`On Nutella, Olive Oil and Obesity - Olive Oil Times

On Nutella, Olive Oil and Obesity

By Dr. M.P. Graziani
Sep. 2, 2010 11:52 UTC

Dispatch from the Italian pantry: tra­di­tional nutri­tional val­ues vs. tasty mod­ern treats

Two sta­ples of the mod­ern Italian diet have been grab­bing the head­lines in Italy lately. The two foods are strange bed­fel­lows but are among the most impor­tant prod­ucts that can be found in every Italian kitchen – olive oil and Nutella. While food mak­ing the front page is not unusual in itself, the sto­ries say a lot about the con­tem­po­rary changes in con­sump­tion in Italy, a coun­try that is still per­ceived inter­na­tion­ally as a strong­hold of healthy tra­di­tions when it comes to eat­ing.

While these two celebrity com­modi­ties share a place in the heart of Italians, they occupy dif­fer­ent ends of the nutri­tional and cul­tural-tra­di­tional spec­trum. What made them an object of lively dis­cus­sion is the fact that both sub­stances have been the sub­ject of inter­na­tional leg­is­la­tion passed over recent weeks, but leg­is­la­tion of a very dif­fer­ent nature.

As already cov­ered by the Olive Oil Times, UNESCO, the United Nations agency respon­si­ble for des­ig­nat­ing world her­itage sites and other aspects of human achieve­ment and his­tory of edu­ca­tional, cul­tural or sci­en­tific value, has recently included a menu for the first time among the cat­e­gory of unique cul­tural her­itage that must be pro­tected and pro­moted. The diet is the tra­di­tional Mediterranean diet, and its fun­da­men­tal ingre­di­ents – fore­most among them, of course, is olive oil. Olive oil and the culi­nary tra­di­tions and cul­ture based on it were enshrined in the inter­na­tional covenant – up there with the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids – as invalu­able assets for humankind, part of an Intangible Cultural Heritage that should be pro­tected like a land­mark or sacred site.

Just a few weeks ear­lier, there were scare sto­ries cir­cu­lat­ing in the Italian media that the very exis­tence of Nutella – the hazel­nut-choco­late spread cre­ated in Turin that chil­dren and adults alike enjoy every morn­ing on their crois­sants – was being threat­ened by new European Union anti-obe­sity leg­is­la­tion. In fact, that leg­is­la­tion only seeks to pro­hibit the mar­ket­ing of such high-sugar high-fat foods in a way that seems to make claims that they are healthy. It’s almost as if one prod­uct has been declared a saint, while the other has been placed under house arrest!

The Nutella affair pro­voked scan­dal and out­rage, being greeted almost as an attack on national sov­er­eignty. While, on the other hand, the UNESCO deci­sion enshrin­ing the impor­tance of olive oil, and the tra­di­tional Mediterranean diet of which it is the cor­ner­stone, was received with under­stated pride and rel­a­tive calm– as if sim­ply a con­fir­ma­tion of what we have all always known: the tra­di­tional diet is
healthy; at the very foun­da­tion of Mediterranean cul­tures.

However, the fact that the diet is unchang­ing and of the ages is pre­cisely what has seen it lose ground – even in those tra­di­tional coun­tries like Italy, as in oth­ers – to newer eat­ing habits and their reper­cus­sions. These reper­cus­sions have included a notable increase in the num­ber of peo­ple who are over­weight or obese. In its 2005 European Health Report, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations agency respon­si­ble for health mat­ters, defined obe­sity as a real epi­demic spread­ing across the whole of Europe where more than half of the adult pop­u­la­tion is over the thresh­old of over­weight”, and between 20 and 30 % are clin­i­cally obese. What’s more, child­hood obe­sity is on the rise across Europe.

Obesity is defined as abnor­mal or exces­sive fat accu­mu­la­tion that presents a risk to health for a num­ber of chronic dis­eases, includ­ing dia­betes, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases, and can­cer. Because of the fast rate at which these con­di­tions are spread­ing across the world, inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions like UNESCO and WHO are propos­ing dif­fer­ent inter­ven­tion strate­gies. Diet and phys­i­cal activ­ity are two of the most impor­tant fac­tors, and they are often very much con­nected to culi­nary habits and lifestyle which, rooted in dif­fer­ent social groups, rep­re­sent a her­itage of tra­di­tions. These define var­i­ous cul­tural iden­ti­ties and are able to bal­ance the excesses of an over-glob­al­ized, post-mod­ern era. The Mediterranean diet has there­fore been given a priv­i­leged place among the rec­om­mended food strate­gies, advo­cat­ing thus for greater use of veg­eta­bles, fruit, as well as greater use of veg­etable fats – prime among them, is olive oil – instead of ani­mal fats like but­ter.

Data pub­lished recently by the Italian Ministry of Health described a pop­u­la­tion largely over­weight and in many cases obese. The sit­u­a­tion in Italy varies from region to region. In Campania, which has one of the worst rates, many ini­tia­tives are being mounted aimed at pro­mot­ing a bet­ter lifestyle and diet. Some Italian asso­ci­a­tions, in line with the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage con­cept, are orga­niz­ing pro­grams aimed at reawak­en­ing and strength­en­ing the recog­ni­tion of healthy, high-nutri­tional-value tra­di­tional prod­ucts that have pos­i­tive effects on human health.

One of the pro­posed projects was offer­ing school pupils snacks pre­pared from tra­di­tional Mediterranean recipes, one of which was of the most ele­men­tal sim­plic­ity — a good slice of fresh bread, with olive oil and salt. The pur­pose of this was to show the chil­dren their cul­tural roots and, hope­fully, to give them some­thing appeal­ing that con­trasts to the newer eat­ing habits, which are gen­er­ally char­ac­ter­ized by a poor and monot­o­nous diet, lots of calo­ries, ani­mal pro­teins, sat­u­rated fats.

Among veg­etable fats, oil, and espe­cially olive oil, because it’s an ancient and typ­i­cal prod­uct that has always been part of the Mediterranean area, has right­fully occu­pied an impor­tant place in cul­tural pol­i­tics. Exporting olive oil and the best lifestyle of the areas in which it’s pro­duced can be, if well uti­lized, one of the fac­tors used to fight obe­sity, overeat­ing and lack of move­ment but also, in a more gen­eral sense, can help in pro­mot­ing health as defined the World Health Organization – a state of com­plete phys­i­cal, men­tal and social well-being and not
merely the absence of dis­ease or infir­mity.

As I dis­cussed in another arti­cle for Olive Oil Times, in the fan­tasy world of com­mer­cials, the sym­bol­ism of olive oil is strong. In that world, olive oil is asso­ci­ated to ancient and fun­da­men­tal con­cepts like soil, tra­di­tion, being gen­uine, friend­ship, cor­dial­ity. Olive oil is described using a real­ity that is very hard to find nowa­days – a dream world with an end­less coun­try­side of uncon­t­a­m­i­nated fields, par­a­disi­a­cal val­leys and hum­ble, happy peo­ple por­trayed in con­tented scenes of every­day life, Mediterranean women with their hair col­lected under a veil, rosy-cheeked and robust, busy col­lect­ing olives.

But as we know, that image is far from the real­ity of today’s mas­sive olive plan­ta­tions that spread over vast swaths of the Mediterranean land­scape and else­where. The sym­bolic power of the olive and its oil is tied up with the power and strength of a past which tech­nol­ogy has cer­tainly improved upon but also can­celed out. As olive oil has become a global com­mod­ity, its pro­duc­tion has been indus­tri­al­ized and expanded almost beyond recog­ni­tion, even in Italy.

