Archive for the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ Tag

Comment: Olive oil and the Mediterranean Diet   Leave a comment

In the November 2010 edition of the Italian State Railway’s magazine La Freccia (distributed onboard its luxury high-speed trains), one could find an article entitled “Le vie dell’olio” (“The Oil Routes” was the best, albeit still awkward, translation I could come up with). The article offered production background and geographic indications for the peninsula’s best olive oil, giving some specific mills to visit in each of the main olive oil producing regions.

As if we’ve never heard it before, the article sounded the tired trumpet to the tune of the Mediterranean Diet:”one of the fundamental products of the Mediterranean Diet, apart from being a food, olive oil has been used over the course of the history for medicinal purposes, for skin care and personal hygiene, for lighting and as a form of currency.” Telling the fact that only this paragraph was translated into English (the rest of the Italian text remained silent for anglophones).

I have to confess that my skepticism about the “Mediterranean Diet,” reinforced by reading Patricia Crotty’s article on the subject, is developing into a healthy suspicion. While I love olive oil, and I agree that it seems more nutritious than some other fats, I am wary of the idea (driven ahead as gospel by this article and many others like it) that the MD is actually some sort of artifact of a simple life of long ago. Olive oil was until very recently (read: the the early twentieth century) a luxury item inaccessible to most Italians. To take a simple example, the average Umbrian peasant diet of the late nineteenth century was based on polenta, a limited range of garden vegetables, and (twice a year!) meat. This data comes from the parliamentary inquest known as the Inchiesta Jacini, carried out between 1881 and 1886.

Jacini found that for the Umbrian peasant, the average number of grams of fat per day was between 20 and 30 (roughly a tablespoon). We can put aside the fact that likely all of those grams were fat from pigs: assuming that even half of that fat was from the luxury food olive oil, we can estimate that in a year the average Umbrian peasant ate between 3,650 and 5,475 grams of fat. Assuming olive oil has a mass of about 970 grams per liter, we get a total yearly consumption of between 3.8 and 5.6 liters. My mother, a 68 year old woman of Irish-German stock who has only just recently begun to use olive oil in her cooking, uses about a bottle (750mL) every two months, for a total annual consumption of 4.5 liters. How fundamental, then, can olive oil have been to the diet of the vast majority of poor Italians (and, by extension, poor Europeans) in centuries past?  (Gian Paolo Collacciani, “Le vie dell’olio,” La Freccia, Anno II, Numero 10, November 2010)  ZN

News: Mediterranean Diet considered by UNESCO   Leave a comment

In a recent insert of the Corriere dell’Umbria (16 Nov 2010, p.5), an unnamed author reported the following:

“The Mediterranean Diet the patrimony of humanity? Just a few more days of waiting, then the Technical Committee of UNESCO will sift through the candidacy presented by Italy, Greece, Spain, and Moracco. The examination began Monday, 15 November, in Nairobi. For Italy, the Mediterranean diet (the expression was coined in the Fifties by American nutritionist Ancel Keys), as a lifestyle based on genuine food products, could be the third element on the list, after Sicilian puppets and Sardinian Tenor Singing. For the first time the gastronomy of a country could become global patrimony.’It’s not about making gastronomy into a museum, but rather assuring the transmission of our culinary culture and the gastronomic dish, above all ones from holidays, from families, of which it is an essential element,’ said Pierre Sanner, director of the French Mission for Patrimony and Alimentary Cultures (MFPCA). And Italy, with its cultural baggage of cured sausages, oils, wines, cheeses, bread, and pasta has all the criteria for a specific candidacy. And a winning one.”

There’s no mention of Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Isreal, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or Algeria, all of whom presumably share this diet. For an article that is a critique of the concept of the “Mediterranean Diet,” see this post. ZN

Grazie a Daniela Buglione per la segnalazione.

Posted December 2, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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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

Nestle – ‘Mediterranean Diets’   Leave a comment

Nestle, Marion ‘Mediterranean diets: historical and research overview’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61 (1995), 1313-1320. Efficient general overview of the Mediterranean Diet – as Nestle takes it the Cretan peasant diet c. 1960 – from the earliest times through EURATOM. Final pages consider consequences of the MD for public health both in the Mediterranean heartlands and in the United States. SY

Posted September 23, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Pelucchi et alii – ‘Selected Aspects of Mediterranean Diet’   Leave a comment

Pelucchi, Claudio, Cristina Bosetti, Marta Rossi, Eva Negri and Carlo La Vecchia, ‘Selected Aspects of Mediterranean Diet and Cancer Risk’, Nutrition and Cancer 61 (2009), 756-766. The Mediterranean diet soldiers on. This 2009 study  from    out of Milan with 10,000 subjects gives strong support to the idea that we might be all better off eating more olive oil, vegetables, fruit etc etc. SY

Crotty – ‘The Mediterranean Diet’   2 comments

Patricia Crotty ‘The Mediterranean Diet as a Food Guide: The Problem of Culture and History’, Nutrition Today 33 (1998), 227-232. Crotty, an Australian nutritionist, describes the Mediterranean Diet as ‘an ersatz consumption pattern’ – the horror! She makes the obvious but important point that there are many Mediterranean diets, not least within Italy itself. She also makes the case that national diets are rooted in social realities and that they cannot easily be uprooted and planted elsewhere. A readable, sceptical overview with many references to the author’s native land. SY

Posted September 15, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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