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 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 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 numbers 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 a greater use of vegetables, fruit as well as a 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.

More articles on: , , , ,