The Mediterranean diet and the concept of “glocal” food

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The second of the morning’s lectures was delivered by Professor Elisabetta Moro who is a professor at the Università degli studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” (I had had the pleasure of sitting next to her at our welcome dinner on Sunday evening). Once again, we were in a room with comfortable chairs and the windows were thrown wide open to reveal an incredible view of the Gulf of Naples.  The title of her talk was “Food Sociology: The Case of the Mediterranean Diet. From Ancel Keys to UNESCO”.  She began her presentation by explaining that she was interested in food not just as simple nutrition but as a lifestyle and a cultural identity.  By now we had heard several speakers describing the different regional traditions in Italy and we appreciated that there really was no such thing as “Italian food”.   Local food traditions vary from region to region and there is a certain local pride that the residents have for their own region and everyone believes that their traditions are superior to others.

An example is the Campania region which is located in southeastern Italy and encompasses the province of Napoli. The diet of this region consists of legumes, broccoli, fruit and soup (minestra) consisting of broth and a little pasta, if available. These soups were not like French soups that contained cream, butter or cheese). If pasta was not available they would use pieces of the dry bread that was twice-baked in order to dry it out so that it would be more effectively preserved.  On Sundays, Campania residents dine on pasta with a slow-cooked tomato sauce that might have some meat added to it. Family members gather together for Sunday dinner, even “children” who were married with their own established households.

Into this landscape steps Ancel Keys, a physiologist from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife Margaret arrived in Italy in 1944 to examine the diets of US soldiers stationed overseas. They settled in Pioppi, located in the Cilento National Park and soon became enchanted with the region, the food and the people they met. By that point in his career Ancel Keys had already contributed quite of bit of knowledge to the field of nutrition (he developed the pocket size meals used by soldiers in World War II; these are named “K rations” in his honor). Noting that the Campania residents enjoyed health and longevity, he used his scientific and investigative skills to examine the possible role played by nutrition. He interviewed housewives regarding food choice and preparation methods. His epidemiological research expanded to include 12,000 men living in Italy, the Greek Islands, the former Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Finland, Japan and the United States.  The results of the “Seven Countries” study provided convincing evidence that saturated fats from meat and dairy products were a leading contributor to heart disease.  Saturated fat intake was highest in the US and Finland, whose residents had the highest rate of heart disease whereas the Italians had the lowest rate of deaths due to atherosclerosis. He summarized his findings in a popular book Eat Well and Stay Well: The Mediterranean Way published in the late 1950s.  Essentially, Ancel Keys, an American, coined the term “Mediterranean diet”, a diet that doesn’t really exist as a single diet, although if you compare food consumed by people in Mediterranean countries you will find common food products used even though the ways these products are combined in specific recipes vary widely from region to region.   Ancel Keys was particularly enamored with beans (as described in his next book, The Benevolent Bean), in which he prescribed as a food that was both nutritious and good for the environment.  It is important to note that Ancel Keys was not without his detractors, who criticize him for failing to distinguish between saturated fats and trans fats.

We have experienced food from two different regions and have definitely noticed differences.  Certainly the quantity of food has been excessive, but that could just be the results of having all of our meals in restaurants and the desire of our hosts to be hospitable to us. In the north we had much more meat, and the pasta sauces were not tomato-based. The desserts were dairy-based (semifreddo and panna cotta) and often contained hazelnuts, a product of the region. In Naples, we have consumed pasta with tomato-based sauces, and of course, pizza, which was essentially invented in Naples and was a food eaten by the working class. From its humble beginnings, pizza has traveled the world and has been transformed in different ways by different cultures that in which the crust, sauce, and toppings have been modified in vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, olives, and olive oil along with some cheese, yogurt, fish, poultry, eggs, and wineinnumerable ways—a food both global and local, or “glocal”, as described by Dr. Fiorenzo Iuliano), who described the concept to us during the lecture delivered on our first morning in Napoli.

In any case, the phrase “Mediterranean diet” is firmly rooted in the popular culture (typing this as a search term into Google resulted in over six million hits).  The diet is generally described as consisting of high quantities of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts; moderate amounts of olive oil, fish and wine and very small quantities of meat, eggs and dairy products.  In 2010, the Mediterranean Diet was recognized by UNESCO as a virtuous model of health and an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco.  One might claim that the phrase “Mediterranean diet” was an Ancel Keys invention (who retired in Italy and lived to the ripe old age of 100) and that it doesn’t really exist.  Or one could take the scientific view, as Steve described during our discussion, in which one could compile the results of nutritional studies to refine the diet so that one could prescribe exactly what should be eaten to ensure good health and longevity.

Anyway, I’m hungry. Isn’t it lunchtime?Image


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: