Mediterranean foods part II: fruit, grains and much more!

Mediterranean foods

Let’s complete the list of the most common Mediterranean foods!

In my previous post, we have dug into the most typical Mediterranean vegetables: tomatoes, onion, garlic and legumes, of course. Here I would like to complete the description of the most typical Mediterranean foods, and talk about fruit, grains, herbs and much more!

Grains

Grains have been cultivated by man since the beginning of agriculture. Wheat, in particular, is the main food for the Mediterranean population and is used for the production of bread, as well as being a basic ingredient of pasta, bulgur and couscous. Other popular cereals in southern Europe are rice (grown in Italy, France and Spain) and maize, which is ground into the flour used in Italy to make polenta.

Cereals should be consumed unrefined because the outer part contains many nutrients. In addition, the outer skin is very rich in insoluble fibres (cellulose, hemicellulose), while it contains relatively low levels of water-soluble fibre (β-glucans and arabinoxylans). The fibres contained in whole grains increase the ability of these foods to stimulate satiety and can help reduce the glycemic response after a meal. Among the bioactive compounds found in grains, we find phenols, 90% of which are ferulic acid. Whole grains also contain phytosterols (contained in both the bran and the germ), as well as folates, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamin E and flavonoids. The consumption of commercial bran in the form of supplements, is not comparable to the consumption of whole grains, because the process of grain refining (through which bran is produced), cannot preserve the nutrients contained in the germ (i.e. many bioactive compounds). 

Fruit

Fruit is both sweet and tasty, but only when it is ripe. A ripe fruit has a bright colour and a good perfume, which makes fruit a pleasure for our taste buds! The ripening process makes the fruit softer (thanks to the fact that some pectins are degraded), as well as sweeter. This is due to an increase in the sugar content and the reduction in the content of some bitter phytochemicals, as in the case of citrus limonoids, which are converted into more tasty glycosidic derivatives.

Citrus fruit – Oranges, tangerines, lemons, are all typical fruits of the Mediterranean area. A particular variety of lemon preserved in salt is used, for example, to make citrons confits, typical of the North African cuisine, while lemon peels are used in Italy to make the typical Limoncello liqueur.

Citrus fruits provide many important nutrients, including vitamin C, soluble fibres, folates, B vitamins, minerals (potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper), as well as a variety of phytochemical compounds. These elements are unevenly distributed in the rind and juice. Many of these substances (flavonoids, terpenes such as limonene, limonoids and some carotenoids) are much more common in the skin than in the juice. Vitamin C is a very important component which is not a cure for cold as many believe, but it plays a role in collagen formation, as well as in the prevention of scurvy.

Apples and other similar fruits – The apple family includes pears, quinces and medlars for a total of more than 7,500 different varieties. Apples are derived from Central Asia and Turkey remains one of the world’s leading producers. Pears also come from the same geographical area. Turkey is also the world’s largest producer of quinces, which require a very hot summer climate to ripen.

The skin of these fruits also contains larger quantities of phytochemical compounds than the pulp. Apples also contain fibre, vitamin C, potassium and various types of phenols (chlorogenic acid, cumaric acid and caffeine) and are the main source of phenolic compounds in the diet of northern European countries.

Most fruits of the apple family contain pectin, a substance used by the food industry as a thickener for jams. Pectin ferments in the colon, producing short-chain fatty acids, which act as a prebiotic, facilitating the growth of intestinal bacterial flora. Finally, it is good to know that apple juice loses some of the properties that are typical of the whole apple. For example, proanthocyanidins are lost in the preparation of juice.

Drupes – Drupes are a group of fruits characterized by having one large seed. This group includes apricots, nectarines, peaches, cherries, plums and prunes, all of which are plants of the genus Prunus. It seems that it was Alexander the Great who brought apricots, cherries and plums from Central Asia to Europe in the third century B.C., while peaches arrived from China. Apricots are an excellent source of β-carotene, which accounts for 85% of total carotenoids, as well as chlorogenic acid and flavonoids (catechins and epicatechins), quercetin and proanthocyanidins.

Grapes – Although wine is used for wine production in many Mediterranean countries, it is common to consume grapes as a dessert as well. Grapes can also be used for the production of both juices and raisins (also known as sultanas). It is believed that the latter was introduced by a sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who found his grapes withered for leaving them in the sun after escaping from a tiger. The raisins come from Turkey.

More than 1,600 compounds have been identified in grapes, including phenols (anthocyanins, catechins, ellagic acid, quercetin, resveratrol) and carotenoids (lutein and lycopene). Phenols, in particular, are concentrated in the skin where they serve as protection from sunlight. The muscatel grape, considered the oldest variety with the most delicate taste, owes its fruity taste to the terpenes it contains (linalool, geraniol and nerol). Generally, the phenol content is lower in table grapes than in wine grapes, because the latter are harvested later than the former, when the production of phytochemical compounds is at its maximum.

