Irish families are spending more money on junk food such as crisps, chocolate and sweets than they do on fruit and vegetables.

That’s according to new research on more than 5,000 households by Safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland which found that 19% of the average weekly family food shop is spent on highly processed ‘treat’ foods such as crisps, chocolate and sweets.

This compares with only 10% spent on fruit and 7% on vegetables.

The study found that, on average, families with children spent €1,037 last year on treat foods, while the spend on fruit was just €521 and a mere €346 on vegetables.

Chocolate and sweets (€228), sugary drinks (€199), biscuits (€161) and crisps (€129) accounted for almost two-thirds of the annual spend on treat foods.

Other junk food products high on Irish shopping lists are bakery products excluding bread (€94), ice cream and lollies (€76), luxury yoghurts and yoghurt drinks (€62), sweet home cooking (€37), packet breakfast products (€36) and chilled bakery products (€15).

The study includes only supermarket shopping trips and doesn’t account for purchases in outlets such as garage forecourts, cafés and cinemas.

The research was carried out to coincide with the latest phase of START, the five-year public health awareness campaign by Safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland.

The campaign encourages families to take the first step towards a healthier lifestyle for their children.

Commenting on the findings, director of human health and nutrition with Safefood, Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, said junk food is no longer seen as a treat by many families but part of their children’s daily diet.

“We accept them as the norm in our children’s daily diet and they are not seen as a real treat anymore. The balance is all wrong and we’re under-consuming the vital nutrients in fruit and vegetables,” she said.

Undoubtedly, this level of consumption by families is contributing to our dangerous levels of overweight, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Dr Foley-Nolan noted that 40% of families surveyed said that trying to cut back on junk food was the number one barrier to healthy eating.

“These highly processed foods are everywhere, at all times of the year and are so cheap — it’s no wonder that we are finding it difficult to not overindulge our children and ourselves,” she said.

Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne said the research confirms the need for parents and carers to work together to improve children’s eating habits.

“Not only are these so-called treat foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt and contribute to overweight and obesity but equally important is the fact that if children fill up on these foods, they don’t have an appetite for the nutritious foods they need for good health and wellbeing.

Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne
Minister of State for Health Promotion Catherine Byrne

“The healthy eating message from Healthy Ireland is that these foods should not be everyday foods but maximum once or twice a week foods and in small amounts. Eating vegetables, fruit and salads are healthier choices and lay down the foundation of good eating habits for life,” she said.

HSE national lead on the START campaign, Sarah O’Brien, said there are some positives to take from the study: “Our research with parents shows that almost half give treat foods at weekends, and of these more than one in four use them as rewards during the week. 

"But on a very positive note it also shows that almost half of us parents have tried to change our children’s eating habits and, better again, 88% of us have persisted with that change.”

Ms O’Brien said the START campaign aims to have parents achieve one daily win like having fruit after school as a snack: “Not buying treats in the weekly shop means there’s less of them to have at home. 

"And by linking treats to real occasions like family birthdays and events helps children to understand the value of what is a treat and that it’s not an everyday thing.”

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