Championing the Mediterranean Diet: EU Project Aims to Level the Playing Field with Processed Foods

The MedDiet4All project promotes the benefits of a Mediterranean diet and communicates the adverse health effects of ultra-processed foods.

MedDiet4All team at the announcement of the new project in Mainz, Germany
By Paolo DeAndreis
Dec. 5, 2023 16:21 UTC
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MedDiet4All team at the announcement of the new project in Mainz, Germany

Research spon­sored by the European Union has yielded the first global sur­vey aimed at under­stand­ing con­sumers’ per­cep­tion of the Mediterranean diet world­wide.

The sur­vey is part of a broader research effort to pro­mote the Mediterranean diet as a health­ier approach to pro­duc­ing and con­sum­ing food.

The E.U. project MedDiet4All” cites the Mediterranean diet as the key to a sus­tain­able agri-food indus­try and envi­ron­men­tally friendly agri­cul­ture.

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With the sur­vey, researchers intend to assess the obsta­cles to the wide­spread adop­tion of the Mediterranean diet by con­sid­er­ing the price of foods included, their avail­abil­ity, eat­ing habits and other social fac­tors.

The new MedDiet4All sur­vey is the first step in a three-year project, which received €2.4 mil­lion in E.U. fund­ing via the PRIMA pro­gram. The 19-state alliance pro­motes food secu­rity, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and a healthy lifestyle in the Mediterranean region.

In this ini­tial phase, we are gath­er­ing data from mul­ti­ple sources through the sur­vey and the wide net­work of asso­ci­ated insti­tu­tions,” Achraf Ammar, who leads the project and is a researcher at the Department of Training and Movement Science at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz in Germany, told Olive Oil Times.

Besides rely­ing on researchers and agri-food com­pa­nies from Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain, the project also involves part­ners in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Of course, we are now mostly focused on the survey’s answers com­ing from Mediterranean basin con­sumers in the PRIMA coun­tries,” Ammar said. As researchers, we are also very inter­ested in ana­lyz­ing the answers that will come from all over the world.”

The researchers behind MedDiet4All aim to estab­lish a transna­tional move­ment to pro­mote a wide­spread dietary shift asso­ci­ated with a health­ier lifestyle.

To this end, MedDiet4All’s back­ers believe the adver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing cam­paigns will spur the devel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies to improve food pro­duc­tion and logis­tics in the Mediterranean area. A new mobile app will also help cit­i­zens on the path to a healthy lifestyle.

The project aims to counter the increas­ing con­sump­tion of ultra-processed foods and drinks by rais­ing con­sumer aware­ness about the food they buy and eat.

There is a grow­ing body of stud­ies show­ing how the sig­nif­i­cant con­sump­tion of ultra-processed foods and drinks might con­vey a detri­men­tal impact on health,” Ammar said. Some research shows that ultra-processed foods are mak­ing inroads because they tend to be cheaper than the unprocessed ones.”

Ultra-processed foods and drinks are sup­ported by large food retail­ers and facil­i­ties, so they are eas­ily found every­where, which is not always true for healthy food,” he added. Additionally, con­sumers often choose ultra-processed foods and drinks because they are ready-to-eat, reduc­ing the time needed to pre­pare a meal.”

Furthermore, Ammar said the col­or­ful plas­tic pack­ag­ing of ultra-processed foods and drinks often adds to the envi­ron­men­tal bur­den they cre­ate.

Ultra-processed foods and drinks are mainly pro­duced through energy-inten­sive man­u­fac­tur­ing and mar­keted glob­ally through heavy logis­tics.

Their pop­u­lar­ity is also linked to the aggres­sive mar­ket­ing that most pro­duc­ers deploy,” Ammar said. Those ads do not show the impact of the food on health. The con­se­quence is that the pop­u­la­tion lacks aware­ness about this issue.”

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Research con­ducted in 2021 by New York University’s School of Global Health showed how, across two decades, ultra-food pop­u­lar­ity in the United States grew con­sis­tently.

In 2001, such foods accounted for 54 per­cent of the total calo­ries and reached 57 per­cent in 2018. In the same period, whole food con­sump­tion dropped from 33 per­cent of total calo­ries to 27 per­cent.

The lat­est research in Mediterranean coun­tries, such as Italy and Spain, shows that energy intake from ultra-processed foods and drinks remains under 25 per­cent.

These trends also demon­strate that the pop­u­lar­ity of the Mediterranean diet inversely affects ultra-processed food con­sump­tion. However, even in Mediterranean coun­tries, research sug­gests there is a grow­ing appetite for ready-to-eat, cheap, ultra-processed foods and drinks.

The project will focus on devel­op­ing rel­e­vant tech­nolo­gies to improve the com­pet­i­tive­ness and sus­tain­abil­ity of healthy foods. The goal is to opti­mize logis­tics and reduce the over­all costs of mov­ing foods asso­ci­ated with the Mediterranean diet from the farm to the super­mar­ket shelf.

We are work­ing on a MedDiet4All tech­nol­ogy plat­form that could sup­port the European Union’s Farm-to-Fork strat­egy,” Ammar said, indi­cat­ing the need to develop a multi-cen­ter Mediterranean diet sup­ply chain.

MedDiet4All part­ners are also work­ing to improve the sus­tain­abil­ity of food pack­ag­ing with projects to develop envi­ron­men­tally friendly biofilms as an alter­na­tive to stan­dard plas­tic films.

Another cor­ner­stone of the work is to inform con­sumers about their efforts so they bet­ter under­stand how to fol­low the Mediterranean diet and what goes into main­tain­ing a healthy and sus­tain­able food sys­tem.

A mobile app is in devel­op­ment intend­ing to dis­trib­ute a smart guide about the Mediterranean diet, the food and so forth,” Ammar said. But it will also con­sti­tute a lifestyle coach for the con­sumer, tai­lored to the needs of each user.”

According to the project part­ners, the coach­ing activ­i­ties and the exten­sive data­base in the app will help pro­mote a healthy com­bi­na­tion of qual­ity eat­ing habits and phys­i­cal, social and cul­tural activ­i­ties.

A cru­cial side of the project also relates to the ben­e­fi­cial envi­ron­men­tal impact of the Mediterranean diet.

As a plant-based diet, the Mediterranean diet reduces con­sump­tion of ani­mal-based prod­ucts and inten­sive ani­mal agri­cul­ture while also pro­mot­ing sea­sonal, locally sourced foods. Combined, this sig­nif­i­cantly low­ers the car­bon foot­print of the asso­ci­ated food chain.

Due to the wide range of fruits, veg­eta­bles, herbs and spices used, sup­port­ing the Mediterranean diet also means pre­serv­ing the plants from which all those foods come and their habi­tats.

By pro­mot­ing mod­er­ate seafood con­sump­tion, the Mediterranean diet also sup­ports a sus­tain­able approach to fish­ing. A Mediterranean diet also focuses on using left­overs, pre­serv­ing food and reduc­ing food vol­umes and waste.

MedDiet4All is a broad, multi-party effort that involves food experts, non­profit asso­ci­a­tions, tech­nol­ogy experts, sci­en­tific researchers and more,” Ammar said.

In the next three years, the goal is to pro­duce a pilot project which will include all of this and pave the way to fur­ther efforts to pro­mote the Mediterranean diet and a health­ier lifestyle,” he con­cluded.


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