Mediterranean Diet: between Health, Heritage, and Sustainability

Mediterranean Diet: between Health, Heritage, and Sustainability

Food and foodways are, as found out by many authors (see, for example, Brulotte and Di Giovine 2014; Ledinek Lozej and Šrimpf Vendramin 2020), often affording to heritagization due to identifying and connecting role of food and dishes in communities and their affecting potential. Therefore, I have dedicated my secondment at the University Ramon Llull in Barcelona (Spain), implemented in the framework of the Population Medicine and Sustainable Development (PopMed-SusDev) project, to the revitalization of foodways, especially of the Mediterranean diet and Catalan cuisine and their eventual overlapping with the discourses on health and sustainability. The choice of the topic was additionally prompted by the fact that one of the crucial promoters of the Mediterranean diet, as well as technical coordinator of the nomination in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity, the Mediterranean Diet Foundation (MDF) is located in Barcelona.  

The concept of the Mediterranean Diet is attributed to the husband and wife team, biologist Ancel Keys and chemist Margareth Keys from the United States and their research of diet and cardiovascular diseases from the 1950s to 1970s, the so-called Seven Countries Study. This work stimulated further medical researchover the following decades and created a large body of literature in health studies and nutrition. Nevertheless, some scientists and journalists criticised the Seven Countries Study (Krese Baskar and Baskar 1993), the Mediterranean Diet is still considered as one of the healthier dietary habits (Medina 2021a; 2021b). However, in the Mediterranean Area, these nutritional debates were delayed and promoted intensively only since the 1990s. In 1995 the Association for the Advancement of the Mediterranean Diet was established in Barcelona, consisting of a group of Catalan food companies aimed at encouraging the consumption of traditional Mediterranean products, and one year later, in 1996, it established the MDF aiming “to promote research on the Mediterranean Diet in relation to its healthy, historical, cultural, culinary, agricultural and environmentally friendly aspects” and “safeguarding of the ancient heritage common to the Mediterranean populations”. The Foundation managed to prepare the Barcelona Declaration on the Mediterranean Diet, which was signed at the first conference of Alimentaria in 1996 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fish and Food, the Barcelona City Council, and MDF. Besides healthy eating, the declaration also emphasised cultural and historical qualities of the Mediterranean Diet. Ten years after, on World Food Day, 16th October 2007, 22 scientists and experts from nine different countries, all members of the MDF’s Scientific Committee, signed the international Declaration on Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage (Reguant-Aleix et al. 2009), which was prompted by the adoption of UNESCO’s Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. Since then, MDF has acted as a promoter and technical coordinator among countries in the process of the inscription of the Mediterranean Diet on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted by UNESCO twenty years ago, at the 32nd session of the General Conference on 17th October 2003. The definition of heritage following this convention was a step away from the monumental buildings and exceptional landscapes, perceived as heritage in the World Heritage Convention from 1972, towards a more anthropologically inspired concept of culture, consisting of “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith”. Secondly, the convention, at least theoretically fully recognized the constructivist character of heritage, as the definition argues that heritage is what “communities, groups, and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage”. And, thirdly, it stated that “it provides a sense of identity and continuity”. Therefore, specific elements recognised as heritage can provide a subjective (related to the feeling of belonging) and objective (inherited, related to history and geography) criterion for inclusion and connection, as well exclusion and distinguishing (Pfeilstetter 2015). We can see the application of these criteria in the text of the nomination file for the Mediterranean Diet. It was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2010, as a transnational nomination of Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Spain, that were in 2012 joined by Croatia, Cyprus, and Portugal.

We can see that in the last decades, the concept of Mediterranean Diet has undergone progressive evolution from a healthy dietary pattern to the heritage of humanity; it has moved from the domain of medicine and nutrition to the domains of society, culture, and lifestyle. Even more, FAO identified Mediterranean Diet as “a crucial tool for a more nutritious and sustainable future.” That notion is also supported by the anthropologist Francesco Xavier Medina (Medina 2021a: 3), a present director of the UNESCO Chair on Food, Culture and Development at the Open University of Catalunya in Barcelona (who was also involved in the preparation of the Mediterranean Diet nomination file at its first edition from 2010): “Today, however, a main concern seems to be to conserve natural resources for future generations, while simultaneously providing enough food, in quantity and quality, to meet the nutritional requirements of a growing global population. Within this framework, the interest in the Mediterranean diet as a model of a sustainable dietary pattern has increased”.

