Mediterranean foods part I: Mediterranean vegetables and legumes

Mediterranean vegetables

Which are the typical Mediterranean vegetables?

According to the Mediterranean tradition, a typical meal always contains foods of vegetable origin. Besides being used as a side dish, vegetables can also be used in many preparations, from pasta to soups, as well as in the preparation of fish or meat dishes. Fruit, on the other hand, is generally considered as a dessert at the end of a meal. Cereals are always present, if not in the form of a main dish, at least as bread. All this explains why the consumption of food of this kind is much higher in Mediterranean countries than, for example, in the Nordic or Anglo-Saxon countries. Moreover, the typical characteristic of populations living in southern European countries is the wide variety of vegetable foods commonly consumed.

Let’s, therefore, understand, in the following paragraphs, what are the typical foods of the Mediterranean diet, and know more about their nutritional properties starting with Mediterranean vegetables and legumes.

Green Leaf Vegetables

Rich in folates, vitamin C, bioactive compounds and often also calcium, these vegetables are used in all seasons and prepared in many different ways. The main ones are cruciferous (or Brassicaceae), lettuce, spinach, chicory and many wild plants.

Cruciferous – These vegetables have been consumed by Mediterranean people since the times of the ancient Romans. The name comes from the fact that the four petals of their flower (sword-shaped) are arranged to form a cross. This family of plants is vast and includes, among others, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, kohlrabi, turnips and radish, radicchio, horseradish, watercress and turnip.

Cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates, which are water-soluble and hydrolysed by an enzyme (myrosinase) that is released when the plant is crushed. This process leads to the formation of compounds that in nature would serve as a defence against parasites while in the body perform the function of antioxidants. Cruciferous vegetables are also an excellent source of carotenoids.

Other Green Vegetables – Lettuce contains various types of carotenoids, whose bioavailability increases when the salad is seasoned with olive oil. Unlike lettuce, chicory has a slightly bitter taste, due to the presence of lettuce. The roots of these plants contain inulin, which promotes the growth of intestinal bacterial flora. Spinach is also a very common food, both as a side dish and to prepare dishes such as omelettes and first courses. The iron and calcium they contain are found in the form of oxalate, which makes them insoluble in water and therefore difficult to absorb in the intestine. The consumption of foods rich in vitamin C (such as lemon juice) in association with vegetables rich in insoluble iron, allows the oxalate to be converted into a more soluble chemical form and therefore more easily absorbed from the intestine.

It is estimated that there are more than 150 different species of edible wild plants in the Mediterranean regions. Of these, rapeseed, watercress, wild fennel, purslane, thistle and nettle are worthy of mention. The harvesting of these plants is seasonal, with a preference for the spring season when the leaves, which are younger, contain less bioactive compounds with a bitter taste. Wild plants are very nutritious and can contain substances such as vitamins C and E, polyphenols, carotenoids such as lutein and β-carotene, at levels generally higher than their cultivated counterparts. These plants are excellent for preparing omelettes and savoury cakes, typical of the Mediterranean tradition, perhaps also using parsley, another green plant rich in carotenoids and vitamin C.

Tubers

Among the roots consumed in Mediterranean countries, the most famous are carrots, turnips (which are part of the cruciferous family) and beets. In some countries, it is typical to also consume the leaves of the latter two. Carrots, as their name suggests, contain carotenoids, but also phytosterols, chlorogenic acids and other anti-cancer substances. The red colour of the beets, on the other hand, is attributable to a group of phytochemical compounds known as ‘betalaines’. The absorption of all these substances is favoured by the oil used in seasonings because they are soluble in fats.

Garlic and onion

The allium family includes not only garlic and onion but also leeks and chives. Onions have been used by Mediterranean populations since ancient times. Garlic and onions contain sulphurated substances, which protect against cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Garlic is known for its ability to reduce blood pressure and is, therefore, a useful adjunct in the treatment of hypertension.

Onions contain some flavonoids, which are not resistant to excessive cooking. Quercetin, in particular, is better absorbed when drinking wine, thanks to the solubilising effect of alcohol. Frying onions (or garlic) is the first step in the preparation of many traditional Mediterranean dishes. In Italy, for example, many recipes start with the classic fried food. This procedure, now avoided by many because it is considered dangerous to health, promotes cell rupture and the escape of quercetin. Onions also contain inulin, a prebiotic that promotes the growth of intestinal bacterial flora.

Garlic, appreciated since ancient times as a food and as a medicine, is used both cooked and raw. In the latter case, it is included, for example, in the preparation of sauces such as Catalan alioli (raw garlic crushed with salt and olive oil) as well as the French variant aioli (which also contains egg yolk) and the Greek skordalia, which contains potatoes.

