By Xaq Frohlich
I first became interested in the Mediterranean diet because of the strong linkages between place, identity, and politics in Europe. I was an American living in Valencia, and while going through the immigration process there, I had an interview which involved a test of my “cultural integration and awareness” of Spain. I did not anticipate the simple, open-ended, yet under the circumstances heavily-loaded question the immigration officer asked me: “Do you like Spanish food?”
It was easy for me to answer “Yes!” and to spin off the names of several Valencian dishes I loved, such as paella de marisco and sopa de pepino. ( I was pandering with the second dish, cucumber soup. This was the summer of 2011, when a German E. coli outbreak had incorrectly blamed Spanish cucumbers, thus devastating farmers in Málaga. ) But I couldn’t resist adding that I studied food and had a research interest in the Mediterranean diet. The Valencian immigration officer got excited. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “The Mediterranean diet! I remember a few years ago when suddenly I started to hear about the Mediterranean diet this and the Mediterranean diet that. And I asked myself, ‘What is this Mediterranean diet that everyone is talking about?’” I was not completely surprised by her confusion, but was very curious to know what her personal discovery could be. “Well, I got some books,” she continued enthusiastically, “from the library and started to read about it, and it turned out that I was already eating the Mediterranean diet!” We laughed together at the irony of it. How could a woman who lived on the Mediterranean sea, eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables, olive oils, and other such Mediterranean staples not know she was eating this famous diet?
The answer is that there was something different about “learning” to eat a food because it’s what’s at the marketplace or what mom raised you on, and “learning” to eat a certain diet because it has become part of a global health campaign.
This exchange stuck with me and over time gave form to more serious research questions: what is the difference between the transmission of food and diet practices embedded within a particular place and community versus “diets” that circulate globally in the form of diet-advice books or scientific studies? What is the Mediterranean Diet? What culinary or political geographies do we imagine when we talk about it? Why do we think it is healthy? Why are people outside the Mediterranean so interested in it? And how does that interest abroad change the diet back home?
Regional diet as a global public health platform
The reinvention of the Mediterranean diet as a public health tool can be traced back to the “Seven Countries Study,” an international study of diet and cardiovascular disease risk factors initiated in the 1950s. It was led by American physiologist Ancel Keys in coordination with research centers in the United States, Finland, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, and Japan. Cardiovascular epidemiologists collected data on foods, diets, and bodies through new standard techniques that were reproducible even though local field conditions and cultural diets varied dramatically. Keys and his peers established the “fact” that the Mediterranean diet was healthier than others, insofar as diets in Italy and Greece correlated with less incidences of coronary heart disease. Drawing on these findings, Ancel and his wife published a 1959 best-seller diet advice and cookbook Eat Well and Stay Well, later republished in 1975 with the addendum, the Mediterranean Way.
For as long as globalization has been a significant issue in food politics (and probably longer), food studies has been concerned with the problem of defining what is local, and what travels? It is a common trope to hear people say that “food is cultural” to explain why certain changes are resisted. Here, however, we can see local “culture” repackaged through science and then sold around the world. The Seven Countries Study placed the Mediterranean diet and its staples like olive oil at the center of nutrition clinical science globally, with dozens of centers routinely publishing on the ways red wine or olive oil reduces the risk of heart disease, or how specific herbs like thyme reduce cancer. This scientific imprimatur has given the diet a kind of credibility and circulation that has taken on a life of its own in marketing. Hundreds of popular books like the Keyses’ have since been written about the Mediterranean diet and how it can solve your weight problem or health issues.
Branding regional taste
What has interested me, moreover, is the role of non-profit organisations, like Barcelona-based FundaciónDietaMediterranea, in recent decades promoting the diet as preserving culture and enriching humanity, while tasting great! I see this work as an increasingly common form of branding of regional diets. Many of you will recall trying the New Nordic Cuisine at 4S in Copenhagen, an example of branding food around Nordic environmentalism and design minimalism.
The FundaciónDietaMediterranea gained recognition when it successfully led the push to have the Mediterranean Diet placed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I only have space here for two passing comments on this. First, one can wonder about the kind of marketing opportunity this status provides to the Foundation’s sponsors: Danone, the Catalan cava producer Freixenet, and the Generalitat de Catalunya, among others. Second, achieving this status in 2013 was bittersweet, as around the same time studies were published that indicated Spaniards and people from other Mediterranean countries were no longer eating the Mediterranean diet, thus possibly explaining rising incidences of obesity and CVD. (Will it continue to be “the Mediterranean Diet” if no one on the Mediterranean eats it anymore?)
The Spanish government has sought to build on the regional branding of its food culture, as part of its frequently ridiculed neoliberal project, “la MarcaEspaña.” Restaurant entrepreneurs and public food personalities like FerranAdriàhave won Spain global fame for its cuisine and quality food ingredients. The Spanish government has had trouble translating this into broader marketing opportunities for its exports. Most Americans, for example, are surprised to learn that Spain, not Italy, is the largest producer of olive oil, a fact belied by the common, fraudulent practice in the olive oil industry of shipping oil to to be bottled in Italy and thus branded “Italian olive oil.” In 2013, Spain passed a law requiring all table olive oil in restaurants to be sold in the original bottling with the original label. The restaurant table olive oil law seeks to raise awareness among visiting tourists that Spain, too, has a quality olive oil industry, and that healthier, high-end Spanish “extra virgin” olive oils are just as good as those of its Mediterranean competitors.
Spain’s foods—its wines, paella, olive oils, and tapas—are often the first “taste” others get of Spanish culture, and one can learn a lot about a culture from food.
This summer when you attend the 4S Conference in Barcelona, I recommend a visit to La Boquería food market just off La Rambla. You might notice that much of the food there is not actually Mediterranean, but rather “ethnic” immigrant foods. I encourage you to read the label of that “extra virgin” olive oil bottle on your table when you dine out, to see whether it is from local Arbequina olives in Catalonia, or the more fiery Picual variety from Andalusia. Partake of the very Mediterranean tradition of “sobremesa,” socialising with others at the dinner table, a significant lifestyle factor some diet scientists worry isn’t accounted for in nutrition studies of the Mediterranean diet. And you should enjoy the “pintxos” from the Basque country or “jamónserrano” from interior regions of Teruel and Extremadura. And as you do, you can ask yourself, is this the Mediterranean diet? And if so, does that make it good for me? Whether or not it is, I promise you, it tastes good.
Xaq Frohlich is an Assistant Research Professor at KAIST STP in South Korea and a 2016-2017 Fellow at the UT Austin Institute of Historical Studies.