With its focus on olive oil, grains, nuts, vegetables and fish, the Mediterranean diet can be good for both the body — and wallet.
So even though the dietary eating pattern has been around for centuries, these health-focused yet recessionary times could bring it more success.
“It's a good diet in a bad economy,” said Ron Tanner, vice president for communications and education at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, New York.
It's affordable because it consists mostly of pasta, rice and beans. Meat is used minimally.
“Meat is used almost as an accent, not as a main ingredient,” Tanner said.
As part of its sponsorship of the inaugural Mediterranean Food Month this month, food think-tank Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, Boston, is promoting a variety of Mediterranean recipes that can be prepared for as little as $6.66 for a family of four.
The Mediterranean way of eating recommends making olive oil the primary source of dietary fat; food from plant sources; low to moderate consumption of fish and poultry weekly; and low to moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt daily.
“Mediterranean foods are neither time-consuming nor expensive to prepare,” noted Sara Baer-Sinnott, Oldways' executive vice president. “You can take some shrimp and peas and put it over pasta for a healthy meal.”
Healthy indeed. More and more studies show that people who eat a Mediterranean diet have lower rates of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer's disease.
Italian researchers recently reported, for instance, that people who adhered strictly to a Mediterranean diet experienced 9% fewer deaths than those who did not, a 9% drop in death from cardiovascular disease, a 13% reduction in cases of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, and a 6% drop in cancer.
The health advantages of the Mediterranean diet are being promoted as part of Mediterranean Food Month.
Throughout the month, Oldways will promote the new Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, which was recently updated to reflect the latest science emphasizing the role of foods from plant sources as the core of healthy eating. All plant foods including fruit, grains, beans, seeds, nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices are now listed together, rather than separately.
“The point was to emphasize plant foods in terms of healthfulness in the Mediterranean Diet,” said Baer-Sinnott.
Oldways distributed free Mediterranean Diet kits to supermarkets' registered dietitians, deli managers and other store personnel. Kits were also given to health professionals. The kit includes ways to promote Mediterranean foods, such as via store tours, olive oil tastings and meal ideas.
Oldways is also using social media like blogs and Twitter to spread the word about the benefits of Mediterranean foods, along with easy and affordable Mediterranean recipes and ingredients.
Another aspect of Mediterranean Month is a consumer recipe contest. Those who submit a recipe that uses at least two Mediterranean Diet ingredients could win a copy of “The Oldways Table,” a book that contains Mediterranean recipes and information. Winners will also get various Mediterranean products.
Mediterranean Month comes at a time when some retailers are paying closer attention to the region's foods.
West Point Market in Akron, Ohio, reports good sales with Mediterranean items sold under the Peloponnese brand, including tapenade; baba ghanoush; whole roasted peppers; grape leaves; and tahini, a nutty condiment used in salad dressings, hummus and other spreads.
“We carry a combination of fresh items in our deli as well as shelf-stable items,” noted Rick Vernon, West Point's chief executive officer.
Jungle Jim's International Market, Fairfield, Ohio, has a 32-foot Mediterranean section featuring about 200 products. Ziyad is one of the more popular brands.
The best-selling items are tahini, chick peas, spices, nuts, grains and pickle items.
“We also have frozen heat-and-eat meals,” said Bret Vitek, Jungle Jim's International Foods manager.
Likewise, retailers are beginning to promote foods from more sub-regions in the Mediterranean — packaging that states products were made in the Abruzzo or Sicily areas of Italy are common.
Whereas 15 years ago, Mediterranean foods in the U.S. were mostly from Italy and Spain, today foods also come from neighboring countries, including Greece, Morocco, Syria and Malta, said NASFT's Tanner.
One of the finalists of NASFT's 2009 “Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation” awards, for instance, is authentic harissa, a Moroccan hot sauce, from a company called Alili Morocco.
Upscale retailer Balducci's, Bethesda, Md., promotes the fact that its Zoe Diva Arbequina extra-virgin olive oil is made from 100 Arbequina olives from Arbeca, Spain. It sells for $12.99 for 33 ounces.
“The Arbequina olive has a low yield but produces a high-quality oil that is internationally lauded and coveted,” Balducci's states in promotional materials. “This is made even more evident by the fact that these olives are so small they must be picked by hand.”
Another specialty olive oil at Balducci's is made from cornicabra olives from Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, selling for $13.49 for 33 ounces.
“American consumers have been so exposed to the Med Diet that they're beginning to see the intricacies of it and try products from the different regions,” said Tanner.
To help consumers locate products that fit within the Mediterranean Diet, more than 200 products from about 20 companies carry the Med Mark on their packaging. The stamp-size symbol is found on a variety of products, including olive oil, hummus, cheese and olives.
To be eligible for the Med Mark, foods cannot have more than 8% of total calories from saturated fat, or more than 480 milligrams of sodium for individual foods and 4 grams of added sugar. Products also cannot contain any added trans fats.
Lucini Italia Co., a Miami-based company that produces Italian olive oil, vinegar pasta sauce and other items, is among the companies using the Med Mark. Company President David Neuman told SN he uses the symbol to indicate to consumers that his company's products can be part of a healthy diet.
Lindsay Olives, Lafayette, Calif., carries the Med Mark symbol on all its olives, according to Kate Hart, Lindsay's consumer marketing manager.
Hart said the symbol is a quick way for consumers to identify healthy products.
The Med Mark isn't the only way shoppers can learn about which products fit in the diet. That's because Mediterranean-themed cooking classes are popping up at retailers around the country. Jungle Jim's recently had a cooking class that included Basil and Sun-dried Tomato Spirals; Grilled Flank Steak with Citrus Herb Marinade served with Chunky Mojo Relish; and Strawberry and Field Greens Salad with Pecans and Feta.
Likewise, last year, Minneapolis-based Byerly's had a sold-out cooking seminar called “Summer Mediterranean.” The menu included Pan Seared Tuna Steaks with Capers & Oregano; and Greek Hand Pies with Greens, Dill, Mint, and Feta.
Private labels are also taking on a Mediterranean flair. Take Harris Teeter, Matthews, N.C., which has a variety of such offerings under its H.T. Traders line. They include extra virgin olive oils, bronze-die-cut pastas, slow-cooked pasta sauces, and classical brochettes and tapenades.
“We studied classical Mediterranean cooking and developed our own recipes based on time-honored traditional flavors and methods, but we made them simple for you to bring home and blend into your menu planning,” Harris Teeter writes in promotional materials.
The Mediterranean Diet isn't really a diet; it's more of a lifestyle approach filled with fruit, vegetables, fish, beans, nuts and whole grains. Studies show that people who follow this diet have lower rates of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer's disease.
“It's an exciting time,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, executive vice president of Oldways. “It seems that new studies come out every week or month in support of the Mediterranean Diet.”
Following a Mediterranean diet means enjoying the following foods:• Healthy fats like those found in olive oil, nuts, avocados and fish.
• Lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
• Lean protein sources like fish and poultry.
• Yogurt and cheese in small portions.
• Wine in moderation.
SOURCE: The Mediterranean Foods Alliance/Oldways