Such change in Italy has not only been seen on the pro­duc­tion side of the equa­tion. Habits and behav­iors have also started to change on the con­sump­tion side. While olive oil still undoubt­edly occu­pies an almost sacred space in the chapel of the Italian home, the kitchen, mod­ern gen­er­a­tions of Italians – like oth­ers across Europe – are eat­ing fewer and fewer of their meals at home. Researchers on food choice moti­va­tion at the University of Rome La Sapienza” looked at a group of aver­age stu­dents. The results revealed how their food choices are influ­enced by emo­tiv­ity, imag­ing and sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to adver­tis­ing and com­mer­cial mes­sages, show­ing that the great­est con­sump­tion desire was stim­u­lated by ready-to-eat, pre-pre­pared snacks. Food sci­en­tists con­clude that peo­ple eat these easy mod­ern prod­ucts mainly not because they are hun­gry but, rather, because of hedo­nis­tic, com­pul­sive or emo­tive behav­ior. Such non-tra­di­tional snacks are gen­er­ally very high in calo­ries, rich in sugar and sat­u­rated fats and rich in ani­mal pro­teins. They taste good. The palata­bil­ity of these snacks is high and at the end of the day they are the cause of mis­taken caloric intake.

Why then, if the nutri­tional infor­ma­tion is so clear, don’t we stop eat­ing what’s bad and start eat­ing what’s good? The answer can be found in two words: taste and palata­bil­ity. These two com­po­nents in pre­pared food are mainly given by its fatty and sweet com­po­nents. The func­tion of our brain that con­trols hunger in absence of a real need of food is gov­erned by hedo­nism. This com­pli­cates a lot the sit­u­a­tion because in this case, the fac­tors lead­ing to a cer­tain choice are many and com­plex. Some researches show that hedo­nism wins over the cog­ni­tive fac­tor. Disorderly con­sump­tion of calo­ries is the fruit of com­pul­sion in repeat­ing the use of prod­ucts that gen­er­ate, even for a short time, phys­i­o­logic and psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being; some­thing that relaxes from the anx­i­ety of con­sum­ing, chew­ing, bit­ing some­thing tasty – a ver­i­ta­ble mini cir­cuit of addic­tion, which is hard to break.


It is thus nec­es­sary for con­sumers to become aware of and respon­si­ble for the processes of his own choices, won­der­ing about his moti­va­tions, and ana­lyz­ing the caloric effects and nutri­tional com­po­nents. For instance: it is true that olive oil is healthy, but we still have to keep in mind the calo­ries! A quan­tity of 10g of extra vir­gin olive oil, known as the well-being quan­tity” in Italian – which is equiv­a­lent to a soup spoon­ful – con­tains some 90 kcal. Current guide­lines sug­gest a healthy daily con­sump­tion of olive oil of around 2 – 3 of these units and total weekly intake of 200g.

Eating habits are as impor­tant as every other human behav­ior for which we are actors and wit­nesses of our own life. We should act pushed not only by our own plea­sure and emo­tion but also by the knowl­edge and the ratio­nal­ity that are the struc­ture of the abil­ity or inabil­ity of mak­ing all kinds of deci­sions through­out our lives. If gov­ern­men­tal guide­lines, laws or procla­ma­tions are to be worth any­thing, they must be accom­pa­nied by edu­ca­tional efforts to bring home the mes­sage of how and why these things mat­ter, and how they can have an impact on our own lives – in the Mediterranean and beyond. In the space between mar­ket­ing and real­ity, there is room for inter­ven­tion that helps inform and guide con­sumers to make bet­ter-informed choices.

Hopefully, the cul­tural exchange between coun­tries where the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Mediterranean diet was born and other coun­tries can also help them to adopt nutri­tional poli­cies that iden­tify olive oil as a fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of a healthy diet. This is impor­tant espe­cially for chil­dren because if a cer­tain eat­ing habit is intro­duced early in life, it is then capa­ble of pos­i­tively influ­enc­ing their approach to food in adult­hood. To come back to the roots of the olive in Mediterranean cul­ture, let us recall what is said about it in the Talmud: it is eas­ier to grow an olive tree in this land than to raise a child”. It seems that the more progress we make, the more we have to learn from look­ing back at our roots, and moments like this are use­ful for us to take stock of our habits and their value.


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