However, the Mediterranean Diet was not the only food element to be heritagized. In 2010 two other elements – the Gastronomic Meal of the French and the Traditional Mexican Cuisine – were inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Following these examples and prompted by the “success” of the transnational Mediterranean Diet nomination some institutions and authorities from Catalonia also wanted to launch the Catalan cuisine on the UNESCO list. Since the first acknowledgement of Catalan cuisine in the 1970s by the writer Antonio Vázques Montalbán (1977) in connection with Catalonia’s claims of a different identity to the last edition of his book L’art del menjar a Catalunya [The art of Eating in Catalonia] from 2004, Catalan cuisine has achieved worldwide recognition for innovation and creativity in gastronomy, and traditional food products, and cuisine, from tapas and sangria to fine dining, have become an important part of tourist offer. The gastro-nationalism (DeSoucey 2010) and culinary tourism went hand in hand with promoting the Catalan traditional domestic cooking as a healthy diet to a larger domestic public via different media – via cookbooks, blogs, and TV shows (e.g. La recepta perduda). In Barcelona this promotion has coincided also with the remodelling and reinvention of the market halls, turning them into the city’s landmarks for locals and tourists (Garcia-Fuentes et al. 2014). A huge work has been done also on the historical research of ancient cookbooks, written in Catalan, and their legacy on the European courtly and southern Italian cuisine (e.g. Llibre de Sent Sovi [Book of Sent Soví] (1324), Llibre de coch [Book of the Cook] (1520), written by Robert de Nola for the King of Naples). All these endeavours and (culinary tourism) ambitions resulted in the nomination of Catalonia for the European Region of Gastronomy in 2016, and for the World Region of Gastronomy, which Catalonia will be in 2025. Despite its recognition as a European and World region of Gastronomy and more than ten years of work on the nomination of the Catalan Culinary Institute and several other authorities, institutions, and experts, Catalan cuisine will hardly be in line for UNESCO nomination. Whereas the Mediterranean Diet transnational nomination gained support from the central government, it is hard to expect that the Spanish Ministry of Culture, currently working on nominating tapas and paella, which cover, at least theoretically, all of Spain, would support something that might strengthen Catalan differences and specificities.

Mediterranean Diet and Catalan cuisine were more or less successfully launched and adopted in the heritage arena. Interlocutors from Barcelona, with whom I spoke about them, perceived the Mediterranean Diet mainly as a healthy dietary nutrition, and Catalan cuisine as a local gastronomy. None of the informants was acquainted with them as elements (or to be elements) of the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I suppose that acknowledging these two foodways as heritage was therefore more part of the gastro-diplomacy (Ichijo and Ranta 2016) or gastro-nationalism (DeSoucey 2010) and heritage entrepreneurship of different institutions, authorities, and experts, which might gain an advantage from launching it into the heritage arena (Pfeilstetter 2015). Or, to be more precise, the “communities, groups and, individuals”, mentioned in the convention, consist mostly of the foundations, institutes, and their associated experts and companies, and not of the general public, everyday practitioners of the Mediterranean or Catalan foodways. For this reason, it is not surprising that for (some) (critical) heritage researchers, the involvement in heritage-making projects remains contested, whereas some of them remain more open to such involvement, and have also named it as “participant observation of the inventorying process” (Bortolotto 2013) or “participant observation of procedure” (Graezer Bideau 2013). And the awareness that as academics we are also not mere observers but co-creators of an authorised heritage discourse (Smith 2006), gives us even greater professional, personal, and social responsibility in our either theoretical or applied endeavours.

Acknowledgement: The article was supported by the project PoPMeD-SuSDeV – Population Medicine and Sustainable Development, co-funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) of the Horizon Europe programme, and the project Episcope of Borderscapes (L7-4629), financed by the Slovenian Research and Innovation Agency.

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