Organized by Boston-based think tank Oldways, the gathering marks the first step in a strategic program - called Olivita - that aims to encourage the consumption of extra virgin olive oil around the world.
"The Mediterranean diet is of course not new (…) We know it tracks back to the Phoenicians, the earliest expansive traders that carried olives and olive oil to the Mediterranean coastline," said Oldways President Dun Gifford.
"In 2006, 2,800 years later, we know that the Mediterranean diet is as healthy an eating pattern as there is anywhere in the world. Fifty years of very high level science, basic and applied, repeatedly confirms this hypothesis," he added.
Indeed, the Med diet, rich in cereals, fruits, legumes and whole grains, fish and olive oil, has been linked to longer life, less heart disease, and protection against some cancers. The diet's main nutritional components include beta-carotene, vitamin C, tocopherols, polyphenols, and essential minerals.
And although hundreds of studies conducted over several decades have investigated the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, last year saw some breakthroughs in pinpointing why olive oil has a protective action against heart disease and cancer, making an even stronger case for consuming more olive oil.
In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a health claim for olive oil, for its potential to reduce coronary heart disease.
Just a few months ago, a new study from Greece again reinforced the health link, revealing that the diet could help people with established heart problems. Another Greek study published in June said that people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet are 60 per cent less likely to be obese. And just this month, a multi-ethnic study from the US suggested that greater adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet could cut the risk of Alzheimer's disease by a whopping 68 per cent.
According to a report published in recent months by Packaged Facts, demand for olive oil in the US has soared on the back of these health claims. In 2004 alone, consumption of olive oil was up 16 percent from 2001, when Americans consumed 212,102 metric tons.
Entitled Olive Oil in the US, the report revealed that the nation's olive oil market, which grew at a rate of around 8 percent per year between 2001 and 2005, is expected to reach $968 million in 2006. This compares to a market size of $894 million in 2005. And by 2010 it is forecast to surpass $1.3bn.
The ongoing Olivita event in Puglia has brought together scientists, importers, retailers, chefs and opinion leaders for an intense program designed to examine the benefits of olive oil and the Med diet, within a region that is home to some of the earth's oldest olive trees.
Seminars will include an examination of the latest research surrounding the diet type, the factors influencing consumer choice of olive oil and ways to clearly convey health messages and avoid consumer confusion, as well as the development and consumer reaction to healthy fast foods.
FoodNavigator-USA.com will be reporting from Puglia.