Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mediterranean nutrition: the challenges lie ahead

According to Martine Padilla, one of the senior researchers in Food economics in the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies in Montpellier, there is no “Mediterranean nutrition”, but there are common characteristics to the nutrition of the people of the Mediterranean. These include an availability of calories ranging between 3130 Kcal and 3560 Kcal per person per day, a common palette of tastes, structured meals constituted of small dishes including drinks and fresh and seasonal products, as well as similarities in the techniques of food preparation. These similarities result in food products that are generally healthy, tasty, enjoyable, and which are linked to a culinary tradition. However, in recent times, ambivalence has prevailed, as nutrition in the Mediterranean is drawn between the two forces of tradition and modernity. In the north of the Mediterranean, these two forces have resulted in a drift towards an increase in the consumption of meat, while the south has witnessed a higher consumption of grain-based products, but also and especially, of sugar. These trends raise a number of concerns, related to the increased consumption of fats, especially of the saturated kind, and of sugar; but also of hidden hunger due to the deficiency of micro nutrients.

These trends reflect a change in lifestyles, which are today shaped by urbanization. Urban people have become distant from food sources, working couples have less time to prepare complex meals, and school canteens expose children to rapidly prepared and conveniently packaged meals. This influences the formation and development of taste in young people. The market is responding to these changes, with an intensification of the industrial production of products with high calorific content, rich in sugars, such as soft drinks, or in both sugar and fats such as biscuits, cookies and chocolates.

As a result, the Mediterranean basin is witnessing a decrease in the consumption of fresh products in the poorer countries of the south, while the import of fresh products by the countries of the north is increasing. These products usually originate from the countries of the south, the policies of which are plagued by the “culture of export”. Thus, while the nutritional security has been achieved for most of the people in quantitative terms, there is a degradation of the qualitative aspect of nutritional security. This leads to a paradoxical situation in which the poor countries which until recently were still food deficient now count obesity and overweight among their main problems. The illnesses of the rich have now become illnesses of the poor. Egypt, for instance, counts 23% obesity and 63% overweight. Youth obesity is also growing fast. As a result, type-2 diabetes is on the increase, facilitated by the genetic pre-disposition of the people of the region.

In order to correct this situation, the countries concerned must confront a number of challenges:

  1. Governments must establish, promote and support a food system respectful of health.
  2. The trade in traditional food products needs to be revived, organized and enhanced as these products are essential ingredients for healthy cooking.
  3. Food wastage must be reduced. Research in France shows that out of every 10 calories produced, only 1 is consumed.
  4. Agricultural policies must focus, foster and support nutritional and alimentary security.
  5. Sanitary quality of products must be controlled, along with the nutritional quality. There is no point ensuring that a product is clean if it is not nutritious. In both cases, illness awaits the consumer.
  6. Money is not the only determinant of consumers’ choices when it comes to purchasing food. Image and representation are at least as important. Image building of nutritious food must start at school.

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