Italians debunk food “science”

In a recent conversation, my grandmother was describing the new diet recommended by her nutritionist: small portions, all whole-wheat, no cheese, low-fat yogurt, no trans fat, etc.  As she recounted the litany of dieting tips, dos and don’ts with the melancholy of losing old friends, I started becoming very perturbed with this “dietary specialist.”  My blue-eyed grandmother is an honorary Italian-American, cooking up delicious home-cooked meals for my Italian-blooded grandfather for over fifty years.  She is a fabulous cook that has fed her family since she was a teenager with traditional recipes and new tasty experiments, and to me, she is my personal Martha Stewart, without jail time, of course.   Who is this dietary specialist to tell my grandmother to not eat cheese?!

Since when do we need someone to monitor what we put into our bodies?  What is missing from our alimentary common sense that makes us cling to new fads or these “dietary specialists” that claim to know no more about our own bodies than our nosey neighbors?  Two renowned European examples for culinary expertise and slim waists are the Italians and the French, cultures that traditionally don’t skimp on the fat when necessary.  In Italy, as one strolls past the alluring scents of the bakeries, glazed cakes in the pastry shops, and glistening displays in butcher shops and cheese stores, all the while watching these hearty Italians scarf down personal pizzas and bottles of wine, one poses an interesting question: with this delectable food culture, how do they stay so slim!?

We already know the answer to this question: They have a food culture.   The question comes down to education and an innate understanding of the organism (us) related to what we put into our bodies, more or less the history and future of our food.  Italians live by the phrase, “you are what you eat,” quite fitting for the highest omnivores on the food chain, don’t you think?  Italians are born with this close relationship to all of the nutritional sources that make up their cuisine, and it doesn’t take an expert chef to tell you the ingredients of every traditional Italian product or dish; my twelve year-old Italian students could tell you.

Food is their passion, and the regional specialties are connected with the local history and unique landscape.  The quality of the products is craved and demanded, and in many cases, it is controlled by quality and geographical standards established by the EU.  Since I have moved to Italy, I have been ever fascinated with the food culture that is worshiped in this country, and I have now begun my own journey to salvation via the Italian forchetta (fork).  Its great flavor and goodness are found in the pure simplicity of natural ingredients, all of which are distinguishable in the supermarket.

As I gaze at the multitudes of products aligned on the supermarket shelves in America, I am instantly inundated with brands, labels, promotions, varying claims of negated fat, different shapes and sizes!  The head-spinning options create confusion, and I can’t distinguish what is the real substance behind all of this processed “food”!  In the end, I waste a lot of time trying to figure out what it is, what is the difference, and where it is from?!

In contrast, a stroll through a normal Italian supermarket (although increasingly affected by the food industry) is a liberating experience because despite problems in translation, the choices are much more limited, and the lack of superfluous information is relieving to the hungry shopper (for example, most only carry two brands of chips!).  The provenance of foods such as meats and vegetables are clearly identified and are usually local or Italian; it is pleasing to know that this information is clearly made available to the customer.  Italy is also the leading producer of organic or “biologico” products in Europe.  Outside of the supermarket, I always prefer the farmers markets, which are always colorful, exciting, and alluringly nutritious!

Street Markets

Although I tease the Italians for their haphazard sense of organization, we Americans lack the roots and common food sense that these Italians utilize to maximize the quality of their agricultural output and demand for the “made in Italy” stamp.  In return, they eat better, and their food tastes generally better.

It’s all a question of priority: Recognizing good quality, as I said before, is the main characteristic that drives and determines their cuisine, and all Italians flock to a good meal.  Are you looking to go to a good restaurant in the city?  A fail-proof way of finding a gem is by choosing the most crowded restaurant; they Italian patrons are all experts!  In the same way, an Italian will tell you which olive oil is best, which tomatoes have had a good season, and why they will eat pesto only if it is from Pra, near Genova, where the best basil grows.  Can we Americans match this local food knowledge?

Folks, in the end, the Italian style can be boiled down into five main concepts:

  1. Food education: know your ingredients
  2. Food appreciation: demand high quality
  3. Food application: simple natural products in tasty combinations
  4. Food priority: eating good food is important; love the experience
  5. Food consciousness: stop when you are feeling full

Michael Pollan, a leading writer, NY Times journalist, and advocate for food awareness has masterfully delved into the art of eating food, from its origins in the market today to the way in which we can be more aware of our own eating habits.  I highly recommend reading all of his books, starting from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in the order in which they were written.  He focuses on breaking down the spam of food myths, the massive influx of food information and nutrient marketing into simple explanations.

Pollan encourages us to think about how our great-grandparents cooked before our supermarkets quadrupled in size.   One way to stay on the right eating track is to avoid highly processed products that contain bushels of corn syrups, forget about the soda, eat green, and go local for your food!  As many Italians profess: go easy on the butter, use a dash of milk instead (an Italian mom’s secret).

In a world in the midst of an economic crisis, it is surprising that we haven’t taken our nutrition into our own hands, demanded quality products and organic production from our own American soil.  As for these dietary specialists that tell us how to eat, I say ignore them and get back to basics!  Let’s not obsess over weight loss and nutrients, carbohydrates, and fat.  Forget about the food science, don’t look at the calorie count, and eat healthy products!  Let’s enjoy a balanced meal for what it is—good food prepared with love.  Wash it down with a glass of wine, for heaven’s sake!

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