The Mediterranean diet is under threat as cash-strapped consumers in southern European countries are spending less on fresh foods and more on cheaper packaged foods, according to new research.
The Mediterranean diet is recognised as one of the healthiest in the world, based on fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood, whole grains, pulses and olive oil, as well as moderate amounts of red meat, dairy products and red wine. But many fresh food items have increased in price, and consumers in Mediterranean countries have been particularly hard-hit by the global recession.
Market research organisation Euromonitor International recently observed that a ‘nutrition crisis’ was underway in the UK as low-income consumers were dropping fresh fruit and vegetables from their diets. Now it says this trend is becoming prevalent across Europe.
It cites a study published in the British Medical Journal late last year, in which researchers from Italy’s Catholic University of Campobosso analysed the diets of 13,000 people living in the country’s Molise region and found that those on the lowest incomes were least likely to adhere to a traditional Mediterranean diet.
No ‘imminent return’ to healthy eating
“With many countries of the Mediterranean region experiencing significant drops in household incomes, with no evident signs of economic recovery on the horizon, an imminent return to the much healthier eating patterns of the past is, unfortunately, quite unlikely,” wrote Euromonitor International contributing analyst Simone Baroke in a blog post for the market research firm.
Licia Iacoviello, chairperson of Italy’s Moli-sani Project, from which the study sample was taken, said: "We found that low-income people showed the poorest adherence to Mediterranean diet as compared to those in the uppermost group of income.
“In particular, high-income people have 72% odds of being in the top category of adherence to Mediterranean diet. This means a less healthy diet for the poorest, who are more likely to get pre-packaged or junk food, often cheaper than the fresh foods of the Mediterranean tradition.”
The researchers found that those on the lowest incomes had higher obesity prevalence as well, with 36% obesity among those on the lowest incomes, compared to 20% of those on the highest incomes. Education was also a factor, the researchers found, and those with the most education were more likely to make healthier choices.
Healthy food sales stagnate
Euromonitor data suggest that Italian consumption of fresh fruit, fish and seafood remained the same from 2006 to 2011, and consumption of fresh vegetables, pulses and olive oil fell by 3%, 6% and 13% respectively. Meanwhile ready meal sales rose 14% and burger fast food sales increased 65%.
“The pattern is similar in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey,” Baroke wrote, noting that Greek consumers have cut spending in all areas, including both fresh foods and packaged foods, as it is in the grip of the worst economic crisis of any European market.
In Turkey, volume sales of fruit, vegetables and pulses have remained about the same from 2006-11, while volumes of confectionery and sweet and savoury snacks rose by 31% and 23% respectively. Burger fast food sales in Turkey increased 161% during the period.