Speakers and guests from a broad range of backgrounds including the scientific community, the media, politics, and education met on February 14 at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican City to launch a debate and discuss ‘Food Values’ in the context of the current role and significance of the Mediterranean diet.

See more: 'Food Values' Conference Program

The traditional Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) and lifestyle is now considered to be one of the most healthful patterns of eating and living. Nevertheless, chronic illness and obesity are growing in societies where the cost and perceived value of food are falling with increased availability and industrialization.

The value of heritage diets such as the MedDiet is finally becoming understood, and in this renaissance lays the opportunity to reawaken people’s relationship with what they eat, in the environment in which they live, and improve their health, as expressed in the introduction by Paolo Pasquali and Monsignor Marcelo Sànchez Sorondo, who pointed out how the adherence to the Mediterranean diet strengthens the beneficial link between food quality, cultural traditions, health, wellbeing, and sustainability.

In fact, dietary patterns at the level of populations have a major impact on every aspect of planetary health as well, from climate to biodiversity, said the president of The True Health Initiative David L. Katz. “The case will be made that we can love food that loves our health and the planet back.”

Among the most recent research, an ‘umbrella review’ conducted by Francesco Sofi from University of Florence and Careggi University Hospital, estimated the beneficial association between MedDiet and 34 different health outcomes, based on 12 meta-analyses of observational studies and 14 meta-analyses of RCTs (Randomized Controlled Trials), for a total population of over than 12,700,000 subjects. “Results showed that MedDiet had an impact on chronic diseases and overall mortality,” Sofi affirmed.

“Furthermore, meta-analyses of RCTs demonstrated that subjects allocated to a MedDiet had, as compared with subjects following a control diet, better anthropometrical, metabolic and inflammatory risk parameters.”

In this sense, polyphenols and omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to exert anti-inflammatory actions, via multiple mechanisms of actions, as shown by Francesco Visioli from the Department of Molecular Medicine of the University of Padova. He highlighted the beneficial activity of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and essential fatty acids contained in extra virgin olive oil, which is not limited to their antioxidant activity, but is also linked to a variety of mechanisms, often interrelated.

Stefano Benedettelli, from the Department of Agrifood Production and Environmental Sciences of the University of Florence, drew attention to ancient wheat species, which present a healthier and a better nutritional profile than modern wheat, by providing more vitamins, minerals and nutraceutical compounds, and organic cultivation.

“The MedDiet encourages sustainable agriculture, contributes to promoting local production and consumption, and safeguards landscapes as an outstanding resource of sustainable development,” said Antonia Trichopoulou, from the Hellenic Health Foundation and WHO Collaborating Centre for Nutrition and Health of Athens Medical School. The MedDiet has been acknowledged by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as an example of a sustainable diet in which nutrition, biodiversity, local food production and local culture are closely interconnected.

With regards to food tradition and cultural heritage, the chef and owner of Locanda Locatelli in London, Giorgio Locatelli, evidenced the value of the conviviality of food and the benefits which this has on wellbeing. “The Med diet is not solely about the food and the environment, but also the circumstances and surroundings in which food is eaten. Our well-being can be influenced by ‘how’ we eat,” he pointed out, highlighting the ‘feel-good factor’ of this dietary pattern.

Then, the Menus of Change initiative, was presented by Greg Drescher, the vice president of Strategic Initiatives and Industry Leadership at The Culinary Institute of America. It was designed to integrate the scientific evidence around optimally healthy food choices and environmental sustainability, together with culinary and business insight.

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The professor and sensory scientist at the University of Davis, California, Jean-Xavier Guinard, proposed sensory strategies for dietary changes with the Healthy Flavors Research Initiative. Made in collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America and UC Davis Dining Services, sensory testing and culinary strategies have been developed for healthier recipes with uncompromised sensory appeal.

The vast, global consensus among experts in different fields about the fundamentals of diet that favor both human and planetary well-being was evidenced by Sara Baer-Sinnott, the president of Oldways, an organization that aims to improve public health through the promotion of cultural food traditions and lifestyles. “As we learn that the top consumer trends for 2017 are authenticity and healthy living, there is the great potential to make a difference through a renaissance of the MedDiet in coming years.”

In order to make it possible, there is an urgent need for a new approach, especially in regard to food and nutrition education and communication, according to Daniele Del Rio, of the Department of Food & Drug of the University of Parma and the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health, St John’s Innovation Centre of Cambridge.

Basic and applied research in food and nutrition should be subjected to more rigorous quality control, as is the case in medical and pharmaceutical research, Del Rio said. More investment in evidence-informed food and nutrition education are needed, providing high-quality food and nutrition knowledge and skills, and prioritizing children. And much better care in communicating nutritional recommendations, as well as knowledge translation based on new discoveries and breaking evidence, is a fundamental step to make the population more aware of the incredible impact of their dietary choices on their personal health.

“The transformation of food systems is emerging as a significant solution space that is unique in its capacity to motivate change from the individual, to the global level,” pointed out Fabrice DeClerck, science director at the EAT Foundation and the Stockholm Resilience Center and senior scientist at the Bioversity International of Rome. “Global sustainable development is achievable through food and this transformation will only be achieved through a systemic, whole-of-society departure from business-as-usual to an innovative and coordinated action around the way food is produced and consumed. This transformation, while challenging, is possible,” he added.

“There is a need for a more enlightened view of the potential damage arising from modern methods of food processing and a better understanding of the benefits of placing a greater value on what and how we eat,” the physicians and author, Simon Poole affirmed.

“Those of us privileged to have some understanding of the urgent need for a new paradigm on matters of nutrition and lifestyle have a duty to disseminate this message.”

Poole considered that much can be learned from the way in which climate change has become a political imperative hitherto due to pressure from the scientific community and the propagation of the need for change. “A renaissance in the value we place on food is urgently needed to reverse what is a growing health crisis in many parts of the world,” he concluded.



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