From the humble ‘pastizz’ to high-end burgers: Malta’s love affair with junk food

In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that the Maltese had become the fattest population in the EU

When a New York Times columnist made some remarks about Malta’s eating habits back in December, he was bound to inflict something of a sting. James Kanter claimed that the Maltese had lost sight of the healthy and recommended Mediterranean diet – despite Malta’s position at the heart of the region – to opt for greasy junk foods and sporting expanding girths.

That same month, the 2015 European health report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that the Maltese had become the fattest population in the EU, with 68.5% of men and 59.6% of women over the age of 18 found to be overweight.

Those estimates contrast with data from the health ministry, whose studies suggest that 22% of the Maltese population is obese, and a further 36% overweight. The only silver lining is WHO’s predictions for 2025, putting Malta’s rates where they are today, meaning they won’t get worse, while the rest of the West will see expanding waistlines.

But even health minister Chris Fearne, in a launch of a campaign for healthy eating and living, said that as many as 41% of schoolchildren were classified as obese or overweight, suggesting that drastic action was necessary to prevent such weight problems at an early age. 

Various campaigns have been taken in hand: a nationwide school approach to healthy eating bans sugary foods and drinks from canteens, as well as a campaign to encourage physical activity during break times.

But beyond the school walls, junk food is readily available to children and adults alike, with relatively cheap prices putting the food within easy reach. 

Official statistics on ‘junk food outlets’ – it’s not a designation anybody readily admits to – are not available, but at least 39 franchises in Malta offer some form of fast food, not to mention at least 56 outlets listed as pastizzerias on the Yellow Pages. The Malta Tourism Authority says it does not have specific catering establishment categories for fast food outlets, and that the nature of food served is ultimately up to the operator to decide. But it had licensed some 125 takeaway outlets and a staggering 767 snack bars up to March this year, although these do not necessarily all serve junk food.

Although perhaps difficult to estimate the exact numbers of such establishments, the enduring image of double-parked cars with flashing headlights, passengers scrambling frantically to purchase a snack, is something of a fixture on Maltese roads, not least junk food vendors lining up the roads during public events.

Various pastizzi retailers told MaltaToday the savoury cheesecake remains favoured at practically any time of the day. And although a number of the major franchises decided to keep their average number of sold goods a guarded secret, Jeff’s Pastizzeria – which has three different stores – and Sphinx, with an impressive 20 outlets, respectively said they sold 240 and 4,800 pastizzi each day.

Nutritionist Claire Spiteri says Malta’s biggest problem is the frequency of consumption of such junk foods. “Many of the people who come to me for advice tell me that they have junk food at least twice a week, and they would normally have larger portions of these foodstuffs than is advisable,” Spiteri said.

She said pastizzi and burgers scarcely have any nutritional value, being merely a source of saturated fats due to the high amounts of lard used to attain the delicious, sought-after flaky texture typical of pastizzi, or to cook burgers and fries with.

“There is of course nothing wrong with enjoying some junk food occasionally, but frequent consumption combined with our sedentary lifestyles, naturally leads to excessive weight,” she said, adding that the Maltese sweet tooth means adding sugar to beverages like coffee and tea. “Not to mention our devotion to desserts and cakes,” Spiteri adds.

Top 5 junk food meccas

St Paul’s Bay - 30

Sliema - 23

St Julian’s  - 17

Msida - 13

Qormi/Hamrun/Mellieha - 12

*Data compiled from Yellow Pages Directory, establishments under headings containing Pizzerias, Pastizzerias, Take-Away and Snack Bar. Data is not exhaustive, and some of the establishments might not sell exclusively junk food products

Fast food outlets (number)

Sphinx Pastizzeria - 20

McDonald’s - 7 *

Burger King - 6

Chick King - 5

Broaster Chicken - 4

*excluding the branches that are closed for refurbishment