Culture. Italians are choosing “superfoods” over meats and adding supplements and shakes to their shrinking diets.

Quinoa, ginger, daikon and less meat: So Italians change their diet

Prying into the shopping cart is always a useful exercise to trace the identikit of the “new Italian” (as the Co-op Report 2016 calls consumers), other than the food they consume to feed themselves and feel better about themselves. Eating is related not only with the digestive system.

This was widely discussed at the Salone del Gusto, held in Turin. Meanwhile, we have become the skinniest people in Europe, not because of hunger but because we try to cleanse the body through food and, in some ways, also through the spirit. The report suggests the explosion of some “ancient” ingredients is also associated with new lifestyles that are inspired to some form of pseudo-religiosity. We eat less but better. We choose more global products (the consumption of ethnic products increased by 8 percent in the first half of 2016), we eat lighter and there is an exasperating tendency toward the “no” food (no salt, gluten, sugar, lactose …).

Eating habits in recent years have been shaken by the myth of the natural superfoods to which miraculous therapeutic properties are attributed: ginger, turmeric, avocado, daikon (a Chinese white radish) and quinoa. The report says these words are “researched obsessively online.” So much curiosity has a positive impact on sales: The ginger-related business in the last year increased by 141 percent; turmeric scored a 93 percent increase. There is also a growing interest in algae — only one Italian in five says he would never eat it. These are wonders of marketing, and also something more complex.

The research (or obsession) for wellness affects mainly the two sectors that best define not only tastes but also lifestyle: meat and/or vegetables. The figure is now indisputable: The consumption of animal protein is in free fall (minus 13 percent in six years) and the consumption of fruits and vegetables is increasing exponentially. Organic or would-be organics has become mass consumption.

According to Nielsen data compiled last spring, four out of 10 families regularly buy vegetarian products. In recent years, the sector has experienced remarkable growth. Compared to 2013, for example, the sales of products made from soy and vegetable milk have doubled. Turnover in 2016: €357 million only in supermarkets, more than 18 percent in a year.

There is another interesting fact regarding the new health creed: Italians eat less than before. The volume of consumption is back to the levels of the late ‘60s: 2.35 kilograms of food a day distributed over three main meals. In comparison with the early 2000s, around 230 grams of food a day have been eliminated (minus 9 percent).

What was eliminated? Meat.

The decisive factor was the alarm launched exactly a year ago by the World Health Organization (WHO) that there is a correlation between excessive consumption of red meat and the risk of getting cancer. Just in the first six months of this year, there was a 4 percent drop in sales of meats and sausages (according to an estimate, in 2016 Italians could lower their consumption of meat to about 210 grams per day, on part with the mid-1980s). The health revolution has made an illustrious victim: sales of frankfurters were down 12.5 percent ​​in the first six months of the year.

Without having to be nutrition professionals, Italians on the hunt for healthy proteins are oriented toward legumes and cereals. In a year, sales of dried beans went up 21.4 percent, sales of chickpeas by 12 percent and lentils by 11 percent. According to the report, we have also become more curious toward new flavors and therefore more willing than other people to experiment with new recipes. (We should add that abroad, foreigners still view with derision Italians’ obsession for food.)

The desire for renewal at the table, for example, is found in the fact that 39 percent of those who try foods for the first time do so in the circle of friends and relatives. Eating different and boasting of it, and perhaps posting the dishes on social media: gastronomic pornography.

Large retailers are paying great attention to consumers’ online searches “because what you type in today will be in the basket tomorrow.” Ginger, for example, is unsurpassed (a 106 percent increase in online searches) and sales in supermarkets have tripled, reaching €4.1 million euro in the first half of 2016. There is also a boom in sales of seeds and dried fruit (plus 40 percent in a business worth €12 million per year).

Purists of the Mediterranean diet can rest assured. That tradition is present in online searches as well. Among the top 15 other keywords associated with the term “recipe” are: parsley, strawberries, lettuce, capers, celery, arugula and grapes.

There is another very fashionable trend that, while not involving the supermarkets, poses another set of problems, not only nutritional: pills, tonics, vitamins, supplements and shakes of various kinds, the so-called “other food” which should ensure a sort of perpetual well-being. The figures of the Italian market are a record in Europe: We spend €2.5 billion a year to try to feel better (up by 7.7 percent). Or at least we believe so.

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