In 2021, the Department of Health launched the Roadmap for Food Product Reformulation in Ireland. The aim of the roadmap is to improve the health of people in Ireland by changing the food environment to make it easier for people to make healthier food choices. Foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt are overconsumed in Ireland, which contributes to high levels of a range of diseases including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Why food reformulation? There is no doubt of the effect that food and nutrition have on health. We know that lifestyle – including nutrition – accounts for almost two thirds of all cancer. We know that risk of heart disease, the number one cause of death in Ireland, is substantially reduced by a balanced and nutritious way of eating. Research on diet and mental health shows that nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids from fish as well as following a Mediterranean style diet reduces anxiety and depression.
Changes to what and how we eat have the potential to improve health and prevent a range of diseases and disorders. On a personal level this means that we, and our family members, have the potential to live healthier, for longer. From a wider community perspective, it means savings in healthcare can be used to support education, infrastructure and other investments in the community.
Food reformulation means improving the nutritional content of foods and drinks by reducing calories and target nutrients including saturated fat, salt and sugar in some foods. The roadmap for food reformulation is targeting key nutrients in foods purchased in retail but also in food service. One third of Irish people eat out once a week and one in four eat lunch out most weeks. Food served in cafes, restaurants and takeaways has the potential to affect the nutritional health of many people in Ireland.
The idea of thinking about food service from a nutritional as well as a taste point of view is not new. The Irish Heart Foundation has been running programmes in workplaces for decades to reduce salt and saturated fat in foods served in workplace restaurants. Chefs are engaged in improving nutrition as well and there is a range of courses to develop knowledge of nutrition and bring it to people in restaurants and workplaces.
Changing recipes to improve nutrition can be a challenge. Salt is a great flavour enhancer and reducing saturated fat can mean a rethink of how much butter and cream is used. How can chefs and anyone working in food service help to reach the reformulation targets?
1. Reducing saturated fat is one of the big targets. Ingredients that are high in saturated fat include butter and cream, coconut milk, coconut oil and lard. Streaky bacon, chorizo, and other sausages all add extra saturated fat as well. Can amounts of these foods and ingredients be reduced in recipes? Can they be replaced? Can olive oil be used in place of cream or butter? Can spices be used to replace some flavours like smoked paprika? Nutritional yeast is a great ingredient to add umami or even cheese flavours.
2. There is a target of a 20% reduction in sugar in some foods. Foods like fruit and milk will have a naturally occurring sugar and they are not foods that need to be reduced as they are very nutritious. However, can added sugar be reduced in any recipes? Techniques like caramelising onions & sautéing vegetables can be used to add sweetness to savoury meals without added sugar. What can help with desserts? Can sugar be reduced? Can sweeter fruits be used instead? Can flavours like vanilla extract be used to add a sense of sweetness without sugar? It is important to remember that any sugar that is added is an added sugar – no matter where it comes from. So, honey counts as an added sugar as does maple syrup or coconut sugar. The aim is to reduce overall sugar, not swap one type for another. For cakes like carrot cakes, cooking the carrot a little before adding can add more sweetness and reduce added sugar and many cake recipes can have sugar at least partly reduced and still work.
3. There is a focus on reducing calories in children’s foods. This can be difficult for hospitality with the enduring popularity of chicken-nuggets-and-chips with parents and children. Lots of restaurants have more options for children that include pasta or mashed potatoes. Thinking about how breaded chicken or fish is produced for children may help to reduce calories. Can foods be baked instead of fried? Can coatings have less fat? Less salt? Can half portions of some of the adult meals be available for children? This can be a tricky area to manage - it is hard to strike the balance between providing healthy foods for children and actually getting them to eat them. Make goujons with wholemeal crumb or high fibre cereals and bake rather than fry them.
4. Reducing salt is also a target. Can some of the salt in the recipe be reduced? It is easy to get used to the taste of salt and start adding more and more salt to get an effect. Reducing salt can help to “reset” tastebuds and people find they need less salt for the same effect. This is worth remembering if you are tasting salty foods a lot – foods might not need as much salt as you think. You can also use seaweed powder to add a salty flavour without salt (this also adds much needed iodine). Adding chilli helps foods to taste saltier with less salt and can be another way to reduce salt.
More information on the Roadmap for Food Product Reformulation in Ireland can be found here.