Friday, November 19, 2010

Mediterranean diet gets UNESCO's stamp of approval

Increasingly under threat from mass-produced fast-food, the Mediterranean diet received a boost this week when the United Nations' culture and education agency UNESCO added it to its list of cultural heritage worth preserving and promoting.

A press release issued after the meeting of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage highlights the Mediterranean diet's widely-accepted healthfulness. But to me, at least as important is the agency's emphasis on the socio-cultural elements of the Mediterranean diet.

"The Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing."

The UNESCO also notes that women play "a particularly vital role in the transmission of expertise, as well as knowledge of rituals, traditional gestures and celebrations, and the safeguarding of techniques."

This is an interesting point, for one reason why home-cooked family meals are in decline in the Mediterranean region is the increased number of women who work outside the home. (See this article about the sharp rise in obesity around the Mediterranean following the marked shift in nutritional habits and demographic trends.) Of course I do not 'blame women' for abandoning home-cooking; I blame social structures that make it very difficult for women and men to both work and prepare healthy, natural food for their families.

The request for recognition of the diet was made by the governments of Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco. Each of these countries is now committed to undertaking a series of safeguarding efforts, together with a plan for transnational measures aimed at ensuring transmission to younger generations and promoting awareness of the Mediterranean diet.

Some commentators have dismissed the Mediterranean diet's inclusion on the UNESCO's heritage list as PR gimmickry, or, more cynically still, as part of a marketing ploy to boost Mediterranean olive-oil sales. Citing varied cuisines around the Mediterranean basin, they also claim that there is no such thing as a distinct 'Mediterranean diet' and therefore no cultural heritage to preserve.

These cynics are missing the point. Cuisines vary around the Mediteranean because of the different climatic, geological, historical and cultural environments that shaped them. Yet, despite superficial differences, there is more that unites than divides them. For the traditional pre-industrial diets eaten in the whole region were, almost without exception, characterised by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, pulses, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, a moderate intake of fish, dairy and meat and accompanied by red wine (religious practices permitting).

Incidentally, anyone who is familiar with Mediterranean cuisines knows that many countries have similar dishes that go by different names: for example, Italy's pesto is virtually the same as the pistou of French Provence, which closely resembles the romesco sauce of Spain's Catalunya region or north African chermoula.

Meanwhile, to those who accuse the olive oil growers of dark and scheming motives, I say: the Mediterranean diet is precious precisely because, apart from olive oil and perhaps red wine, it is largely anti-commercial, being based on unprocessed, fresh food that offers slim profit margins to producers. It is the exact antithesis of the sort of diet the industrial food giants would have us eat, one that consists almost entirely of processed and denatured 'food-like edible substances' that are making us sick and fat.

Indeed, if everyone started eating a Mediterranean diet - fresh fruit and vegetables from farmers' markets, homemade whole-grain bread, eggs from chickens scratching in the back yard, meat and milk from animals raised on nearby meadows, etc. - the industrial food giants would soon be out of business.

Luckily for them, this isn't going to happen anytime soon, because, among others, many people below the age of 30 don't know how to produce or prepare food from scratch, nor do they remember the taste of fresh, natural, unadulterated food. Long working hours, competitive labor markets, uninspired school and workplace cafeterias and the ever-present lure of tasty but unnutritious convenience fare will ensure that young palates remain undemanding, even to the point of preferring a factory-made poultry nugget to a home-roasted chicken!

So while putting the Mediterranean diet on a list of threatened lifestyles is probably not enough to restore an ailing food culture, I think every effort is worth undertaking it if it means raising public awareness just that teeny little bit. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I believe that if more people ate a Mediterranean diet and enjoyed the life-affirming lifestyle that goes with it, the world could be a healthier and happier place.

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