Pomegranates – Pomegranates contain a lot of phytochemical compounds and have a very high antioxidant power. They can be consumed naturally, perhaps added to a salad, or in the form of juice, which has become very popular because of its antioxidant properties. Pomegranates need very hot summers to ripen and the plant is usually grown in countries such as Turkey, Tunisia, the south of France, Spain and Morocco.

Figs and dates – The cultivation of figs could precede that of cereals and legumes, making this plant one of the first to be “domesticated” by agriculture. The fig tree tolerates a wide range of temperatures and different conditions and it is grown in many Mediterranean regions. Figs are eaten fresh or dried and are a rich source of soluble fibre and minerals (iron, calcium and potassium). Violet varieties contain many anthocyanins.

Dates have been cultivated in North Africa since ancient times. Egypt is the main producer in the Mediterranean basin and the main consumers of this fruit are Egyptians, Algerians and Tunisians. Dates contain glucose and fructose and are an excellent source of fibre, which is also present in the insoluble form. They also contain carotenoids and phenols.

Olives – The olive tree is the emblem of the Mediterranean region and its cultivation seems to date back to the Minoan period (1500-3000 BC) in Crete, from which it then extended to other Mediterranean countries. Greece has the highest production of black olives for direct consumption, as well as the highest consumption of olives in general. In Egypt, however, despite the fact that olive consumption is very high, olive oil is not widely used. Olives, especially black olives, are used in many traditional recipes.

The quantity of oil contained in olives varies from a minimum of 15% in green olives to a maximum of 30% in black olives. The main phenol in this fruit is oleuropein, which gives the olive its characteristic bitter taste and is found in larger quantities in smaller cultivars than in larger ones. During maturation, the levels of this phenol decrease, while the levels of hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol increase, compounds structurally similar to oleuropein. The conversion becomes almost complete when the olives are processed for food consumption. The ripening which results in a dark colour is due to the formation of anthocyanins.

Herbs and spices

Herbs are a typical ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine. Among the most famous, we can mention sage, rosemary, oregano and thyme, all plants typical of the Mediterranean basin. In the Italian cuisine, basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage are widely used. Basil, for example, is used in the preparation of the famous pesto. Other cuisines, such as the Moroccan one, favour the use of spices, such as saffron, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, pepper and paprika. Among the ones used most often, we find paprika, very common in the countries of North Africa and then introduced to Spain by the Moors. Pepper are also very common in Italy and Spain. The Arabs introduced the use of saffron in Spain. Finally, in the traditional Greek cuisine, fennel and sesame seeds are also very popular.

Herbs and spices have often been included in the course of occupations by other peoples. These flavourings contain a wide range of phytochemicals that are potentially healthy, such as  the carotenoid capsanthin found in paprika. Many terpenes are released when the herbs are cut or chopped. Nevertheless, the amount of beneficial substances taken up by consuming these herbs is, in general, quite small. In any case, the use of herbs and spices gives more flavour to foods.

Nuts

Nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, pine nuts, etc.) are very common in the countries of the Mediterranean basin and they are used in the preparation of various desserts, as well as consumed alone salted, toasted or in their natural form. Nuts are not a single botanical group, but they include instead different species: for instance, almonds are drupes, whereas peanuts are legumes.

Nuts contain many phytochemical compounds, such as phenols (both flavonoids and non-flavonoids). Peanuts and pistachios also contain resveratrol, which is common in red wine as well. As with fresh fruit, many bioactive compounds are found in the skin, which is often a film. Other compounds present in these foods are vitamin E, selenium and flavonoids. 

Seeds

Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are very popular in several Mediterranean countries. Sesame seeds are widely used in Greece and added to some types of bread. Sesame seeds are used to prepare Tahin, a sauce used as an ingredient for hummus, a delicious cream of chickpeas. Seeds are a rich source of phytosterols such as β-sitosterol, which is found at high concentrations in sesame seeds. The latter are also a source of lignans, of which flaxseed is richer. Finally, sesame seeds also contain vitamin E.

Fish and shellfish

Depending on their proximity to the sea, fish, molluscs and crustaceans may or may not represent an important source of noble protein for the Mediterranean populations. Seafood is an excellent source of unsaturated fatty acids, such as the omega-3 fatty acids, which are found not only in seafood, but also in plants. However, the latter are short-chain omega-3 fatty acids and have a lower biological activity compared to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids contained in seafood. Short chain omega-3 can be metabolized into long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, but in humans this process is not very efficient. The debate on this last point is still open, however, since many vegan people can live healthy lives without eating any seafood at all.

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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About Me

I’m an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. I started MY career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden.

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