International Issue- Significance of the Mediterranean DietOn January 13, 2020 by Carley Grace
The fact that the Mediterranean Diet was named the first gastronomic tradition to be named an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO is undeniably significant. Since the diet’s popularization by Ancel Keys in the 1960s, Mediterranean has been the pinnacle of healthy eating. The plant-based diet cuts back on processed foods and focuses on whole foods with the addition of moderate alcohol consumption and daily exercise. The diet promotes increased cardiovascular health and longevity. The recognition of the diet has led to an increase of tourism in the Mediterranean region. Countries like Italy, France, Greece, and Spain have marketed themselves as exotic destinations for wine connoisseurs die-hard foodies. A significant portion of the tourism industry in these countries have dedicated themselves to agritourism. The diet has historically been the fare of peasants and would have been grown in private gardens. With the UNESCO recognized “intangible cultural heritage”, people have been educating themselves on the traditions that accompany the Mediterranean diet. People are starting to learn and practice the cooking, gardening, and even the lifestyle habits of the Mediterranean region. The recognition of the diet by UNESCO has brought it back it into fashion. The emergence of the marketable Mediterranean diet has brought pride, economic prosperity, and a desire to reconnect to traditional roots.
The Mediterranean region is comprised of roughly 22 countries and yet only 7 of these countries are recognized by USESCO as representative of the Mediterranean diet. Of these 7, 5 are members of continental Europe. To generalize a region of 22 countries from three continents would be gross misrepresentation. In UNESCO’s Mediterranean diet, the middle eastern Mediterranean has no representation, Africa is represented by a single country, and the majority of European nations represented are considered westernized. If UNESCO was truly dedicated to preserving the Mediterranean diet, they would acknowledge the heritage of all of the countries in the region that adhere to a form of the diet. By naming a select few countries as owners of intangible cultural heritage UNESCO is shaping the Mediterranean diet in its own image. In an effort to preserve culture, they are writing out those who developed it. The exclusivity of intangible cultural heritage means that very few nations will be able to reap the benefits created by the title. It perpetuates the wealth of the already wealthy countries.
Another problem created by the preservation of intangible cultural heritage is stunted culture growth. Cultures are not meant to be preserved. They are meant to grow and evolve. They take the techniques given to them by their predecessors and use them to develop new techniques. Of course, it is important to recognize the importance of learning from traditions and stories, but when we romanticize the past it prevents us from learning and moving forward. Clearly UNESCO had nothing but good intentions when it decided to recognize the “intangible cultural heritage” of the Mediterranean diet, but by becoming exclusive UNESCO runs the risk of belittling other cultures in that region. They may have overstepped their bounds and now by directly inserting themselves into the narrative of the Mediterranean diet they may have completely destroyed the integrity of the culture they were trying to protect.