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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 14 November, 2018
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Column: Let's not cow-tow to 'sacred' cheese industry

Far from worrying that a ban on advertising cheese to children will hurt their calcium intake, says food writer Frank Armstrong, concerned gastronomes are missing the point…

Frank Armstrong

I HAVE PREVIOUSLY visited the topic of the persuasive power of advertising: Parents face an unenviable struggle orientating their children away from unhealthy sometimes even toxic foods in the face of fiendishly successful sales techniques.

In this uneven contest assistance from national authorities is required. Sweden banned all advertising directed at children under the age of 12 as far back as 1991. They did so because young children cannot make informed choices, and advertisers know what makes them tick.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has made a brave decision, announcing that it intends to place a ban on the advertising of foodstuffs high in fat, sugar and salt directed at children before 9pm. With so many vested interests affected it was bound to encounter flak for acting like the ‘nanny state’ and discouraging some indigenous food production.

Unfortunately an old guard in Irish food has lined up against one aspect: its application to cheese which is high in salt and saturated fat. Tom Doorley pronounced as ‘brill’ a cartoon in the Irish Farmer’s Journal which features a photographer being chastised before 9pm for saying ‘Cheese’.

During heady Tiger days Doorley promoted wine for Spar, a company not known for prioritising the health of its customers. I don’t know of any branch of Spar that does not have a huge display of sweets and other junk foods next to each till. Sometimes I even find myself involuntarily muttering: ‘Mummy can I have one’.

“The esteemed gastronomes are missing the point”

Darina Allen, in a submission to the Authority, described the inclusion of cheese as ‘preposterous’. She said: “Irish people need more rather than less calcium in their diet”.

But the esteemed gastronomes are missing the point. There is a big difference between the effect of this provision on the artisan farmhouse cheeses that presumably they prize and mass-produced products like the waxy, homogenous ‘cheddars’ that fill the supermarket shelves. Artisan cheese producers don’t have the financial clout to advertise their produce, so they will not be suffering in the least. In fact a level playing field could allow them to prosper, and encourage more dairy farmers to start their own operations rather than continuing to supply the multiples.

And let us acknowledge that a diet high in cheese, particularly the industrial variety, is not considered healthy by any but the most unusual dieticians. The French paradox of diets high in saturated fat accompanied by a low incidence of heart disease is precisely that: a paradox. It seems that long-drawn out meals, consumption of a wide variety of fresh produce, as well as moderate quantities of red wine, are important in balancing the effect. The Irish, on the other hand, with a diet high in saturated fats feature among the highest rates of heart disease in Western Europe. We are still waiting for the paradox to kick in.

Whisper it: dairy may not be particularly good for us. Especially the kind we have today where cows have been bred to be an extraordinary size; live short over-worked lives of generally only three years (though they could continue to give milk for up to ten) before being packed off to the abattoir to be turned into hamburgers; and where up to 40 per cent of their diet is composed of mainly imported grain, a considerable quantity of which is genetically modified (Ireland imports 1 million tonnes of genetically modified grain). Let’s face it the ‘cow around the corner’ is poorly treated and eats vast quantities of grain of dubious origin.

The artisan model of cheese-making at least offers the prospect of a more refined product that will encourage us to linger over meals. Increased attention to animal welfare should make it a healthier alternative.

Much attention has been given in recent times to the profitability of the agricultural sector, but the promotion of intensive animal agriculture comes at the expense of tillage, and also means that we have among the lowest coverage of forest in the European Community; these are the opportunity costs of pasture.

“Eating a broad-based European diet will bring savings to our health services”

‘High Class’ Irish cuisine is really a sub-genre of French cuisine, with even greater emphasis on dairy. It is certainly not as unhealthy as another prevalent ‘cuisine’ in Ireland namely Americanised fast food, but eating organic meat, dairy and wild fish is possible only for a minority. We are left with a situation where, in general, the wealthy gravitate towards the Gaelic-Gallic fusion while the poor subsist on cheap meat and dairy and even cheaper sugar and refined grains; the diets of different social classes are reflected in life expectancies.

Notwithstanding economic difficulties we should not resign ourselves to a form of post-colonial agriculture based on exportable commodities like powdered milk for the Chinese market. I am not suggesting that a small northerly isle like Ireland strive for full self-sufficiency. Most residents of the state of Vermont would not wish to live only on foods produced there, and Ireland should see itself as a part of an emerging European federation. Eating a broad-based European diet will bring savings to our health services, and healthy food will make us more dynamic in other fields. Moreover, a greater emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables, plant oils, seeds and nuts offers the prospect of an egalitarian healthy diet. Gastronomes should be encouraging this approach.

While not eschewing imports altogether, we should ensure that we grow a much wider variety of foodstuffs for domestic consumption to serve this need. Far more innovation is called for in our agriculture though certainly not of the genetically modified kind. We should explore ‘alternatives’ like sea vegetables for which Ireland has enormous potential, develop large-scale greenhouses that have almost disappeared and assess the viability of permacultures and forest gardens suited to our temperate climate. Also, during the Second World War a large proportion of Britain’s food needs were served by allotments. We can do a lot more.

Darina Allen should also take note that there are many sources of calcium other than dairy including the far greater concentration in sesame seeds; and hazelnut which has roughly the same proportion of calcium as milk and could easily be produced here. Irish-grown vegetables such as kale also contain significant quantities. Human beings survived for most of their evolutionary history without dairy and indeed there are difficulties associated with the absorption of calcium from it.

It may also be that some of Ballymaloe’s own products will fall foul of the ban. For example Ballymaloe ‘Country’ relish, a huge seller and popular with kids, has an undisclosed quantity of sugar on the label.

The advice of Michael Pollan seems apt: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’. If only the undoubted skill of advertisers could be used to get that message across.

Frank Armstrong is a food writer and lecturer at University College Dublin’s Adult Education Centre.

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