Many of the properties attributed to garlic, such as the ability to prevent colds, protect against stomach cancer, reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, are still very controversial and definitive evidence of these effects does not exist. In addition, in some cases, the amounts to be taken to achieve these benefits are such that they cannot be achieved by diet. This is why, for example, many people take garlic-based dietary supplements to reduce pressure values.

The main sulphur compound contained in garlic is alliin, which is transformed into allicin by the enzyme alliinase and which is released when the garlic is crushed. Allicin, in turn, is not heat-stable and is converted to other sulfur compounds during cooking. These are attributed the beneficial properties of garlic, but excessive cooking still destroys many beneficial substances contained in garlic and onion.

Solanaceas

This plant family includes some edible species, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Although tomatoes arrived in Europe only in the sixteenth century, they have found space in numerous preparations, such as numerous Italian sauces, Andalusian gazpacho, French ratatouille, as well as being part of a wide range of salads. Tomato consumption in Mediterranean countries is generally much higher than in other European countries. Tomatoes have been studied because they contain lycopene, several other carotenoids, vitamins C and E, chlorogenic acid and flavonoids, as well as various minerals (copper, iron and chrome in particular). The content of phytochemical compounds appears to be influenced by the degree of ripeness at harvest time, the quality of light received by plants, the type of plant variety used (cultivars) and the growing season. For example, the amount of lycopene in a winter greenhouse tomato will be much lower than that found in an outdoor tomato in a Mediterranean country and harvested in season. Although the studies are not conclusive, the intake of lycopene appears to be associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. The absorption of this compound is facilitated by the concomitant presence of fats, as happens when preparing a sauce made from tomato sauce and extra virgin olive oil.

The colour of the peppers is determined by their carotenoid content. These foods are an excellent source of vitamin C and, in fact, this substance was isolated for the first time from chillies in 1930. One hundred grams of peppers provide 90 mg of vitamin C. These plants also contain vitamin E. Chilli in particular, are a source of capsaicinoids, alkaloids with a potential role in reducing cholesterol levels. Eggplants, finally, are rich in anthocyanins and contain a good deal of lignan.

Legumes (pulses)

Legumes are among the first plants to be cultivated in the Mediterranean area. The first crops seem to have been cultivated in the eastern area, where pea, lentil, chickpeas and vetch (the latter used as animal feed) were introduced for the first time. Legumes are important from the point of view of crop rotation, because they fix atmospheric nitrogen through rhizoids, allowing the soil to regenerate the content of this element. Legumes are cultivated to then keep their seeds, which are dried and maintained for the rest of the year after harvesting. In Egypt, ful mudammas, a preparation based on a puree of broad beans, is considered the national dish and can be eaten on several occasions during the day. The technique of preparing legumes in the form of puree is very common and helps their digestion.

Chickpeas are very common in Turkey and Spain, as well as in the south of Italy. In Spain, cocido, a dish made with meat, chickpeas and vegetables, is one of the traditional dishes. Prepared with chickpea flour and olive oil, panisse and socca, are two dishes instead of the traditional Provencal. Lentils are also very common and can be stored dry for a long time, with a minimal nutrient loss. In our country, it is typical to eat them on the New Year’s Eve because they are considered auspicious, but it would be a good rule to eat them more often. Legumes are commonly eaten with herbs and spices, which are ingredients of falafels and pancakes prepared in some North African countries.

A perfect combination is between legumes and cereals, together with which they provide a complete set of amino acids (the basic components of proteins), as the two foods compensate for each other’s deficiencies. Cereal proteins have a relative deficiency in some amino acids such as lysine and tryptophan, while legumes contain good amounts of lysine but are deficient in methionine, one of the sulfur amino acids found in cereals. Chickpeas are a rich source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that cannot be produced by the human body.

Legumes are a source of many nutrients: 100 g of chickpeas provide a quantity of folate almost equal to the recommended dose, as well as many other B vitamins and minerals, including iron. The latter is found in a less soluble form than the iron contained in the meat. The consumption of legumes with a source of vitamin C (lemon juice, cabbage, peppers, and tomatoes) increases their solubility, facilitating their absorption. These plants also provide good amounts of fibre and phytoestrogens to help reduce blood cholesterol levels. However, legumes also contain some oligosaccharides (such as raffinose and stachyose) that cannot be digested by the human stomach and therefore ferment in the intestine, causing unpleasant phenomena such as swelling and flatulence. A regular use of these vegetables, however, allows the intestine to get used to eliminate this annoying problem and the intestinal bacterial flora to “eat” the sugars that our body cannot digest. Despite all these important nutritional qualities. Unfortunately, the consumption of legumes is always lower, often even in Mediterranean countries.

Picture of 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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