successively more preferable generations, and increasing knowledge on how to care for these animals and plants (husbandry) to benefit from their products. In more recent decades, more modern developments in agriculture include advanced breeding methods, the use of fertilizers, constantly improving animal and plant health strategies (including nutrition) and the development of tools (including at the molecular level) to understand and manipulate development, performance and the health of plants and animals. This changing knowledge base and resulted in the people of Ireland varying their diet as time goes by.

How do we know what people ate in the past?

A primary source of the knowledge of what people ate in the past is from what we have found at archaeological sites. Archaeobotany is the study of past societies and landscapes through analysis of preserved plant remains from archaeological excavations. During an archaeological excavation, large samples of soil from different activity areas are taken for scientific analysis, for example from house floors, pits and ditches. The samples are brought to a laboratory for processing, which enables any surviving plant materials to be recovered, including seeds, nutshell and grains. The plant components are preserved because they were buried in wet conditions (waterlogged) or burnt (charred), which enables fragile plant material to survive for thousands of years. With the aid of a microscope, the archaeobotanist identifies the different types of plant remains present, and the archaeobotanist can then build up a scientifically accurate picture of what people were eating in the past.

It is relatively straightforward for the archaeobotanist to determine the types of plants recovered from an archaeological excavation, but it is much harder to assess how these plants were being prepared in foods. Archaeobotanists often make use of ethnographic evidence, which illustrates how traditional societies around the world engage with plants. For recent centuries, historical records can also assist, although these records are often focused on certain strata in society (particularly the upper social classes). Determination of what people were eating in the past is a rather complex endeavour, therefore, that is often most effective when a multi-disciplinary approach is taken.

How do we know what people eat today?

Whilst archaeology tells us what people ate many years ago, nowadays we collect information on diets in many different ways. We gather data from retailers to learn about food purchase behaviour. We also conduct large national surveys where people are asked to write down what they eat and drink over periods of up to 4 or 5 days. Increasingly we are using technology where people use their smart phones to record and take pictures of the foods they are eating, and we are also using laboratory technologies to assess a person’s diet from samples.

The modern Irish diet

In the modern Irish diet today, a wide variety of foods and beverages are consumed. However, traditional foods such as potatoes, breads, meat and dairy products are still staple foods in the Irish diet and consumed by almost the whole adult population. Whilst data would suggest that the majority of people follow quite a traditional diet, reports also suggest that there is a growing trend in alternate dietary patterns including an increase in plant based diets, veganism, vegetarianism and the consumption of alternate milk products.

The manner in which we consume food is also changing, with the adult population consuming at least a quarter of their calories from foods consumed outside of the home in cafes, restaurants and other food outlets. The average diet is relatively healthy, however as a nation we are consuming a diet that is higher in fat then recommended. For example, fat provides about 37% of food energy, and this exceeds the generally recommended upper limit of 35% food energy from fat. The intakes of most vitamins and minerals are adequate in the adult population with important sources in the Irish diet being dairy products, meats, vegetables, potatoes, fish, eggs, fruit, breads and breakfast cereals. However, there are some nutrients in which we are still lacking including vitamin A, calcium and folate. A substantial proportion of the population also had have low vitamin D intakes. Fibre intakes are also low in the Irish diet.

Horticulture in our Diet

Horticulture still makes a major positive contribution to our modern society in both rural and urban areas and contributes to sustainable food production, a greener environment and a healthier population. Horticultural fresh produce provides essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients to a healthy diet from fruits (apples, strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries for example) and vegetable crops (potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, parsnips, carrots and swedes to name a few), a vast array of culinary herbs (parsley, sage, coriander, mint, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, chives, chervil, dill, fennel) and spices (a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavouring, colouring or preserving foods). Fresh horticultural products are an important component of the traditional Irish diet (potatoes, cabbage and carrots) but are also central to healthy diets of modern urban populations. They also form the basis of a wide array of processed and packaged food products. Research has shown that eating up to 10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, and reduce the risk of premature death. Fruit and vegetables in the diet also can also help reduce cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure, boost to the health of our blood vessels and immune system, and are also essential in maintaining a healthy weight. Our modern diet is enriched by the many fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices now produce in Ireland, providing both nutrients and colour to our daily lives.

Food choices of today

With so much variation and availability of food, what drives our food choices? With food being abundantly available, and foods imported from around the world, availability and seasonality are not the main drivers of food intake. Taste, cost (price), health and nutrition, convenience, feel good (mood), and weight control were all reported to be main food choice drivers in the last national survey. This suggests that while many Irish consumers place high importance on health and nutrition, they don’t want to compromise on taste. More recently sustainability and environmental impact has also been reported as key driver of food choice.