• Shopping local and buying Irish is good for the economy, but is also good from a nutrition perspective
• Not only does it matter what we eat, it also matters what we eat eats, and the produce of grass-fed animals, including meat and dairy, and pasture-raised hens all have positive elements in terms of their nutrition profile
• This might be good for your health, but at the very least are good for taste!
Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a significant push from the likes of Bord Bia and Love Irish Food to encourage people to buy local Irish produce, a concept that we at FoodFlicker wholeheartedly support. Irish consumers spend as much as €1.8 billion on imported food brands annually , even though Irish-produced alternatives are readily available. Apart from supporting Irish jobs and other economic benefits of shopping locally, there are other suggested benefits to buying Irish produce including environmental protection, sustainability, traceability and good animal husbandry practices. You might not have considered whether this matters from a nutrition perspective, but there are surprising benefits to eating local produce.
It matters what we eat eats
The relatively mild climate in Ireland lends itself to a plentiful supply of grass and for animals to be left outside grazing for long periods of the year. Hence, the vast majority of meat (beef, lamb, venison) that is reared, produced and sold in Ireland is from farms using grass as the main food source. For example, the majority of sheep in Ireland are left out for the whole year, free-range and pasture-raised hens are widely found throughout Ireland, and cattle are usually only housed in the winter months while being fed a diet of silage (preserved grass), and a small amount of grain. In most other countries, this isn’t always the case. Quite often cattle are fed a grain-based diet in “feed-lots” that limit their movement in order to “finish” them at a much faster rate compared to pasture-rearing. These farming practices are most commonly seen in the United States, and although there are parts of Europe where these practices are starting to emerge, thankfully not in Ireland.
In recent years a great deal has been made of the value of meat from grass-fed animals compared meat from grain-fed animals. This came with the realisation that the diet of the animal impacts the nutrition profile of the meat – in other words, you are what you eat eats. One effect is that cattle raised on grass-fed diet have higher levels of beta-carotene and vitamin E in their meat compared to grain-fed cattle. These antioxidants are suggested to play an important role in protecting our bodies’ cells from damage from a class of molecules known as reactive oxygen species. However, a more striking effect of a grass-based diet is on the fatty acid profile of the meat whereby increased levels of omega-3 (n-3) fats and a healthy trans-fat named conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) are observed. Although we evolved eating diets providing approximately equal amounts of n-3 and n-6 fats, current dietary habits result in a much greater intake of n-6 compared to n-3 fats, a fact that has been linked to inflammation and lifestyle-related disease. Due to often inadequate intake of fats rich in n-3 and the excessive intakes of n-6 fats in our diet, eating n-3-containing foods helps to re-balance our n-6/n-3 ratio. On the other hand, roles for CLA in the prevention of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and for supporting weight loss and muscle maintenance have been described, but admittedly, despite the hype, the studies are not all that convincing.
Similarly to how the diet of animals affects the composition of their meat, when it comes to dairy products the same can be said for the milk that the animals produce. Hence, the composition of dairy products can vary depending on what the animal eats. Similar to meat, dairy products from grass-fed cows differ to those from grain-fed in terms of their fat profile, but most notably this dairy is among the best sources of vitamin K2 available e.g. vitamin K2 in grass-fed butter, but little or none in grain-fed butter. Vitamin K2’s effect on calcium redistribution helps counteract arterial plaque build-up, and the body use calcium more efficiently to strengthen bones, this is a vitamin that you are likely to hear a lot more about in the coming years. Funny enough, Irish staple Kerrygold butter is popular with the Paleo movement for this reason.
Eggs from pasture-raised hens
Eggs from pasture-raised hens have been found to have a better nutrition profile compared to free-range or caged-hens eggs – and they taste better too. Eggs from pastured poultry are higher in n-3 fats, folic acid, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, D, E and B12. Interestingly, the greater level of beta-carotene because of a diet higher in grass and other greenery results in pasture-raised eggs having a deeper dark yellow or orange yolk compared to the more pale yolk from caged hens.
One word of caution around eggs is that being labelled “organic” or “free-range” is not automatically the best choice to eat. Free-range hens have outdoor access but there is no regulation about how long that they have to be outside, the space that they get to roam in or the food that they are fed. Hence, often free-range eggs can be much the same as caged hens’ eggs. Similarly, with the label of “organic”, this does not always mean the eggs have a superior nutrition value – it simply means that they have been fed a diet of organic feed, rather than saying anything about access to pasture where they can benefit from eating of wild grasses, worms and insects. Thankfully though, in Ireland most free-range eggs are in fact from pasture-raised hens that are given adequate space and time outdoors.
Taste should never to be undervalued, so apart from potential nutrition benefits of buying Irish, our seasonal fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy products have a distinguished quality and taste. Irish food rightly has a reputation for taste, but it is easy to take for until you visit countries where food is industrially-produced and highly-processed. Despite its often visual appeal, the bland and tasteless nature of such food is obvious and it more often offers little enjoyment. So we benefit from high quality whole foods that by-and-large are produced from farms that follow good farming practices. Aside from meat dairy and eggs, plant-based foods also benefit from our climate and sound ethics, such that it seems a straightforward choice to buy foods that are grown in our own country. Many people around the world would love to be able access to the foods that we can enjoy and buy on our own doorstep.