Mediterranean Way of Eating Under Threat

A new piece of research by the Catholic University of Campobasso, Italy, highlights a disconcerting trend, intensified by the global recession: The demise of the Mediterranean diet at its very heartland as financially hard-pushed consumers spend less money on “expensive” healthy foods and shift towards more convenient and economically priced packaged food options instead.

Cost factor a stumbling block

The Mediterranean diet is widely recognised as a gold standard of healthy eating. It is based primarily on fruit, vegetables, fish, seafood, pulses, whole grains, olive oil and moderate amounts of dairy and red wine. Being a centuries-old traditional diet, it features only small quantities of red meat and virtually no processed foods. There is abundant evidence that this way of eating protects the body from developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, arthritis, some types of cancer and a whole host of other ailments associated with ‘modern living’.

It is widely recognised that, in industrialised countries, socioeconomically disadvantaged groups suffer from a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as some cancers, and that a diet high in calories and poor in nutrients is partly responsible for this.

Euromonitor International reported recently that the UK is going through a ‘nutrition crisis’, with consumption of fruit and vegetables falling most markedly amongst low-income households. This pattern is also becoming ever more evident in Mediterranean countries, which have long been a stronghold of healthy eating tradition.

In November 2012, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a study carried out by the Catholic University of Campobasso, involving a large sample group of over 13,000 adult subjects residing in the Molise region of Italy.

The researchers found that as incomes went down, people’s adherence to Mediterranean diet principles also declined. Obesity prevalence was also significantly higher in the low-income group in the region (at 36%) compared to the higher income group (20%). Researchers concluded that the comparatively high cost of foods that traditionally make up the Mediterranean diet seemed to represent an obstacle for today’s consumers when it came to maintaining a healthy diet, driving
people towards a different way of eating in order to conserve money.

Healthy fresh food declines, packaged food and burgers on the up

Our data shows that Italian fresh fruit and fish and seafood consumption remained static over the 2006-2011 period, while fresh vegetables and pulses declined by 3% and 6%,
respectively. Retail value sales of naturally healthy olive oil fell by 13% between 2006-2011, while those of ready meals crept up by 14%. In consumer foodservice, burger fast food made substantial value gains of 65% during 2006-2011.

The pattern is similar in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey. Although it has to be said that Greece presents a slightly different picture to the other Mediterranean markets: Besides the tumbling consumption of traditional healthy fresh foods, packaged food and consumer foodservice spends have also been falling across the board, due to the country experiencing the most severe economic crisis of any European market.

In Turkey, an emerging economy characterised by strong dynamism in many areas, including packaged food and beverages, total volume sales of fresh fruit, vegetables and pulses remained virtually stagnant during 2006-2011, while total volumes of confectionery and sweet and savoury snacks rose by 31% and 23%, respectively, over the same period. Burger fast food value sales leapt by an astounding 161% during 2006-2011.

The BMJ study did point out that education levels, besides income, also played a role in people’s food choices, with better educated consumers more likely to stick to healthy options. However, income was a very strong factor, and with many countries of the Mediterranean region experiencing significant drops in household incomes, with no evident signs of economic recovery on the horizon, an imminent return to the much healthier eating patterns of the past is, unfortunately, quite unlikely.