The Italian Diet, Meat Consumption, and How We Eat in America



(photo: various Scordo family members during the late summer wheat harvest in Pellegrina, Calabria) 

You can say, unequivocally, that Americans love their beef. Compared to their Mediterranean counterparts, American’s are ranked third in the world (only behind Argentina and Uruguay) when it comes to choosing beef for their dinner table (Italy is ranked 9th, per 1999 statistics).  An educated guess as to why beef consumption has skyrocketed in the US, post WWII, is probably linked to access, price, and perceived nutritional value (if McDonald’s sells a mediocre hamburger for less than $2.00 then why would the average US consumer spend, say, $2.99 per pound on organic peaches or $8.99 per pound on Wild Cod).  Moreover, given how quickly fast food establishments have scaled (from a franchise and business perspective) in the US since 1950, for example, it’s probably easier for you to find a Burger King than a quality food market (you can blame capitalism and the subsidized food system for the proliferation of what I like to call, “big box crap food” <read Pollen’s work for a more elegant explanation>).

Contrary to the American food system, meat, especially beef (and especially in Southern Italy) is a nice to have at the dinner table in Italy, as opposed to a given.  Poultry, while abundant in the Italian country side is consumed even less; while the much beloved Italian pig is only ranked in the middle of the world pack (according to rate of consumption).   Specifically, here are how Italians rank in terms of per capita meat consumption (globally):

  • Poultry: 23rd
  • Pork: 15th   
  • Beef: 9th
(source: Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade, annual.)
What are we to make when we think deeply about how Italians view meat consumption?  One conclusion we can draw, because of access and price (food, like gasoline, clothing, and housing, is very expensive in Europe, including Italy) is that cheaper and healthier food items (such as dairy, fruits, vegetables, grains, olive oil, legumes, nuts, etc.) are more popular; hence the so-called Mediterranean Diet.  But what about when access and price do not enter the equation, do rich Americans eat better than middle class Americans?  Does beef consumption scale with income?  Maybe but anecdotal evidence suggests eating well in America is still NOT about a delicately prepared plate of pasta or a bowl of just ripe locally farmed fruits, rather eating well is about feeling full via massive quantities of protein and salt (all in relation to price, of course).  
While the Mediterranean Diet has received lots of good publicity here in the United States, we’ve yet to see the large scale shift in eating preferences because it’s still not in our Anglo-Saxon DNA (culture) to put food at the top of list of what’s most important to us.  Children do not grow up in a culture where they see mom or dad prepare, from scratch meals, fruit at the end of a meal, or the local farm that raised the cow they grilled, for example.  In turn, food is more akin to something that is a “given” in American society; that is to say, it’s been branded as something available 24 hours a day, with little or no taste/quality, and at a absurdly low price. 
It’s not all doom and gloom for the American food system, especially on the coasts and near large cities with ethnic populations (where demand for high quality food is intense). In fact, demand is the key concept here; Americans should demand better quality food types, just like the Italian born ladies do at my local market.  So, forget about the Mediterranean diet and think high quality foods instead (specifically, the best ingredients you can find in your area).  

Happy eating!   


  1. The “Italian diet” is a thing of the past. Per capita meat consumption in Italy has quadrupled over the past 40 years and is now 15% higher than in the United Kingdom.

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