Mediterranean Diet Post 10: In Ancient Greece, Wine Was Watered Down

To Enhance Flavor, Just Add Water, Harold McGee, New York Times, July 2010

In Ancient Greece:

Wine was never, ever drunk straight. It was mixed with water in a crockery vessel called the “krater.” A one part wine to one part water mixture was considered dangerous. Even one part wine to two parts water was still considered too strong and barbaric. One part wine to three parts water was seen, by Plutarch at least, as the perfect balance.
Food In Ancient Greece, Cook’s Info

Wine was almost always diluted, usually with water (or snow when the wine was to be served cold). The Greeks believed that only barbarians drank unmixed or undiluted wine and that the Spartan king Cleomenes I was once driven insane after drinking wine this way. They also believed that undiluted wine could even kill the drinker: the Gallic chieftain Brennus was recorded as having committed suicide by drinking wine full-strength. Greeks asserted that the dilution of wine with water was a mark of civilized behavior, whose contrast was embodied in the myth of the battle of Lapiths with the Centaurs, inflamed to rape and mayhem because of wine drunk undiluted with water.
Wikipedia: Ancient Greece And Wine

According to Harold McGee, water can be a flavor enhancer because it dilutes harsh or overpowering ingredients, broadening the aroma and flavor range of the final product. This is true for wine (and coffee as he describes) because it dilutes alcohol, a component which, according to chemists can “accentuate a wine’s bitterness, reduce its apparent acidity and diminish the release of most aroma molecules. Alcohol particularly holds down fruity and floral aromas, so the aroma that’s left is mainly woody, herbaceous and vegetal.”

The more I look at the traditional Mediterranean diet, the more I see how healthful it is, and the more I see how utterly unlike it is to the Mediterranean diet being promoted today.

Longest-Lived Ikarians Tended To Be Poor

In my reading … People who lived the longest with fewest ailments ate a more austere diet, often centered around a starch (potatoes in Okinawa, rice in Asia, wheat and barley in Europe, corn in Africa), with fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds to complement it. Their diets tended to be low in fat with very little animal food. They also remained active.

The longest-lived Ikarians tended to be poor people living in the island’s highlands.
Ikaria, Greece, Blue Zones

A 98-year-old man and his wife on Greece’s Ikaria Island. Photograph by Gianluca Colla, National Geographic

98-year-old Stamatis Moraitis from Ikaria. The Greek Island Of Old Age, BBC

Mediterranean Diet Post 9: Bread, The Most Important Component In The Greek Diet, Did Not Come Easily

In Greece in the 1960s, bread was eaten at almost every meal, as it had been for centuries. A person might eat between 2 to 3 pounds of bread a day, much like present-day Sardinians, a population known for their longevity.

The process of transforming wheat in a field to flour for bread is labor-intensive:

So, apart from the work of ploughing a field, sowing the wheat, and tending to it as it grows, you have to harvest it, dry it, thresh it, winnow it, and grind it. Then you can make bread with it, itself another several-day affair for people not using commercial yeast.

In the late 50s and early 1960s when Ancel Keys was collecting his information about diet, the people of Greece were still processing their wheat manually. In more rural areas, manual harvesting continued until after the 1980s: “After the 1980s, the importing of large agricultural machinery made the manual harvest obsolete. This transition would have happened earlier, probably in the sixties, in less remote and mountainous areas.”

Here is wheat being harvested, by hand, from Vintage Everyday, Everyday Life In Greece In The 1950s:

Wheat harvesting, Western Macedonia, June 1957

Wheat harvesting, Western Macedonia, June 1957

Here is harvested corn or wheat, I can’t tell, on its way to be threshed. Donkeys and mules were commonly used for transportation and farm work. (The photo is from Corfu, Greece, one of the cohorts in Ancel Keyes’ Seven Countries Study.)

Harvested wheat was taken to a threshing circle, called an alonia. These circles were usually situated on a windy high point, surrounded by valleys (where wheat was grown), so the threshed grain can be winnowed. The woman in the photo above may be traveling uphill.

All of the photos below, except for the last one, are from Explore Crete, Alonia, The Threshing Circles Of Crete, as is this excerpt:

The first major task was making the floor of the aloni smooth enough for the grain to be threshed and collected as a clean product. This meant remaking the floor each year before the harvest. … Making the floor of the circle smooth was big job, utilising all available resources of donkeys (15 I thought I heard! I need to use my imagination here) plenty water, hay, sheep to make mud, and children – presumably to help stir it all up with the straw and get dirty.

