June 2011 NutraSolutions -- For many, following a Mediterranean diet is a simple and tasty way of eating healthy. It incorporates a number of nutritionally beneficial elements, with flavors that appeal to scores of consumers. However, formulating for the diet requires a degree of moderation and the realization that consumer attitudes do not change overnight. Among the findings:
- In Germany, a Rostock University study linked Mediterranean food with the prevention of malignant melanoma.
- In Israel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Nuclear Research Center and Soroka Hospital found the diet to be effective in helping obese people reverse carotid atherosclerosis.
- A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found type 2 diabetic patients following the Mediterranean diet had less need for anti-hyperglycemic treatment.
- Writing in the journal Thorax, researchers from Greece, Mexico and Spain noted pregnant women following a Mediterranean diet could help ward off asthma in their offspring.
Choosing Better Options
That said, much of the diet’s positive reputation stems from the fairly obvious healthful qualities of its ingredients. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes several things, including: eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. It is also effective to replace butter with healthy fats, such as olive and canola oil, and use herbs and spices, instead of salt, to flavor foods. Also important is limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month, and eating fish and poultry at least twice a week. Additionally, people are advised to drink red wine in moderation.
All of these recommendations are combined with one feature still escaping many consumers: portion control. Simply put, the diet focuses on high-quality food, but served in small portions.
The diet traditionally includes fruits, vegetables, pasta and rice. For example, residents of Greece eat very little red meat and average nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. Mediterranean foods have been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol more likely to build up deposits in arteries.
Another part of a healthy Mediterranean diet, nuts, are high in fat, but most of it is not saturated. Grains in the Mediterranean region are typically whole grain and usually contain very few unhealthy trans fats, and bread is an important part of the diet there. Throughout the Mediterranean region, bread is eaten plain or dipped in olive oil, not eaten with butter or margarines, which contain saturated or trans fats. The Mediterranean diet does not focus upon limiting total fat consumption, but rather on making wise choices about the types of fat consumed: saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats).
The Mediterranean diet features olive oil as the primary source of fat. Olive oil provides monounsaturated fat, which can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels, when used in place of saturated or trans fats. “Extra-virgin” and “virgin” olive oils—the least processed forms—also contain the highest levels of the protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, such as canola oil and some nuts, contain the beneficial linolenic acid (a type of omega-3 fatty acid). Fatty fish, such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, lake whitefish and salmon, are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and fish is almost a staple of the Mediterranean diet.
In moderation, alcohol has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in some research studies. The Mediterranean diet typically includes a moderate amount of wine. This means no more than 148ml of wine daily for women (or men over age 65), and no more than 296ml of wine daily for men under age 65.
Capitalizing on Mediterranean Cuisine Awareness
While recently introduced products with a Mediterranean description have been primarily in the dips arena or in olive oils, at least in the U.S., some manufacturers have taken the concept into other areas. ConAgra Foods has expanded its Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamers line to include a variety boasting Mediterranean grilled vegetables. In Canada, Montpack International added Mediterranean Veal Roll in Morocco Sauce, a fully cooked, microwaveable meal of grain-fed veal in tomato sauce. Relatively few new product launches have attempted to capitalize on the increasing consumer awareness of Mediterranean cuisine, and room remains for manufacturers who can combine the healthy advantages of the diet with convenience and ease of preparation. NS
This article first appeared in Prepared Foods’ E-ditionnewsletter, February 18, 2011.