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Recipes for Health, Sustainability, and Heritage

As part of the Sustainability, Health, Heritage European project, Abrazo House will be editing a book of recipes from several European countries (mainly Spain, the UK, Lithuania, and Greece, but we’re hoping to include some from elsewhere, too). 

The idea is to promote each of these three core values by presenting traditional recipes from different cultures, adapted for a contemporary context, which use healthy ingredients and promote a more sustainable diet. In this blog post, I’ll be talking about how we’ll be trying to balance the three different aspects.

We’re taking as a starting point the 2019 WHO-FAO publication Sustainable Healthy Diets—Guiding Principles. The diagram below, taken from that, gives a broad overview of the main criteria to be taken into account. 

 

Health

 The main criteria around health are: 

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, balanced across food groups;
  2. Wholegrains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables
  3. Moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry and fish; small amounts of red meat
These are fairly self-explanatory, and most health authorities would agree, albeit with certain variations. So, for example, the NHS Eatwell Guide puts more emphasis on dairy products and fish: “Milk, cheese, yoghurt and fromage frais are good sources of protein and some vitamins, and they’re also an important source of calcium… Aim for at least 2 portions of fish every week, 1 of which should be oily.”

Sustainability

Food is at the heart of humanity’s impact on the environment. Food production accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, half of land use, and 70% of freshwater use. Agriculture is a factor in the threats to 85% of all endangered species; while 94% of the world’s biomass of mammals, excluding humans, is domesticated animals (Our World in Data). 

When it comes to sustainability, the WHO-FAO gives five main criteria:

  1. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water & land use, fertiliser & pesticide use
  2. Preserve biodiversity & avoid over-exploitation of nature
  3. Avoid antibiotics & hormones
  4. Minimise use of plastic in packaging
  5. Reduce food loss & waste

Criteria like fertiliser & pesticide use, antibiotics & hormones, plastic in packaging, and food loss & waste are not so much to do with choice of ingredients (though this has an influence) as with how those ingredients are produced, distributed and used; so the main thing we can do is to recommend choosing organically produced ingredients that are not over-packaged, and using them efficiently. 

When it comes to preserving biodiversity, much of our food nowadays is produced in large-scale monocultures have little or no biodiversity value; whereas many traditional methods of food production, such as agroforestry, are linked to the maintenance of unique and biodiverse ecosystems. 

Greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use are easier to quantify, though the headline figures can often obscure wide local and regional variations. There is a huge variation in emissions per kg of food, as can be seen in the diagram below (Our World in Data). By far the highest climatic impact comes from grazing by ruminants (i.e. cows and sheep) because of the methane gas they produce. Milk is the least environmentally harmful product of traditional grazing practices; the impact of cheese and beef are 7x as great per kg.

Of course, grazing is also a widespread traditional land use with very strong associated cultural traditions, especially in environments (e.g. mountains) where farming is difficult; this means there is a potential conflict between “heritage” and “sustainability” aspects. 

For bigger version of the diagram click here: (Our World in Data)

Heritage

The heritage criteria are as follows:

  1. Based on local culture, culinary practices, knowledge and consumption patterns, and values around how food is produced and consumed
  2. Are economically & socially accessible to all
  3. Avoid adverse gender-related impacts, especially with regard to time allocation

Practices of producing, preparing, and consuming food and drink have always been vital to human culture. UNESCO recognises 23 different culinary practices from different countries and regions as constituting “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” but of course this is only the tip of the iceberg. Every human culture, anywhere in the world, includes countless food-related elements worth preserving and celebrating.

One of the practices recognised by UNESCO is “The Mediterranean Diet” of Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal, which:

“…involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. It includes the craftsmanship and production of traditional receptacles for the transport, preservation and consumption of food, including ceramic plates and glasses. Women play an important role in transmitting knowledge of the Mediterranean diet: they safeguard its techniques, respect seasonal rhythms and festive events, and transmit the values of the element to new generations. Markets also play a key role as spaces for cultivating and transmitting the Mediterranean diet during the daily practice of exchange, agreement and mutual respect.”

It’s fair to say that most of these statements could apply, to a greater or lesser extent, to any region of the world; they give an overview of the different ways in which food-related cultural heritage enriches and structures people’s lives.

Cultural traditions are never totally static, and food traditions in paticular need to adapt to a rapidly evolving world that is now waking up to an unprecedented climate and ecological emergency. We can’t keep traditional practices “preserved in aspic”—a very appropriate phrase: aspic is a type of jelly that was once used for preserving cold meat, but now only exists as a metaphor!

 We need to choose ingredients and recipes that honestly reflect the world we are living in. Many traditional recipes involve meat; should we present them in their conventional versions, or offer alternatives with non-meat substitutes, even when these (e.g. tofu) are not at all traditional in the cultures from which the recipes originate? As always, this is a judgement call. 

What’s exciting about this project is the chance to creatively interpret traditional recipes in a contemporary context and come up with something that’s both old and new. We’ll keep sharing whatever we come up with!

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