When the floor was ready, the threshing could begin. The crop of ripe wheat or barley is spread around on the floor of the circle. Then a volosiros is used, which is one of those wide, wooden, sledge-shaped objects with lethal looking spikes made out of either sharp flints or metal teeth. … The volosiros is dragged round the flattened wheat or barley by a donkey, breaking up the wheat and loosening off the grain. Next began the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. This was done manually with big flat wooden pitchforks, and if the wind was on the right side, the wheat would fall back into the circle and the chaff would be blown away as it was skilfully (so as not to land either outside the circle or in the next guy’s face) tossed in the air.

Separating wheat from chaff (Winnowing). Source: Only Crete

The grain had to swept up, packaged, and sent via donkey to a local mill for grinding. Windmills, water wheels, and donkeys were used to power grinding stones into the 20th century. The windy Greek islands are noted for their windmills.

You could also take some home to hand-grind:

All of the above is just wheat. They also harvested potatoes manually:

Potato harvest in Thebes, 1955. Source: Vintage Everyday

In between doing laundry:

Kastoria, November 1958. Source: Vintage Everyday

All of the above was within our lifetimes. It was certainly how things were done when what we call the traditional Mediterranean diet was being consumed. No electricity, no refrigerators, few automobiles.

Context is everything. If you’re eating the traditional Mediterranean diet, you’re eating 2 to 3 pounds of bread a day, and working pretty hard for that bread! As well as everything else you’re eating.

Father Epiphanios Of Mount Athos

This is Father Epiphanios, center:

Source: The Divine Cuisine of Mount Athos, Greece Is, July 2016

He wrote the recipes in this book:

This is where he lives, on Mount Athos in Northern Greece. It’s a skete or monastic settlement, part of Mylopotamos, a dependency of the Great Lavra Monastery.

You can see his vineyard in the foreground above. Here’s another shot of it. The wine father Epiphanios makes from these grapes is sold all over Europe:

There are more photos of his skete here.

Here are some recipes from their website.

We’ve been making this one of his, “Vegetables In Terracotta.”

I like reading about him because he really likes food, and cooking, and talking about it.

“You have fast food, slow food and monk food,” says Father Epiphanios, only half-joking. “Good food needs time. The other day, I was watching a cooking show on television, and the presenter sautéed the onions for less than a minute. Onions need to be sautéed over time so they become sweet and golden, so they flavor the food and melt nicely.”
The Divine Cuisine of Mount Athos, Greece Is, July 2016

A Monk Shares His Love Of God, Food And Wine,, 2016

See that top photo? From what I can tell, the meal consisted of pasta (ditalini, which I’ve been searching all over for), potatoes, bread, and olives. It might have been one of their fasting days. Very starch-based.

Mediterranean Diet Post 8: Actual Meals

The study below included an approximation of three diets of Crete. The authors describe them as:

Diet A) The traditional diet of Crete in the 1960s.
Diet B) The diet of present-day (1994) adolescents in Crete.
Diet C) The fasting diet of the Greek Orthodox Church (1996).

Mediterranean Diet of Crete, Food And Nutrient Content, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, December 2000

A) One diet represented the traditional Cretan diet of the 1960s, which has been of great interest because of its cardioprotective benefits as inferred from large epidemiologic studies such as the Seven Countries study. The population of Crete was found to have the best health status and the lowest morbidity and mortality rates from coronary heart disease and cancer of all 16 cohorts, including other Mediterranean populations. The 3 Italian cohorts, for example, had over twice as high 25-year mortality rates for coronary heart disease in comparison with the Cretan cohort. The Cretan cohort had the lowest, age-adjusted, all-cause mortality rate after 20 years. The diet of the population of Crete was found to be the main factor related to excellent health status and lowest mortality rates.

B) Also analyzed was the present-day diet of adolescents, a diet that reflects the Westernized trends that are increasingly evident in the diet of young Greeks.

C) The third diet analyzed was that of the Greek Orthodox church during a period of fasting. The fasting period as defined by the church has been one of the main characteristics of the Cretan Mediterranean diet for the past 2,000 years. The tradition is maintained in the Greek monasteries, and many elderly Greeks still follow the fasting rules.

This is why I have been focusing on the Greek diet, particularly Crete, in my Mediterranean Diet posts, and not, say, the Italian diet.

Here’s a table from the study:

What do you see?

I see a few things … Diet A has salad almost every day, sometimes twice a day. Whole fruit every day. Lots of cooked vegetables. It also has a lot of dairy food: milk, cheese, or yogurt almost every morning. There is animal food 5 out of 7 days for lunch, and 4 out of 7 for dinner (egg, yogurt, cheese, fish). There is eating going on 5 times a day. And olive oil every day. I’m having a hard time believing that this is the traditional Mediterranean diet, that poor rural Cretans who had just emerged from a World War and a Civil War, which together devasted the country and caused hundreds of thousands to flee because they couldn’t feed themselves, would eat this abundantly. What’s more likely is that this was a diet indirectly subsidized by the United States to prevent war-torn Greece from aligning with communist countries. Greece joined NATO in 1952 and thanks to the Truman Doctrine, was flush with Western money and influence by the early 1960s, when Diet A was recorded.

