The health benefits of foods eaten in Mediterranean countries are going to be explored in new research to improve understanding of the diet famous for its link to low rates of cardiovascular disease.
The Mediterranean diet, which generally includes more fruit and vegetables than in many other areas of the developed world, has been linked in previous studies with better heart health and lower risk of cancer. Just this week, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who closely followed the Mediterranean diet were less likely to die of any cause, including heart disease and cancer. The study followed dietary intake of more than 22, 000 people in Greece over a period of four years and found an inverse association between death and adherence to the local diet.
The benefits are partly explained by the presence of natural compounds like fatty acids, found in olive oil, and polyphenols in red wine. However, very little is known about the role of regional vegetables and staples consumed on a less regular basis, and how they may contribute to a healthy diet.
These local foods have been 'neglected' European resources, suggests a European Union-funded team, with partners from seven European countries. Their new project will evaluate local food plants, fungi and plant-derived products such as extracts traditionally used in rural communities of Southern Italy, Greece or Southern Spain. The extracts could have potential antioxidant, antidiabetic and memory-mediating activity, the researchers believe.
More than 150 species of food plants will be tested for properties like antioxidant activity or heart disease preventive characteristics.
The project will build on current understanding of the link between diet and chronic diseases and also ensure a more scientific approach to the development of new healthy products based on regional European traditions.