farmers market

I have been reading lately several articles showing that due to the recession all over Europe, the Mediterranean diet is under threat. More specifically it was noted that individuals (from Mediterranean countries) with the lowest incomes had the least adherence to the Mediterranean diet, arguing that the poorest, are more likely to get prepackaged or junk food, often cheaper than the fresh foods of the Mediterranean tradition. OK, first of all prepackaged and junk food is not cheaper then fresh food used in the Mediterranean diet, and secondly, is it a matter of price or education level? We know from past research that low socioeconomic classes have higher rates of obesity and less healthy diets. The researchers here did actually say that educational level plays a huge role but that low income is also a reason. Perhaps blaming the financial crisis for the decline of the Mediterranean diet makes for a more catchy story from a journalistic point of view, because even today, at least here in Greece, fresh food is cheaper than packaged processed food.

The real reasons why the poor are choosing junk food over Mediterranean fresh food

  • Misinformation: They may think junk food is cheaper than fresh food
  • Lack of time: Fresh food may take longer to prepare-Junk food is convenient
  • Emotional: Junk food offers immediate gratification and let’s face it when you have lost your job, can’t pay your rent and your bills, the last thing you want to do is start cooking.

So while the financial crisis may be making people turn to junk food, it’s not because junk food is cheaper than typical Mediterranean food, but because these populations think that it is cheaper.

How Much does a Mediterranean meal cost?
Let’s take a look at this in detail. First, we need to think about what we mean by the term Mediterranean diet. It does not consist of expensive red wine, fancy, costly, fish and exotic vegetables, but rather simple in season (cheap) food: 3-4 times a week a vegetable main course, 2 times a week beans, 1-2 times a week chicken or fish. The main meal is supplemented with bread and cheese and olive oil. For snacks and breakfast bread, fruit, cheese, olives, yogurt (sometimes milk), rusks are the main components.

Mediterranean Meal #1
So let’s for example, take a typical Greek winter vegetable meal: cauliflower and potatoes cooked with olive oil and tomato paste, accompanied with feta cheese and bread. I list the ingredients with their cost:

  • 1 large head of cauliflower: 3 euros
  • 1/2 kilogram of potatoes: 1 euro
  • ½ cup olive oil: 70 cents
  • 1-2 tablespoons tomato paste: 25 cents
  • ½ a loaf of bread: 50 cents
  • 250 grams feta cheese: 2 euros

Total: 7.45 euros ($9.70)

This meal can feed generously a family of 4

Mediterranean Meal #2
Or let’s compare with fish. Now remember we are talking about the real Greek-Mediterranean diet. Greeks did not eat expensive fish such as salmon, but small cheap fish such as sardines and anchovies. So here is an example of a meal with anchovies that I actually made a few days ago and will be sharing soon. Oven roasted anchovies with garlic, olive oil, onions and tomato accompanied with a Greek Potato salad

  • 1-½ kg anchovies (1 bought them for 5 euros a kg, but have found them even cheaper): 7.5 euros
  • ½-3/4 cup olive oil: 1.20 euros
  • 1 tomato: 30 cents
  • 1 onion: 10 cents

Greek Potato Salad

  • 1 kilo potatoes: 2 euros
  • ¼ cup olive oil: 35 cents
  • Bread: ½ loaf 50 cents

Total: 11.95 euros ($15.50)

Note the prices I am using are on the higher end. If someone were to shop at the open market, they would find even cheaper prices.

Junk Food Meals
Let’s see what it would cost the if they were to eat fast food:

1 Hamburger and fries for about 4.50 each

Total: 18 euros ($23.50)

2 Souvlaki with pita bread per person

Total: 16 euros ($20.90)

So by comparing some typical choices we can see that a traditional Greek-Mediterranean diet is not so unaffordable as it is claimed and it is definitely not more expensive than junk food, but actually cheaper.

Misinformation even among the educated
As I have mentioned in an older post, many Greeks are nutritionally confused. The food industry has become a major trustworthy source of nutrition information. Having said that, it is no wonder that people think they need special cereal bars for breakfast instead of bread and cheese or a few fruits (a banana and a couple of mandarins only cost 50 cents). It is a fact that processed food does cost more than fresh, but yet time and time again I see people of all education levels thinking that processed fortified food products are better for them and their kids.

Recently I noticed a non-profit organization asking for food for children: among their list of needed food items were croissants (they have packaged ones here in Greece with a long shelf life and an even longer list of ingredients) and cookies. These products are not only nutritionally empty but also more expensive. Why not some whole grain rusks, dried fruit and nuts, which also have a long shelf life? It is therefore not a matter of money in the direct sense but a matter of education and correct information. It is a myth that fast food, junk food and and packaged ready-to eat food is cheaper than a mostly vegetarian traditional Mediterranean diet.

The public, and particularly low income households need to be helped and educated. They need to be shown by culinary and nutrition professionals that a traditional Mediterranean diet is not only the healthiest choice but also the most affordable one. They need some easy and quick recipes that do not require fancy ingredients and special skills.

Making simplistic conclusions about the Mediterranean diet being no longer affordable or too expensive is just incorrect. The Mediterranean diet has been under threat for over 20 years now, way before the financial crisis. Let’s look at the real reasons and find real solutions.

Photo by Jeannie on Flickr

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  1. Hi, I just read your article I came trough Pinterest. I live in western mediterranean in Bcn to be exact and what I can say is young people tend to eat junk food but people in their late twenties and first thirties (mine and my friends range) never ever go to junk food restaurants. if there’s a con in mediterranean diet is sometimes the time it takes to prepare a meal which tend to be longer in winter than in summer time.

  2. Hi Elena,
    This is my first time to your blog, the first article I read. I am also from Greece and I agree with what you explain in your article. I live in Greece and I see that the crisis changes the habits of people….and that is not necessarily bad especially because I am talking about the bad diet habits Greeks have developed. I see more and more people who start cooking again, stop eating junk food because with that way they save a lot of money and they reduce their expenses. At some point a lot of modern families have stopped cooking and they were looking for the easy and fast but not healthy lunch and diners. Crisis made them reconsider a lot of things. i agree with you: it is not expensive to eat healthy food!
    Thank you for sharing that post with us and I am happy to discover your blog. My name is Lilian and I run a Greek blog.
    See you!

  3. This is an excellent article, which corroborates what I have been advising, as an M.D. for years. Fruits, vegetables, lean unprocessed meat and fish, versus what one typically sees people carting away in their shopping carts: soda, chips, cookies, etc. It is NOT more expensive to eat healthfully. Thanks for your advice.

    1. David, I completely agree with you and the thoughtful article.

      Just a few days ago we posted in our Face Book page: “The present economic crisis in Mediterranean countries has made some people return to home-made food. Whole grains, legumes, local vegetables & fruits are coming back. Ancient Greeks believed that every adverse situation brings its own advantages along: “Ouden kakon amiges kalou”… in Greek”.

      I definitely believe this is going to be one good thing in these difficult times for Europe.