About fasting (which seems to be more about choice of food than outright non-eating):

Mount Athos monks, who are thought to follow the traditional Mediterranean diet, and who adhere to the tenets of the Eastern Orthodox Church, eat two meals a day, the morning meal and the evening meal:

They eat two meals a day. The “first meal” lasts 10 minutes; the “second meal” also lasts 10 minutes. There’s no meat and no dinner table conversation – the only sound is a monk reading from sacred texts.

Fasting And Feasting On Mount Athos, Greece Is, July 2016
The Divine Cuisine of Mount Athos, Greece Is, July 2016
Mt. Athos: A Visit To The Holy Mountain, CBS 60 Minutes, May 2011

Those in Diet C here, which is supposed to represent the tenets of the Eastern Orthodox church, also appear to be eating two meals, at least during the week. It was during the fasting period of Lent.

The authors say:

The fasting period as defined by the church has been one of the main characteristics of the Cretan Mediterranean diet for the past 2,000 years.

Most people in Greece are Eastern Orthodox, and, as I read, practice the fasting aspects of their religion:

The trend towards secularism has been less pronounced in the traditionally Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe. Greece as the only traditionally Eastern Orthodox country in Europe which has not been part of the communist Eastern Bloc also retains a very high religiosity, with in excess of 95% of Greeks adhering to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Greece isn’t a secular country. Its diet reflects that, e.g. no olive oil, meat, fish, milk and dairy products every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year. But Diet A broke this tradition. It seems to be a non-fasting, secular diet.

Interestingly, Diet C also diverges from the fasting rituals described by the Orthodox religion. During Lent, meat, dairy, and eggs are not allowed, fish is allowed except on Wednesdays and Fridays, oil is allowed only on the weekend. I see dairy food and oil during the week, not much though.

Here is the extent of Diet C’s fruits and vegetables (servings/week): avocado (6), tomato (5), olives (5), orange (4), apple (3), radish (2), spinach (2), chicory (1), artichokes (2). Is that a lot? There is a lot of bread. The food is simple. A meal might consist of lentils (no oil) with olives, bread, and an orange; rice with tomato (no oil), bread, and an apple; on weekends, pasta with oil, tomatoes, bread, apple, and red wine … but only about 6 ounces of wine a week!

To me, Diet C is a whole lot closer to how people in Greece ate during the first half of the twentieth century when their reputation for health and longevity was being forged.

Mediterranean Diet Post 7: Olive Oil Is Relatively Devoid Of Nutrients, Except Fat

Here are the vitamins and minerals in one tablespoon of olive oil, from NutritionData:

So, what does olive oil have, if not vitamins and minerals? Fat:

Olive oil has no protein, and no fiber since it has no carbohydrate and all fiber is carbohydrate. Olive oil is an industrially-produced, ultra-processed, concentrated fat extract. This one tablespoon has more saturated fat (1.9g) than a large egg (1.5g). Olive oil has twice the saturated fat of other vegetable oils like safflower.

Yet companies claim that it is “very rich in vitamins and minerals” and other unsubstantiated flim-flam. An example:

The refining process removes vitamins, minerals, and polyphenolic compounds. Extra virgin olive oil is less refined and may contain more nutrients. But you can’t tell from reading the label if olive oil is extra virgin. That’s because a lot of extra virgin olive oil isn’t extra virgin, and sometimes it’s not olive oil at all. It could be hazelnut or soybean oil with chlorophyll added for color. The FDA doesn’t have the time or resources to oversee olive oil:

Adulteration And Corruption In The Olive Oil Trade
Most Imported Extra Virgin Olive Oil Is Probably Not “Extra Virgin”
Most Oil Sold As Italian Olive Oil Does Not Come From Italy, Some Isn’t Even Olive Oil

I know what you’re thinking, “Not my olive oil.” I was surprised to learn that many common oils sold as extra virgin didn’t live up to that designation in the UCDavis analysis (e.g. Berio, Bertolli, Colavita, Carapelli).

If it’s polyphenolic compounds you’re after, you can find them throughout the plant kingdom, without having to intake all that nutrient-void, calorie-laden, industrially-produced grease that may not even be olive oil. The lowly potato or celery has more polyphenols per serving than extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) with more vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber to boot. (EVOO contains about 150-400 mg/L of polyphenols. There are about 68 tablespoons in a liter. So, there are about 2-6 mg of polyphenols per tablespoon of the very best EVOO you can buy, which may not be EVOO at all).

