Comment: The Roseto Effect and Italian Food   Leave a comment

Today a minority opinion on health and diet in relation to some little known studies of an immigrant Italian community in the United States that may inform how we look at and understand immigrant food and the Mediterranean Diet.

The place: the borough of Roseto in Pennsylvania – named for Roseto Valforte in Apulia – with an overwhelmingly Italo-American population. The time: the 1960s through to the 1980s. A team of scholars under the direction of Stewart Wolf began to look at Roseto’s mortality rates. What they found was fascinating. From 1935-1965 Roseto had had strikingly lower number of myocardial infarctions, i.e. heart attacks, than the neighbouring towns of Bangor and Nazareth despite them sharing the same health infrastructure and the same water system. However, from 1965 onwards the numbers of heart attacks in Roseto climbed to meet the numbers of heart attacks found in the previously-mentioned neighbouring communities.

Roseto had an overwhelmingly Italian population, but Wolf and his colleagues did not, interestingly, explain the difference with reference to food. Roseto they claimed was unusual: ‘Unlike inhabitants of most American towns, Rosetans were found to be cohesive and mutually supportive, with strong family and community ties. The men in Roseto appeared to be the unchallenged heads of their households. The elderly were revered and, unlike most oldsters in America, they retained their influence on family affairs. Problems were customarily solved in family conclaves where each person took responsibility and often made some sacrifice. Less intimate, but nevertheless very close, were ties to neighbours and others in the local community. There was great civic pride. Roseto held an enviable record of always ‘going over the top’ in community drives and in providing prompt financial assistance to flood-torn or other disaster areas around the world, especially in Italy. The overall atmosphere of the town was one of mutual support and understanding, and unfailing sustenance in time of trouble.’ (Wolf et al, ‘Roseto Revisited’, 100-101)

And the change? The scholars studying Roseto believe that it was the collapse of this spirit in the early 1960s. ‘The earlier beliefs and behaviour that expressed themselves in Roseto’s family-centred social life, absence of ostentation even among the wealthy, nearly exclusive patronage of local business, and a predominance of intra-ethnic marriages gradually changed toward the more familiar behaviour pattern of neighbouring communities. Roseto was shifting from its initially highly homogenous social order – made up of three-generation households with strong commitments to religion and to traditional values and practices – to a less cohesive, materialistic, more ‘Americanized’ community in which three-generation households were uncommon and inter-ethnic marriages became the norm.’ (Egolf et al, ‘The Roseto Effect’, 1090-91) The result: a rise in heart attacks including among the young.

Of course, it would be possible to begin to attack this model: so many of these points are difficult to measure empirically, some have claimed (unreasonably) that the statistical base was too small. However, the Roseto Effect might be a useful corrective or warning, let’s say, for those who wish to explain life expectancy on the basis of the Mediterranean Diet. How long you live and how you die depends on so much more than just what you put in your mouth… SY

B. Egolf, J. Lasker, S. Wolf, and L. Potvin, ‘The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates’, American Journal of Public Health 82 (1992), 1089-1092 – read here in pdf

S. Wolf, K. L. Grace, J. Bruhn, and C. Stout ‘Roseto revisited: further data on the incidence of myocardial infarction in Roseto and neighboring Pennsylvania communities’, Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association 85 (1974) 100-108 – read here in pdf

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