This May is International Mediterranean Diet month, and this year is the 20th anniversary of Oldways’ Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. Hannah Weisman, program manager for Mediterranean Foods Alliance at Oldways, talks about the foundation’s motivation behind the pyramid and how far its come.
Oldways is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Mediterranean Diet’s introduction to the U.S. How and why did the organization bring it to the U.S. market?
Oldways introduced the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid in 1993, after an intense year of working with the Harvard School of Public Health and an international group of scientists to detail the attributes of the healthy Mediterranean Diet. Oldways had been founded in 1990 by K. Dun Gifford to promote healthy eating and drinking, to address health issues (increasing rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other diseases of excess) and to preserve culinary traditions. We loved the idea of helping people make healthy connections to their food and their heritage and we decided to focus first on the Mediterranean Diet because there was already a strong body of research supporting its health benefits, including Ancel Keys’ groundbreaking Seven Countries Study.
While our work has always been grounded in science, we didn’t want our end result to simply be more studies and journal articles. Oldways realized we needed to make the Med Diet come alive for the general public, to motivate them toward healthier eating habits. Since the USDA had just introduced their first USDA Pyramid, Gifford suggested that we transform these attributes into a Pyramid shape, in order to make the message easier to understand. With that idea, the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid was born and made its public debut on January 23, 1993.
To help Americans learn the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, and learn how to embrace it, we started an educational campaign to introduce both the science of the Mediterranean Diet and culinary traditions of the Mediterranean to influencers — journalists, chefs, food retailers, cookbook authors, scientists. We took them on “field trips” to countries all around the Mediterranean Sea and carried out programs at home. The results were the start of Mediterranean Madness (as the Washington Post called it). Chefs put extra virgin olive oil on tables, added new items on their menus and even opened more Mediterranean restaurants; specialty food and retail grocery stores featured an array of extra virgin olive oils and other Mediterranean products on their shelves; cookbook authors produced an array of Mediterranean-focused books; and consumers began using extra virgin olive oil and bringing the Mediterranean Diet into their kitchens. Today, just think of all the Mediterranean products that were not available twenty years ago — Greek yogurt, hummus in a dozen flavors, artisanal extra virgin olive oils and specialty vinegars. Mediterranean Madness is here to stay.
The diet has been receiving a lot of positive media attention lately. What has been consumer response? How has the diet grown in popularity?
Consumer response has been overwhelmingly positive. We are thrilled to see people getting excited about the Mediterranean Diet, actively seeking information about it and making an effort to live healthier lifestyles. Our Menu Plan book is flying off the shelf and is now ranked as one of Amazon.com’s best Mediterranean-style cookbooks. We are receiving requests for information and materials from people here in the United States, but also from people around the world, including the UK, Romania and even Greece. It might seem unlikely, but the Mediterranean Diet even needs promotion in Mediterranean countries as people reach more and more for processed convenience foods believed to be easier and cheaper than eating the traditional diet.
The good news is that the Med Diet’s growth in popularity means more information is readily available to consumers about its health benefits, as well as how economical it can be. And this translates to real results at stores, where the impact of Oldways’ work has been seen directly in supermarket aisles. Two decades ago, foods like olive oil, hummus, Greek yogurt and sun-dried tomatoes were exotic specialty foods available only at gourmet shops and now foods like this contribute to whittling consumers’ waistlines and to fattening retailers’ bottom lines.
What tools are out there for retailers to promote the Mediterranean Diet?
Oldways has created a special toolkit of resources specifically designed for supermarket dietitians to help retailers promote the Mediterranean Diet and increase the visibility of products that fit into the Med Diet. The toolkit is part of our Oldways Nutrition Exchange (ONE) program, which provides at least two thematic toolkits each month to supermarket RDs and others working in nutrition and health. May is International Mediterranean Diet Month, so we made sure to publish the Med Diet toolkit early to give supermarket RDs a chance to review the material, get comfortable with it and plan for implementation before the start of Med Month. The toolkit includes graphics, a slideshow, the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, copy that can be used on websites, blogs and in newsletters, recipes, cooking demonstrations, and more. We invite retailers to use, reproduce, and distribute any and all of the resources — and already we’re seeing them showing up in stores.
The Oldways 4-Week Mediterranean Diet Menu Plan is also a great tool for retailers. Bulk purchasing and co-branding are inexpensive, the small book makes a great promotional item, and it fits nicely into a point-of-sale display. We are also always happy to work individually with retailers seeking additional information.