The real Mediterranean diet: Food insecurity, sustainable eating, and culinary heritage in North Africa
The term “Mediterranean Diet” — Attibakha al-Moutaouassittiya in Arabic — is popularly used internationally to describe a form of healthy eating drawn from the traditional foodways of the Mediterranean region.
In the context of Mediterranean North Africa, where countries face an increased reliance on food imports and rates of nutrition-related health issues are soaring, the tangible reality of eating in the region stands in stark contrast to the diet plan adopted abroad.
Though 21 countries border the Mediterranean Sea, its entire southern shore is shaped by just five: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. These countries represent not only a significant landmass but a web of contemporary and historical political, economic, and ecological relationships that both connect North Africa with the rest of the region and set it apart.
"Whereas the idea of the Mediterranean Diet evokes the dream of eating on a terrace in a beach town in Greece, the northern shores of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or Libya – despite their inherent role in the genesis of the diet – are assimilated into a harmful narrative that distinguishes European culinary traditions as uniquely healthy"
Distinct from but bearing the imprint of the Maghreb’s cuisine, the popular Mediterranean Diet has been widely studied and utilised as a tool to address a myriad of health issues.
Based on staple food commodities such as whole grains, legumes, fresh vegetables, and olive oil, the diet first gained mass appeal when an American nutritionist defined it based off of observations made in Greece and Italy in the 1960s. There remains some ambiguity on precisely how the diet should be defined, however.
Though there is not sufficient evidence to support the idea that the diet will encourage weight loss, there is a wealth of research to support the myriad of health benefits it offers. For example, clinical trials have indicated that following the diet contributes to the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, atrial fibrillation, and breast cancer.
When foodies describe food as Mediterranean, the implication is that the food is healthy. The implication is not, however, that the diet is tied to North Africa.
Whereas the idea of the Mediterranean Diet evokes the dream of eating on a terrace in a beach town in Greece, the northern shores of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or Libya – despite their inherent role in the genesis of the diet – are assimilated into a harmful narrative that distinguishes European culinary traditions as uniquely healthy.
This creates a reality where North African culinary histories and foodways are erased or otherwise ignored – the use of the word Mediterranean effectively whitewashes the cuisine by separating the food from its cultural heritage.
Inevitably, the term creates an uncomfortable paradox. As the Mediterranean diet adopted elsewhere in the world shines as a beacon of health, the actual diet of those living in the Mediterranean region is marked by rates of food and nutrition insecurity, a term used to describe the experience of having insufficient access to safe, healthful, and culturally essential foods. The traditional foodways of North Africa demonstrate how cultural vitality interacts with a rapidly globalising world.
Unnamed North African origins
In 2013, The Mediterranean Diet was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in recognition of the rich, collective, and ancestral experience of the diet held in countries across the Mediterranean basin.
The recognition of the Mediterranean Diet also included a celebration of the social nature of the region’s culinary traditions, illustrated through the sharing of food and the role of women in transmitting knowledge.
Of the seven countries that nominated the diet to UNESCO and therefore emblematic of the diet, the only North African country listed was Morocco.
Just as North Africa is often described as a cultural crossroads, Maghrebi cuisine takes shape through a rich confluence of culinary traditions that span from across Africa to Europe to the Middle East.
The Maghreb’s positionality as a key site of economic and cultural exchange solidifies its foundational role in shaping the diet across the region, particularly serving as an intersection point between African, Jewish, and indigenous Amazigh foodways and the rest of the Mediterranean.
The region has an extensive history playing this role, marked by massive political, economic, and religious shifts – all of which impact food culture. For example, the culinary influence of French colonisation remains clear throughout Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia today, particularly notable at the breakfast table and in the differences between rural and urban food habits. North African cuisine, however, changed culinary practices in France as well.
Couscous, perhaps the most well-known example of Amazigh and Maghrebi cuisine, is a shining example of how a staple grain and dish of North African origin has become an emblem of Mediterranean culinary tradition broadly.
