The Mediterranean diet of olive oil, pasta, tomatoes and fish is to be awarded Unesco World Heritage status to safeguard it from the onslaught of junk food and foreign impostors, Italy’s agriculture minister said.
Italy has been aggressively pushing for the high-fibre, low-fat diet to be officially recognised by the UN’s culture and education agency, claiming that it reduces the risk of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer and boosts life expectancy.
A Unesco committee is due to rule on the issue at a conference in Nairobi in November but agriculture minister Giancarlo Galan has said that the status will be awarded.
“It’s a great success for our country, our culinary traditions and our culture,” said Mr Galan. “The Mediterranean diet represents a sustainable style of living based on eating local products in a convivial setting with your friends and family.
“For Unesco this, along with the traditional knowledge passed down from generation to generation, is something unique in the world and worth safeguarding.”
Italy’s promotion of the Mediterranean diet, which revolves around fresh fruit and vegetables, pulses and unrefined cereals, polyunsaturated fats like olive oil rather than butter, limited dairy products and small quantities of meat and sugar, is supported by Greece, Spain and Morocco.
If the four countries are successful, they will be required to take concrete steps to promote and protect traditional cooking methods and ingredients.
That could help to combat a growing obesity problem in countries like Spain and Italy, where people have drifted away from traditional diets, lead more sedentary lives than previous generations and eat more packaged food.
The Italians are particularly concerned that low quality copies of their best known foods – including prosciutto ham, extra virgin olive oil and mozzarella cheese – are being made by other countries and passed off as the genuine article.
A Unesco spokeswoman in Paris said no decision had yet been taken on whether to include the Mediterranean diet on the organisation’s list of “Intangible Heritage”.
She said it would be the first national or regional diet to be included on the list, although France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has also lobbied hard for French cuisine to be recognised by Unesco, claiming it is the “best gastronomy in the world”.
Introduced two years ago, the intangible heritage list is different to World Heritage status, which is awarded to historical monuments such as Stonehenge and Angkor Wat and outstanding natural features like the Great Barrier Reef.
“It’s new, it’s hot and everyone wants to be on it,” said Unesco’s Sue Williams. “It will be very interesting to see what different countries put forward at the meeting in November. The committee will examine a total of 58 applications.”
Nearly 180 cultural treasures have been included on the list in the last two years, including folk songs, endangered languages, religious rituals and traditional crafts.
They range from the well known – tango from Argentina, for instance – to the obscure – a mask dance from Bhutan, a whistle language from the island of La Gomera in the Canaries and the “polyphonic singing of the Aka pygmies of central Africa”.
While countries such as Benin, Mali, Vanuatu and Tonga are represented on the list, Britain is not represented at all.
If Italy is successful in its bid, the Mediterranean diet would be its third item on the list.
Two years ago Unesco listed Sicilian puppet theatre and the pastoral songs of Sardinia as irreplaceable cultural gems.