Speaking with farmers and food producers is our bread and butter here in Irish Country Living, and when discussing artisanal food products, there is almost always a point in the conversation where nutrition and health benefits come into play.

For example, it is purported that some who are lactose intolerant are able to ingest raw dairy products. Others who are sensitive to gluten, it is said, can eat certain types of sourdough breads. Vegetables picked locally and at their peak are more nutritionally dense. Sea salt is full of good minerals.

Food as medicine

We know a balanced diet is a major part of living a healthy life, but when it comes to using food as medicine, our approach needs to be measured. Let’s be realistic: tomatoes are not going to cure cancer and eating carrots will not be a magic solution to near-sightedness. There are many ‘miracle ingredients’ out there with questionable science backing up often-bogus health claims. However, when it comes to chronic conditions and preventative medicine, food can be a powerful agent.

The idea of food as medicine can have different methods depending on the health goal. Some make use of ‘functional foods’, which are ingredients high in specific nutrients or good gut bacteria. Others take a whole-diet approach; consuming as many minimally processed foods as possible with plenty of fruits, vegetables, proteins and wholegrains.

In the United States, doctors have started prescribing fruits and vegetables to patients using special prescription produce programmes. This growing healthcare movement aims to provide food as medicine to help prevent diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. Access to affordable healthy food can be an issue; particularly for low-income communities.

A 2023 US-based study on the impact of these produce prescription programmes showed promising results, saying that they could be associated with significant improvements in not just fruit and vegetable consumption, but also food security and overall health status.

The Happy Tummy Co.

Karen O’Donoghue is someone who has spent much of her life dealing with digestive issues caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). She owns and operates The Happy Tummy Co. in Westport, Co Mayo, where she sells breads, mixes and other baked goods made with specially prepared grains, nuts and seeds.

“The Happy Tummy Co. came about because I was on a mission to eradicate my own IBS symptoms through the food I love the most, which is bread,” she tells Irish Country Living. “I unearthed how to process food to extract the nutrients from it. That, and through using the right combination of ingredients, has [basically] guaranteed me lifelong health without IBS.”

All of Karen’s products are specially prepared to aid digestion and maximise nutrient absorption. Unlike most bakeries, Karen has to adhere to HSE-recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) when going through her product development process.

“Every nutritional claim we make needs to be backed up by this RDA system,” she says. “I am very honest, everything we do is science-backed and we have thousands of anecdotal testimonials from people who have started eating our bread and now their digestive issues have been sorted. Doctors recommend our products to their patients and on a customer level there is huge trust [in us].”

Preparation and ingredients

Karen uses Irish-grown flours and oats in her products; importing only one type of grain: teff. Teff is a gluten-free grain from the millet family, mainly grown in Ethiopia and heavily featured in Ethiopian cuisine. Besides being a source of fibre, copper, potassium, phosphorus and selenium, it is also naturally low in sodium and is the only grain which contains Vitamin C.

Ingredient sourcing is extremely important to Karen, but it is equally important to prepare these ingredients correctly.

Karen and her team use specially prepared ingredients

“My Grandma would soak our porridge the night before, and those nutrients were more absorbable as a result,” she says. “We use these processes across our full range. Different grains, nuts and seeds have different amounts of digestive enzymes, so we prepare each accordingly.”

Karen is launching monthly online workshops on food as medicine featuring farmers, food producers, general practitioners and those working in specialist medicine like kinesiology. The first session is on 2 May. CL


Óir Tonics: ‘I was amazed at the amount of older women who would come into the shop to buy the dried carrageen moss’

Home remedies have been used in Ireland for centuries and many still recall being taken to healers for a ‘cure’ or being forced to take a tonic for colds and flus. Some still swear by old remedies handed down by grandparents, perhaps using foraged ingredients like elderberries and seaweed, or drinking fermented whey from cheese-making.

Edel Breslin Oir Tonics Co Clare / Nathalie Marquez Courtney

“My grandmother used to have to take a tonic when she was younger and she still talks about how awful it tasted,” Edel Breslin tells Irish Country Living, laughing. “She says mine tastes lovely, but her memories of it are terrifying.”

Functional tonics

Edel owns and operates Óir Tonics in Ennis, Co Clare. She originally trained as a chef and is in the process of studying herbal medicine at the College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM) while making her line of functional tonics, teas and natural skincare products.

Her tonics use organic Irish carrageen moss (also known as Irish moss); a type of seaweed which has an impressive amount of vitamins, minerals, fibre and Omega-3s. Edel’s customers take her tonic for a range of reasons, including skincare, immunity, gut health and inflammation.

“I was always interested in food and while I loved cooking [professionally], I knew I didn’t want to do it forever,” she says. “During the COVID-19 lockdown, I started working in a health food shop and it was everything I loved combined: people coming in, asking about foods and supplements.

“I was amazed at the amount of older women who would come into the shop to buy the dried carrageen moss – I was always fascinated with carrageen and during lockdown I was working with it a lot and would add different things to the liquid [from cooking the carrageen]. I didn’t think of it as a business, but I would share my tonics with friends and family and they’d say, ‘Could I get that off you again?’”

Edel’s line of tonics includes her Moss Boss Original and her Moss Boss Turmeric. Both use organic ingredients including ginger, apple cider vinegar and oranges in addition to the carrageen moss. During the product development phase, Edel worked with food technologists in BIA Innovator Campus, Athenry, and Shannon Applied Biotechnology Centre. She also completed phases one and two of the New Frontiers programme.

“For the nutritional side of things, we were able to test the tonics completely,” Edel explains. “We found that there is lots of good [active] stuff surviving after we heat up the seaweed and pasteurise the tonic. I find there is a trust among Irish consumers for these kinds of products. It’s familiar to them. That’s why I started Óir – it was my way of celebrating the traditional uses of Irish moss.”

You can purchase Óir Tonics online or in selected stockists around the country.

• oirtonics.com

‘I personally don’t use the term ‘food as medicine’, as food is much more than that’

Food for Health Ireland (FHI) is a technology centre funded by Enterprise Ireland and Irish food companies. It is a national full-service scientific organisation with a focus on functional and health food innovation and commercialisation.

The research team at FHI come from organisations and universities around the country. Industry partners include Dairygold, Carbery Group, Glanbia Ireland and Kerry Group.

Professor Eileen Gibney

Professor Eileen Gibney, director of the UCD Institute of Food and Health, is one such researcher involved in FHI. She tells Irish Country Living that there is a clear link between food and health and believes taking a more holistic approach to nutrition is something we should all consider.

“Nutrition is important, and is powerful in that it is in our own hands to make positive changes to improve our health,” she says. “I personally don’t use the term ‘food as medicine’, as food is much more than that. It is linked to our culture, our identity and our lives. It isn’t as simple as prescribing. We need to consider the context, the person and the specific change that is needed [and feasible] to ensure that any [nutritional] changes are appropriate and likely to last.”

Gut Health Study

One ongoing FHI project centres on whether food can help alleviate symptoms of IBS. Nutrition researchers at UCD and UCC, led by Dr Alice Lucey of UCC and Dr Emma Feeney of UCD are conducting a dietary study, which investigates if consuming a fermented dairy beverage daily can provide benefit to digestive health and improve the overall quality of life in adults who experience mild-to-moderate digestive issues.

The research team are recruiting 120 healthy adults in Dublin and Cork (aged 20-45) who report mild to moderate digestive issues or discomfort to participate in this study, which is funded by FHI.

This study is underway at the Human Intervention Suite at UCD and at the Human Nutrition Studies Unit, School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at UCC.

• fhi.ie

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