Mediterranean Diet Falls Victim to the Lure of Convenience

12 Nov 2015

Ewa Hudson, Head of Health and Wellness Research at Euromonitor International
@ewa_hudson https://twitter.com/ewa_hudson
See Ewa Hudson speak on Day 3 Health and Wellness Trends track  at Fi Europe -http://www.figlobal.com/fieurope/conference/day3

Untitled Document

In a recently published White Paper, entitled Mediterranean Food Consumption Patterns – Diet, Environment, Society, Economy and Health, the FAO homed in on a pernicious paradox: As the Mediterranean diet’s recognition and popularity keep increasing owing to the many health benefits attributed to it, the Mediterranean region’s traditional ways of eating have gone into decline, while the incidence of chronic disease in the region keeps on spiralling upwards.


Chronic disease on the rise in the Med


Our countries and consumers database shows that obesity rates are on the rise in virtually all of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Over the 2009-2014 review period, the percentage of the population aged 15+ considered to be obese in Italy and Greece, for example, registered a 13% increase. In Portugal it was 11%, in Spain and Israel 10%, in Tunisia and Turkey 6% and Algeria 19%. Diabetes prevalence in the population aged 20-79 showed similar tendencies, registering particularly hefty rates of increase in Morocco, Algeria and Turkey of 22%, 21% and 15%, respectively.
Obesity and diabetes are key risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is the number one killer globally. It is sadly ironic that yet another study was presented just this spring at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session, which came to the conclusion that switching to a Mediterranean-style diet could, potentially, cut the risk of heart disease in half. The research, carried out by Harokopio University in Athens, had followed 2,500 Greek adults for a decade.


Healthy diversity


Now, it is acknowledged that the Mediterranean diet is by no means some kind of homogeneous menu plan that’s dished out to Algerians and Croatians alike. Rather, it encompasses diverse food cultures that are inextricably linked to local climatic conditions, seasons and also religious beliefs. A bean and pork stew accompanied by a glass of red wine, for instance, may be a customary dinner ensemble in southern European countries, but not so much in northern Africa.
However, there are several core dietary elements that are shared by countries across the Mediterranean region, such as plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, fish (and seafood in non-Muslim countries) with olive oil as the primary dietary fat source. And although dairy products, like homemade yoghurt, can be considered a dietary staple in countries such as Greece and Turkey, meat and dairy products, on the whole, have traditionally been used rather sparingly.


Meat drives fresh food volumes


Fresh food sales illustrate how dietary patterns are shifting. Our fresh food data show that in emerging markets situated in north Africa, fresh meat is driving fresh food sales, outpacing pulses, fish and seafood. In Morocco, for example, over the 2009-2014 review period, fresh meat volume sales increased by 19%, ahead of fish and seafood (14%) and pulses (9%).
Contrary to what one might expect, in southern Europe, the impact of the economic crisis under which the region continues to struggle, is not exactly working in favour of traditional diets either. In Spain, for instance, fresh fish and seafood volumes declined by 17% over the review period, while meat also contracted, but by just 5%.
It makes sense that fish and seafood, which is among the most expensive category of animal proteins, would suffer in times of economic downturn, as would meat, to a certain extent. However, these foods have not been replaced by the much cheaper protein-rich pulses, which declined by 9%. In Portugal and Greece, pulses’ volumes also contracted. In short, fresh food sales suggest that even in times of dwindling household incomes, the people of the Mediterranean are not inclined to revert to their traditional ways of eating.


Indulgence continues to thrive despite recession


It goes without saying that packaged food is not part of anyone’s traditional diet. As one would expect, though, the uptake of packaged food is increasing rapidly across the emerging markets of the Mediterranean region. Over the review period, packaged food retail value sale registered increases of 72% in Algeria, 69% in Egypt and 48% in Tunisia.
Even in southern European countries, where overall packaged food sales are stagnating, indulgence categories still did comparatively well. Ice cream values, for instance, rose by 11% in Italy and by 8% in Portugal over the review period. Sweet and savoury snacks managed increases of 20%, 18% and 11% in Italy, Portugal and Spain, respectively. Evidently, consumers in Mediterranean countries are finding it just as hard to say no to their favourite sugar, fat and salt-laden treats as their counterparts elsewhere in the world.


Saturated fat goes up


As a result of the enthusiastic uptake of packaged food, the nutrient profiles of the diets consumed in Mediterranean countries are starting to mimic those of the highly industrialised markets of the north (and the south with regards to Australia and New Zealand), where high intakes of processed, energy-dense food and beverages have been deemed partly responsible for the spread of chronic diseases.

Diets high in saturated fat are associated with the development of cardiovascular disease. Our nutrition data, which track daily per capita nutrient intakes consumed through packaged food, show an interesting pattern with regards to this. In 2014, the saturated fat intake in Mediterranean countries was still below that of the US, Australia, the UK and Germany. In Egypt, for instance, it amounted to just 7.8g and in Spain to 23g, while in the US it was 25.8g and in Germany 36.8g.
However, Morocco and Turkey mustered an increase in per capita saturated fat consumption of 15% over the review period, while that of the US fell by 10%. Egypt, Spain, Portugal and Italy also registered modest increases in per capita saturated fat intakes delivered by packaged food.

Olive oil, which is predominantly composed of monounsaturated (as well as some polyunsaturated) fats, has historically been the primary source of dietary fat in the Mediterranean region, and it continues to be widely used in cooking. Packaged food, especially confectionery, dairy products (particularly cheese), desserts and many snack foods, contain mainly saturated fats, usually to improve shelf life and achieve the desired texture. Meat is also a prime source of saturated fat. And since the consumption of packaged food and animal products are increasing in the Mediterranean markets, it is really no surprise that saturated fat intakes are on an upward trajectory.  


Who wants to spend half their day in the kitchen?


The FAO white paper states that the Mediterranean region was undergoing a “nutritional transition” which was eroding its traditional – and overwhelmingly healthy – dietary patterns, resulting in a concomitant increase of chronic disease.
It is hard to argue against the FAO’s conclusion on this matter, and it will be even harder to bring about a trend reversal. The crux of the matter is that consumers, by evolutionary design, are drawn to energy-dense food, including animal products like meat. Living on the body’s fat reserves, after all, is how the human race has managed to survive recurring famines.
Packaged food, on the whole, is not inherently tastier than traditional homemade Mediterranean fare – quite the contrary, many would argue – but where packaged food wins out is, of course, the convenience factor.
Cooking three meals (and snacks) from scratch every day is virtually a full-time occupation, and the prospect of employing packaged food in order to gain two three extra hours a day for other family activities or leisure pursuits, especially in an age when a growing number of women are economically active outside the home, is just too tempting to resist. The same goes for single person households, where the prospect of laboriously cooking a meal from raw ingredients after a long working day, and for only one person, is none too tempting, and nor is it always economical.

Ewa Hudson, Head of Health and Wellness Research at Euromonitor International

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