Polyphenols: Food Sources And Bioavailability, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2004

This is a big table; I chopped it off. You can see the whole table here.

Mediterranean Diet Post 6: Olive Oil Promotes Atherosclerosis, Impairs Endothelial Function

Some of this is a repost from 2014. I added a couple studies at the bottom.
Olive OilThe following studies provide evidence for the atherosclerosis-promoting effect of olive oil, in monkeys, mice, and humans:

1. Hepatic Origin of Cholesteryl Oleate in Coronary Artery Atherosclerosis In African Green Monkeys, Enrichment By Dietary Monounsaturated Fat, Journal of Clinical Investigation, 1997

“[We observed in monkeys] that the amount of coronary artery atherosclerosis was similar in the monounsaturated and saturated fat groups, in spite of the significantly improved LDL cholesterol concentration and LDL/HDL cholesterol ratio in the former.”

2. Dietary Monounsaturated Fatty Acids Promote Aortic Atherosclerosis In LDL Receptor–Null, Human ApoB100–Overexpressing Transgenic Mice, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 1998

Mice were fed one of 6 diets with different fatty acid content: saturated, monounsaturated (cis and trans), polyunsaturated (n-3 and n-6), and a control diet.

“The reduction in aortic atherosclerosis was not found when either cis or trans monounsaturated fatty acids were fed. Rather, just as much atherosclerosis was seen when cis monounsaturated fat diets were fed as when saturated fat was fed, and significantly more atherosclerosis was seen when the trans monounsaturated fatty acids were fed.”

This is an important outcome when one considers that monounsaturated fats, often in the form of olive oil, are widely promoted as being healthful and effective for protection against heart disease.

3. Effect Of Fat And Carbohydrate Consumption On Endothelial Function, Lancet, December, 1999

“Consumption of a meal high in monounsaturated fat was associated with acute impairment of endothelial function when compared with a [low-fat] carbohydrate-rich meal.”

4. The Postprandial Effect Of Components Of The Mediterranean Diet On Endothelial Function, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, November 2000

“Contrary to part of our hypothesis, our study found that omega-9 (oleic acid)-rich olive oil impairs endothelial function postprandially.

The mechanism appears to be oxidative stress because the decrease in FMD was reduced (71%) by the concomitant administration of vitamins C and E. Balsamic vinegar (red wine product) and salad reduced the postprandial impairment in endothelial function to a similar extent (65%).

In a clinical study, olive oil was shown to activate coagulation factor VII to the same extent as does butter (44). Thus, olive oil does not have a clearly beneficial effect on vascular function.”

The major unsaturated fatty acids in olive oil are oleic acid (18:1n-9) and linoleic acid (18:2n-6) (42). A high-oleic and linoleic acid meal has recently been shown to impair FMD in comparison with a low-fat meal (28). (That’s the study above by Ong et al.)

In terms of their effects on postprandial endothelial function, the beneficial components of the Mediterranean and Lyon Diet Heart Study diets appear to be the antioxidant-rich foods—vegetables, fruits … not olive oil. Dietary fruits, vegetables, and their products appear to provide some protection against the direct impairment in endothelial function produced by high-fat foods, including olive oil.”

To these I will add:

5. The Influence Of Diet On The Appearance Of New Lesions In Human Coronary Arteries, JAMA, March 1990

The likelihood of new lesions developing increased significantly with each quartile of increasing consumption of total fat, monounsaturated fat [olive oil], and polyunsaturated fat.

Fatty acids significantly increasing the likelihood of the appearance of new lesions were lauric [coconut oil and palm kernel oil], oleic [olive oil], and linoleic [olive oil]

Reports of the reduction in arterial lesions at autopsy following semi-starvation conditions during World Wars I and II have suggested the necessity of austere diets to ameliorate atherosclerosis. However, more reasonable alterations of diet [substitution of low-fat foods for high-fat foods] appear adequate to produce detectable improvement of coronary lesions in angiographic studies.

6. Olive, Soybean And Palm Oils Intake Have A Similar Acute Detrimental Effect Over The Endothelial Function In Healthy Young Subjects, Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, January 2007

Conclusions: No difference was found in the acute adverse effect of the ingestion of different vegetable oils on the endothelial function. All the vegetable oils, fresh and deep-fried, produced an increase in the triglyceride plasma levels in healthy subjects.

I’m going to go ahead and say that this is why 179 people who were eating the Mediterranean diet in the PREDIMED study who had “no cardiovascular disease at enrollment” experienced a “major cardiovascular event” in the ~ 4.8 years of the study … because they were consuming a lot of fat, especially olive oil.

Clearly, olive oil is not the heart-healthy food it’s made out to be. It is a feat of marketing that a food which has been shown to impair artery function exists in people’s minds as an elixir.