Couscous proves how the North African origins of Mediterranean cuisine have been dissolved into a diet attributed to Europe. Recipes for Greek and Israeli couscous can be found in abundance. Israeli couscous, though popular on Mediterranean diet websites, isn’t actually couscous at all.
Calling food “Mediterranean” creates a reality where the food’s relationship to North African cultural identity is abstracted; when food is called Mediterranean, it ceases to be tied distinctly to the Maghreb and instead becomes part of a whole associated with white Europe.
In 2020, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia inscribed couscous on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, going so far as to highlight the multitude of nuances and regional variations in recipes for the dish resulting from the ecosystem in which it is prepared.
This environmental specificity is key to how the Mediterranean diet is structured broadly – the freshness of the vegetables eaten in the diet plans, for example, stands as an essential aspect of their efficacy and nutritional value.
Extending far beyond couscous and into the whole of North African cuisine, the strong cultural and practical emphasis on eating foods that are local and in season links the region to sustainable food practices as well.
Realities of food and nutrition insecurity in North Africa
Tunisia’s infamous harissa, another superstar of Maghrebi cuisine in the international arena, also claims space on UNESCO’s list.
“If white people want to genuinely experience harissa, then, by all means, do experience the real thing which builds upon centuries of know-how, down from the Andalusian exile of forcibly converted Muslims in the 17th century, to summer fruit pickers and the untold, underpaid labour of Tunisian women today,” writes Farah Abdessamad for The New Arab.
Food and identity are inseparable in the region. Another example of Tunisian food culture, canned tuna fish is almost omnipresent, becoming both a hallmark and staple of the country’s diet. In an article focused on the state of Tunisia’s tuna consumption earlier this year, the New York Times reported that though the stretch of the Mediterranean Sea off the Tunisian coast is abundant with tuna, what local consumers actually eat is low-quality imported fish.
The article states within the country’s current economic situation – one that benefits significantly from the foreign currency brought in by tuna exports – “years of mismanagement has now driven up inflation so much that many Tunisians can barely pay for their usual dose of canned Tuna,” exemplifying the rift between international consumption and cultural or nutritional necessities.
Food consumption and production in North Africa are notoriously susceptible to shocks. A mixed dependency on agricultural imports and subsistence agricultural production renders the state of food security in the region uniquely susceptible to the climatic crisis.
In Morocco, for example, the majority of farmers practice subsistence agriculture while simultaneously the health of the agri-food sector is structurally dependent on exports to countries in Europe and North America. Fluctuations in any aspect of food supply chains or climate could spell disaster for people living on most of the country’s land.
Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are all projected to experience extreme drought over the course of the century. All of North Africa’s coastal areas are subject to flooding as sea levels rise. Natural disasters, rapidly increasing soil salinisation, and volatile oil prices all pose threats to agricultural production across the region.
Communities across North Africa’s varied environments have adapted to changes in food production and consumption resulting from the region’s variable climate over time.
The cultivation of cereals such as wheat, barley, and millet is a crucial example of this. Exemplifying the intersection of food culture and dietary resilience, the incredible variety of ways in which people in North Africa consume cereals today speaks to how people have adapted in the face of both hardship and abundance.
From the bread made daily in houses across the region to the ubiquitous couscous to local specialities such as the Libyan national dish bazin or Morocco’s harcha, North Africa’s multitudinous cereal products demonstrate how the traditional diet has been shaped to meet the region’s nutritional needs over time.
"Today, the North African culinary scene is undeniably vibrant. An abundance of Maghrebi culinary artists, the majority of whom are women, have become household names"
Not unlike the example of Tunisian tuna, however, the region’s dependence on cereals today is marked by an increase in consumption of imported soft wheat, often in the form of bakery bread. North African countries are already the world’s largest importers of wheat and the past year’s drought brought about North Africa’s highest grain imports ever.
