New research suggests the so-called Mediterranean diet, often held up as the healthiest way to eat, may not be so beneficial after all

What is the Mediterranean diet?

First identified by scientists in the mid-1970s and popularised from the 1990s onwards, the Mediterranean diet is one which mimics the traditional cuisines of Greece, Italy, Spain, North Africa and the near Middle East. So essentially it’s one high in fish, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, unrefined cereals and legumes (think lentils, beans or chickpeas), and relatively low in consumption of meat and dairy products. It also allows for a moderate intake of wine. It’s why when we sit down to a huge bowl of pasta and a large glass of Rioja, we think we’re eating well.

And are we?

On the whole. For decades now the Mediterranean diet has been cited as one of the go-to diets for those who care about healthy eating. It is popularly thought to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a range of other chronic diseases, and to help tackle obesity. As a cultural rather than a culinary practice, it is recognised by UNESCO and is on its snappily-titled Representative List Of The Intangible Cultural Heritage Of Humanity, alongside tango (Argentina), flamenco (Spain) and shrimp fishing on horseback (Belgium).

Does pizza count?

Not if it’s made American-style with high-gluten flour and shortening added to the dough – and definitely not if it’s the Scottish version, deep-fried and served with chips and a pickled egg.

So where’s the beef?

New research conducted by an international team and published in the American Journal For Clinical Nutrition found the Mediterranean diet greatly increased pesticide intake, and that raised levels of these may weaken the immune system and even affect fertility and stunt the growth of children. In fact, swapping a traditional western diet (see chips and picked eggs, above) for a Mediterranean one could triple consumption of nasties such as insecticides and organophosphates. In other words, if you up the vegetables and cereals, you up the pollutants too. “Fruits, vegetables and whole grains cultivated in the conventional way are some of the main sources of environmental contaminants absorbed through our diet,” says Professor Carlo Leifert of Australia’s Southern Cross University and the University of Oslo. He adds: “If hormones become imbalanced, they can also have a negative effect on the growth and development of children.”

Any good news?

Plenty, particularly if you’re one of the thousands of people who have an organic vegetable box delivered weekly – as the name suggests, this produce is grown without the use of harmful pesticides. According to figures published earlier this year by the Soil Association, sales of organic boxes have surged by more than a third since the start of the pandemic and sales are approaching £500 million. The take-away message: the Mediterranean diet does still have benefits, but you need to go organic.

And does pizza count?

Stop it.