International prize for the Mediterranean diet

About 20-25 years ago, when Professor Antonia Trichopoulou and her colleagues first presented evidence of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, they came up against a certain amount of skepticism. Since then, its acceptance as a healthy diet model has affected trends in scientific research around the world. There are lots of studies into anti-oxidants, said Trichopoulou, recently awarded for her work by the Community of Mediterranean Universities, a UNESCO member. Among the diet-related subjects under study that affect health directly or indirectly is the role of olive oil in preventing the development of cells linked to breast cancer and the increase in lipids in the blood after food intake. One of the most important studies by the Greek team was the one it carried out in cooperation with Harvard University on the Mediterranean food pyramid, which the World Health Organization then adopted. Three major research projects are in progress. The European Medicine and Society Cooperation Program, in which nine countries are participating, is the largest and best organized nutritional research project ever conducted in Europe. The DANE program uses data from surveys on family budgets. And there is a systematic study of traditional Greek products. Information about the biological value of other traditional Greek products and local recipes – such as Cretan vegetable pies, pastelli, chickpea patties from Sifnos, aubergines Tsakonian style and candied fruit in syrup – which are slowly disappearing is readily available on the Internet, sparking the interest of foreign firms looking for high-quality products. Trichopoulou emphasizes the need for legislation to protect the term traditional product from abuse in view of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, but so far the Greek food industry has not shown the interest necessary. Real pastelli is made with honey, not glucose, and traditional yogurt does not contain additives to prevent water loss so that it can be kept in the refrigerator for a month, says Trichopoulou. For two years we worked with the Agriculture Ministry’s certification organization to propose a draft law that would safeguard the terms ‘traditional product’ and ‘traditional diet.’ It is very important to draw up a law to protect these products for coming generations. An important step was taken recently which I hope will be implemented successfully and monitored properly. A mark of quality was awarded to Greek restaurants that cook according to the traditional Mediterranean diet, using olive oil, Greek feta cheese and Greek wine. I believe this to be a very promising step, especially considering that the Panhellenic League of Restaurants, which has thousands of members, took part in its implementation. But other measures are needed. Young chefs need to learn to make Greek food, rather than poor imitations of French cuisine, drenched in cream. Since we have to keep up with the times, I hope this will expand into group catering and fast-food outlets. I think there is no better fast food than a well-made cheese or spinach pie made according to certain rules, not in terms of craft, but with the right ingredients and properly supervised. Your group has recorded a wide range of traditional Greek products. The study of traditional foods is multifaceted. It includes making video recordings of traditional methods of making recipes, which record all the little details – the secrets handed down through the centuries – and which are used to promote these recipes at a national and international level. I believe we lose something every year; the chain is broken. That is why we are trying to find these foods, make records of them and then use chemical analysis to show their biological value. At the same time, we examine how these foods can be manufactured along semi-industrial lines so they can be made in large quantities. You said that foreign firms are interested. And not only they. Two weeks ago I received an invitation from a committee of 30 deputies from all parties in the Spanish Parliament, who want to take action on the Mediterranean diet and get the voice of the south heard in the European Union. There is a great deal of interest at the economic level. The Spanish deputies asked for information; they wanted to communicate with the equivalent committee in the Greek Parliament and unite their voices. Of course, there is no such committee in this country. There is international interest. Last week I received an invitation from the World Food and Agriculture Organization, which wants to implement the methodology we use in the DANE program in Tunisia and other parts of Africa. This is a program we coordinate and in which 15 countries participate. The EU uses our data based on family budgets, and the World Food and Agriculture Organization hopes they can utilize the same method in Africa to pinpoint people at risk of hunger and also of obesity, since one section of the population has access to high-energy food. It is obvious that there is some serious scientific work going on in Greece, though not necessarily in a coordinated fashion. Undoubtedly there is some action, but it is piecemeal. The Health Ministry has provided guidelines, the Agriculture Ministry has printed them, the Pedagogical Institute made a lovely video about the Mediterranean diet, but it hasn’t yet reached the junior and senior high schools it is intended for. A more systematic approach is required, and that must come from the Agriculture Ministry, which is responsible for agricultural policy and can set long-term objectives concerning the Mediterranean diet. But the intellectual, social, economic and political leaders of the country must embrace the Mediterranean diet. They must stop having caviar, salmon and whisky at official receptions and remember that we have fine Greek food, ouzo and wine. People who see such things and want to attain the leaders’ heights may want to imitate them. This is the second award Greece has received from the Community of Mediterranean Universities. In 1988 the first international culture prize was awarded to the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis. We have always cooperated with all Mediterranean countries on cultural and scientific matters and showed respect for each other’s differences, because although we in the Mediterranean have a lot in common, we have many differences too. The charter of the Community of Universities mentions the need to reformulate and promote scientific cooperation. In this context, they see diet as something that is related not only to health but also to culture, tradition and economics. Olive oil, a gift from heaven There is a vast amount of scientific data, says Trichopoulou, not only from Mediterranean countries but also from northern Europe, America and Australia, which suggests that aspects of the Mediterranean diet contribute to longevity. The diet is based on olive oil, a heaven-sent gift which all Mediterranean countries produce. It involves high consumption of vegetables and pulses, low consumption of meat, moderate consumption of dairy products, a variety of fish and moderate alcohol consumption. Science now has to clarify the various mechanisms by which the diet produces its beneficial effects. It is not just the vitamins in fruit and vegetables. There are thousands of substances whose exact chemical composition, action and interactions we don’t know. The same applies to olive oil. Here’s an example. In the Mediterranean diet, vegetables are a main course. This means high consumption of folic acid, reducing homocystine, which is as bad as cholesterol.