Following the collapse of the Black Sea grain deal in July, wheat prices have dramatically increased. As North Africa depends on Ukrainian wheat, this shift could severely impact the state of food security in the region.
With an already marked reliance on nutrient-deficient ready-made and packaged foods making up for decreases in local production, the Maghreb could lose half of its cultivatable land and become dependent on imports for nearly 70% of its food needs by 2050.
Between 2017 and 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2020 Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition reported that the prevalence of food security in the North African countries along the Mediterranean was notable: in Libya, 35.9% of the population faced moderate or severe food insecurity, followed by 25.9% of Moroccans, 20% of Tunisians, and 17.6% of Algerians.
Studies from the region have shown that food insecurity particularly impacts rural women. Available sources indicate high incidences of food and nutrition insecurity particularly through the prevalence of the health issues that come because of it and the phenomenon’s socio-political origins. Migrants in the region notably face hunger. In Libya, prolonged conflict makes it difficult to come to reliable data.
Food insecurity in North Africa remains understudied overall. This is likely in part because talking about experiences of hunger or not having enough food often invokes feelings of shame.
The reality of the contemporary Mediterranean diet as seen through the lens of the Sea’s southern shore is complex – undoubtedly, the role of food in cultural vitality provides unique pathways towards local and regional food security.
Simultaneously, however, the reality shines that people across North Africa are unable to access the baseline nutrition and food intake requirements to consider the region's food secure.
Promoting a sustainable and empowering regional culinary scene
“Restoring cultural ownership of healthful eating for people of North African descent paints a more vivid, more historically accurate, and more delicious picture of the Mediterranean diet,” writes Kelly LeBlanc for Today’s Dietician. Crucially, “…celebrating the African roots of countless nutritious Mediterranean food staples is one way practitioners can push back against the narrative that the “best” diet originates only in Europe.”
Though the reality of the regional diet can be disheartening, regional actors continuously find new ways to celebrate the region’s culinary heritage and promote a sustainable future through the food and restaurant industry.
In the face of food and nutrition crises compounded by the impacts of climate change, scientists, entrepreneurs, civil society actors, and moms in the region are revisiting the idea of a sustainable and culturally significant regional diet as they seek to address issues of food security and poverty alleviation.
Marrakech’s Amal Center, a non-profit crafting employment and personal growth opportunities to support Moroccan women’s financial independence through professional culinary training, exemplifies how a celebration of local cuisine can lead to a broad social impact.
In 2018, the app Yummy, a food delivery service run by young Libyan women, garnered international attention as a result of its efforts to provide women with a platform through which to grow food-based businesses at home.
Today, the North African culinary scene is undeniably vibrant. An abundance of Maghrebi culinary artists, the majority of whom are women, have become household names.
In Morocco, stars like Choumicha Chafay, Halima El Filali, and Fatine Badi are demonstrating how traditional ways of preparing and eating food can be both celebrated, re-imagined, and shared in an era of rapid cultural transformation. The region’s cuisine, when recognised, has a glimmering appeal internationally.
Jeff Koehler’s The North African Cookbook entering the scene shines as an example of this. Simultaneously, increased attention is being drawn to how the popular Mediterranean Diet falls short of in its ability to engage with the full potential of cultural richness, straying instead towards a reductionist vision that only carries forward the culinary traditions of Mediterranean Europe without uplifting the vast ways in which North Africa and the Middle East have shaped healthy eating on a global scale
Ultimately, the Mediterranean diet has different meanings and implications depending on the context in which the term is used.
Irrespective of how the term is applied, it is essential that we remember that Mediterranean food is also North African food. But perhaps more importantly, the Mediterranean diet is an emblem of not just the disparities between the states of food security in different parts of the world – rather, even in its most simplified, diet-savvy form, this traditional way of eating represents the continuing importance of North African culinary culture internationally.
Madeline Turner is an anthropological researcher working and writing at the intersections of food, culture, politics, agroecology, and storytelling
Follow her on Twitter: @_madelineturner