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Mediterranean diet set for major push in US

By Lorraine Heller in Puglia , 13-Nov-2006

Next year could mark the onset of a new diet pattern in the US, with an influential nutrition group saying it plans to comprehensively promote the healthy Mediterranean style of eating.

Oldways, the non-profit group behind the popular Whole Grains Stamp, has said this will be its next main focus, and it hopes the diet will come to be associated with "hundreds and hundreds" of products within a few years.

The big push will involve a two-fold process: a public education campaign to increase people's awareness of the diet's healthfulness, as well as the launch of a consumer-friendly symbol designed to flag up food products that fit the Mediterranean bill.

And with an already well established and fast growing body of science backing the healthfulness of the diet, there is a strong possibility that this could become an important - and lasting - dietary lifestyle for Americans.

This opens up a new avenue of opportunity for the nation's food industry, which has already responded eagerly to growing demand for healthier products, and which could now be faced with a more far reaching and comprehensive strategy than ever before.

"Governments have failed every time they've tried to persuade the public to eat and drink healthily. But food manufacturers respond to demand from consumers. Our job is to create consumer demand for healthy foods eaten in a healthy pattern," said Oldways president Dun Gifford.

And according to Gifford, when it comes to the Mediterranean diet pattern, science, industry and consumers are all ready to move to the next step.

Rich in cereals, fruits, legumes, whole grains, fish and olive oil, the diet of the people of southern Europe has been linked to longer life, less heart disease and protection against some cancers. Encouraged by the science backing this simple and tasty way of eating, Oldways first introduced the Mediterranean diet as a nutritional concept in 1993.

At the time, the organization launched a Mediterranean nutritional pyramid, fashioned on the idea of the US government's dietary pyramid. The pyramid was supported by the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization.

The copyrighted pyramid has since appeared in millions of impressions in nutrition books, newspapers, magazines and television, and has even been licensed for use on some food products.

However, Oldways has until now hesitated to promote its licensing on food products due to a main challenge in communication.

"It's important to stress that the health benefits come when following the dietary pattern as a whole. It's all about the whole package, not any single food," explained Gifford.

But with last year marking a significant breakthrough in new science supporting the diet's health benefits, Oldways has started to examine a variety of ways to best communicate the health message through simple graphics on a food label.

The Boston-based think tank said it expects to unveil its symbol in the first quarter of next year, which will also mark the start of a four-year campaign designed to promote the dietary lifestyle.

"The new scientific evidence is there. The second step is to communicate this evidence to consumers, and the third step involves connecting the science with specific foods," said Gifford.

"We expect the education campaign to last four years as that's how long something like this takes to be effective and develop durability. Merchandisers and food manufacturers need to know that this is something they can trust, something that will be around for a long time and something that will get the attention of people," he told FoodNavigator-USA.com.

But Gifford does not doubt that the Mediterranean diet will catch on and become successful.

"Oldways has a good enough track record so many manufacturers will want to be a part of it, writers will want to communicate it."

Indeed, this week marks a start in the organization's push of the diet style. Today is the fifth day in an intensive educational program organized by Oldways in the Italian region of Puglia. The program has brought together around 80 food professionals - including culinary experts, importers and journalists - for an examination of the science and the composition of the Mediterranean diet, together with first hand tasting of the region's foods.

Great taste is in fact one of the diet's strong points beyond the scientific backing it has received. Additionally, the diet pattern is also likely to enjoy considerable popularity because it is non-restrictive. This already places it at a significant advantage compared to other diet trends, which often leave consumers craving for more.

Another advantage for the industry is that a large number of products already on the market will be able to carry a Mediterranean diet claim. These include fresh or frozen vegetables, vegetable meals or stews, and pasta meals.

"We need to provide a range of mechanisms so that this diet pattern is simple and incorporable," said Gifford.

"This has to be able to be a part of people's lives, so we have to adapt the traditional diet to the way people live today. People we work with have to be aware of that."

Licensing the Mediterranean diet claim from Oldways is expected to involve "modest" costs, according to Gifford.

"Pricing will be more or less a participation cost, based on the number of products and a general range of corporate size. We don't need to have a lot of money to make this happen."

The organization's Whole Grains Stamp, which was introduced last year by Oldways' subsidiary the Whole Grains Council, has already generated huge interest from industry and consumers alike, and now appears on around 800 products on supermarket shelves.

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