Beware of Misleading Marketing About the Mediterranean Diet

by Lorraine Williamson
The Mediterranean diet

MADRID – We all know the benefits of a healthy diet: you reduce the risk of diseases, get the right nutrients and gain or maintain a healthy weight. The Mediterranean diet thus is ideally associated with a healthy lifestyle. 

Spaniards have also traditionally adhered to this diet, although it seems to be declining, especially among the younger generations. But how reliable is the qualification ‘Mediterranean’ if you read this back on a label? 

What is the Mediterranean Diet? 

Various studies over the years have shown that it is beneficial for your health to follow a Mediterranean diet. Important elements of such a diet are that a lot of vegetable oil is used. It replaces other bad sources of calories. In addition, many vegetables are eaten, including many healthy legumes and fruit for dessert. Things that are discouraged are refined bread and pastries, sweets, soft drinks, and red and processed meats. 

The food industry uses the positive image of diet 

One of the latest studies on the Mediterranean diet states that the death rate is lower among the over-65s who follow the Mediterranean diet. Consequently, it is not for nothing that it is one of the showpieces of Spanish cuisine. The food industry, therefore, seems to be cunningly capitalising on this positive image by using the various elements of the Mediterranean diet for marketing purposes. 

‘Mediterranean’ as a misleading recommendation 

A study published in the Nutrition and Food Science Journal found that most foods and drinks classified as Mediterranean are not even included in the Mediterranean diet pyramid (a healthy eating model). The study was conducted by Spanish researchers Mireia Montaña and Mònika Jiménez. Both teach at different universities in Barcelona and were particularly triggered by advertising targeting young children. 

They noticed that many products are mistakenly identified with “Mediterranean” in the hope that people will take them off the shelf more quickly. There is a good chance that this will create a distorted picture of reality and consumers will wrongly assume that the product will be healthy. 

Few products deserved the term ‘Mediterranean’ 

The two researchers analysed more than 1,200 advertisements for more than 100 food items and more than 540 advertisements for 100 (soft) drinks. The advertisements appeared between 2011 and 2020 in various Spanish media (dailies, radio, TV, etc.). The result was shocking: only 13.59% of products advertised as ‘Mediterranean’ had a high nutritional value according to the Nutri-Score (food choice logo). Another 13.59% very low nutritional value, 29.13% low nutritional value, 25.27% medium nutritional value and 19.42% medium nutritional value. 

The ‘loopholes’ in the Spanish advertising law 

“According to the letter of the Spanish advertising law, dating from the 1980s and therefore very dated, we cannot, strictly speaking, talk of deception,” says Jiménez. “Yet it is misleading to characterise a product as ‘Mediterranean’ because it contains an ingredient that is part of the Mediterranean food pyramid. The consumer therefore wrongly thinks that the product is healthy, which is often not the case at all’. 

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Which products receive the ‘Mediterranean’ label? 

Tomato sauce (tomate frito) and other sauces are most often mentioned in the same breath as Mediterranean food; soups and ready meals usually follow. Incidentally, 89% of the drinks advertised as Mediterranean in the study are alcoholic. The trend shows that this percentage is growing every year. 

‘Of the 6 foods that were labelled ‘Mediterranean’ in 2011, this has increased to more than 20 in 2020. You can also see an upward trend in the number of drinks that are labelled as Mediterranean without batting an eyelid, says Montaña. Furthermore, if we look at the past year, we see that only 30% of the products that are classified as Mediterranean have a medium to high nutritional value. “As long as it sells, anything seems fair,” adds Jiménez. 

Playing cunningly with language can be life-threatening 

According to the WHO, 44% of adults aged 18 and over are overweight or obese. Spanish society is no exception. A European health survey conducted in Spain in 2020 shows that 16.5% of men and 15.5% of women are obese. Save the Children recently reported that one in five children in Spain is overweight. This means that Spain has the most overweight children of all European countries. 

Major culprits are processed products with a low nutritional value, often containing a lot of saturated fat, salt, and sugar. In contrast, the Mediterranean diet is praised for its high nutritional value and additional health benefits. “Advertisers are all too aware of the image and popularity of the Mediterranean diet and are consciously manipulating the language used, despite the potentially harmful effects on health,” said Montaña. 

Good information is the basis 

Both researchers argue for stricter laws and regulations and better information about nutrition labels for clients. ‘We are talking about nutrition here and therefore about public health!’. Poor nutrition leads to obesity, illness, and even hospitalisation. Unfortunately, the attitude of the food sector is very laconic, this has to change!’, emphasises Jiménez. 

See also:

More than 6 million Spaniards suffer from food poverty 

A quarter of ultra-processed products score as healthy in the Nutri-score

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