It might have been called the "Eat, Drink and Be Merry" conference, but officially it was titled the "First International Congress on Food and Health" and subtitled "New Perspectives Between Gastronomy and Medical Science for the Better Quality of Life."
The Italians, even the scientists among them, can't be somber about food for very long, it seems, and they were the ones who organized this congress in Italy during October. The French had dragged their feet for two years in planning one, then pulled out of the Italian event at the last minute. So 500 scientists, researchers, doctors, food operators and journalists from 32 countries gathered to discuss food and health, and to celebrate both with banquets and tastings, with nary a Frenchman in sight.
Scientific conferences have a reputation for negativeness -- revealing the dangers in food, declaring what we should not eat, defining what we should eat in terms of nutrients and chemicals.
This conference was different: Eat more olive oil was the message. And parmesan cheese and wine and pasta. The speakers tended to be boosters rather than watchdogs. The Mediterranean diet -- pasta, olive oil, bread, cheese, wine and fish, with meat (mostly pork) in limited quantities -- was revered by speaker after speaker.
In addition to an impressive collection of scientists presenting new findings, there was an impressive collection of chefs preparing evening galas. And between them they emphasized food as healthful and pleasurable. A few went even farther. With 280 speakers, in 40 different symposiums, there was not only a wide variety of topics, but a range from major high-quality scientific studies to guesswork and anecdotes.
The first lecture, by the dean of the Faculty of Economy and Commerce in Rome, put world nutrition in perspective. World production of food exceeds needs by 10 percent, he said, yet 750 million people are malnourished. So malnutrition is a distribution problem, intensified by 70 percent of the food in developing countries being destroyed by spoilage and contamination, and 20 percent not being digested because of parasites and other absorption problems in the consumers.
Controversy and wine flowed freely at this congress. The latter was sampled at chianti and nebbiolo tastings, long lunches and gala dinners where no less than six wines were served. Wine, taken in small amounts, actually "sweeps out" our arteries, claimed a booklet handed out at the conference. "Healthy males," it continued, "may safely drink up to 3/4 of a liter a day, women only 1/2 liter." Luigi Veronelli, a gastronomic journalist, compared drinking wine to sun tanning: "The sun is dangerous . . . in quantity," and the only problem with wine is excess. In a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude, he added that he never drinks less than four liters a day -- but then he doesn't smoke.
Even lunch was controversial; the American scientists in particular were stunned by the buffets of prosciutto, salami and ham (high in sodium, fat, cholesterol and nitrates) with olive salad, well-oiled rice and vegetable salads and cheeses, also high in fat and salt. Plates were swept clean, however.
And at the evening banquets -- the most spectacular being produced by Sirio Maccioni, Italian-born proprietor of Le Cirque in New York City, with his French-born chef, Alain Sailhac -- scientific constraints didn't keep people from raving over snails in puff pastry, foie gras with porcini mushrooms and honey vinegar, fish soup with ravioli and saffron, rack of lamb and California venison served with eggplant mousse and artichokes and tiny tarts of morels flown in from the United States. And even the extra portions of cre me brule'e were polished off, heavy cream or no heavy cream.
As for scientific controversy, Victor Lorian, director of microbiology and epidemiology of Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center in New York, distributed releases on his study of bacteria in hospitals around the United States, which concluded that despite widespread use of antibiotics in animal feeds, bacteria resistance levels in the population have not increased. "People who are spreading warnings about the use of antibiotics in animal feeds are trying to solve a problem which simply does not exist," he declared.
Much of the discussion was of oil. "In the fight against heart disease, olive oil may be a better weapon than popular polyunsaturated oils like corn oil and safflower oil," was reported from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Dallas. Being a mono-unsaturated oil, olive oil (likewise peanut oil) lowers cholesterol as well as polyunsaturates, but also, according to the study, maintains a higher level of the desirable HDL cholesterol. Furthermore, there is some concern that consuming large amounts of polyunsaturated oils may promote the development of cancer, suppress the immune system and change cell membranes.
Summing up the safest approach, Bruno Berra of the University of Milan's Institute of General Physiology and Biochemistry said, "In nutrition you don't have a fat which is devoid of some side effect . . . One must use different kinds of fat mono-unsaturates such as olive oil, polyunsaturates such as corn oil and saturates such as butter and make a right balance."
One speaker presented what amounted to a tribute to fat: It stimulates gastric function, enhances the taste of food, and appeals to the stomach, exuded P. Viola of the Primary Medical Hospital San Giovanni in Rome, who summed up his findings with, "You should enjoy yourself at restaurants."
Yogurt -- at least yogurt with live cultures -- was praised even more consistently than olive oil. It was said to lower blood cholesterol and enhance immune response and digestion, and some scientists suggested it might be found to play a role in preventing cancer. Garlic also had its day, being touted as an enhancer of digestion. And oily fish were attributed the capability of preventing cancer and heart disease.
Plenty of time was reserved in praise of cheese, too, especially parmesan cheese. There was even a tasting to compare the 1984 and 1985 parmigiano reggianos. Among the more outlandish assertions is the suggestion that we should eat more cheese and less bread, said G. Ottogalli, of the Department of Microbiology of Dairy Products at the University of Milan, who also proposed that Americans would suffer less from tourist diseases if they ate more foods such as unpasteurized cheese that are rich in micro-organisms.
A more direct cause of tourist diseases was proposed by a survey of the fast foods of Rome, which found that foods sold around the railroad station had more germs than those in other areas of the city and that among cold foods such as chicken salad and mozzarella sandwiches, 20 percent were not fit for human consumption and 30 percent were not acceptable. Of hot foods, 10 percent were unfit, 20 percent not acceptable. The least contaminated foods? Well-cooked hamburgers cooked to order. A victory for American-style fast food.
Much was discussed about the "affluence diseases" -- those diseases such as heart disease that increase in an affluent urban world. The traditional diet before fast food, it was reiterated, was the Mediterranean diet -- a worker's diet rather than a refined diet. Hungary has launched an effort to coordinate efforts between researchers and industry to combat the effects of the affluent diet. The results have been low-calorie butter, milk-based juices, increased fiber in bread, decreased fat in meat products, and decreased sodium plus increased potassium in processed foods.
Other findings presented at the conference included:
*More than 40 percent of vegetarian populations are iron deficient. Not only is their iron consumption low, but iron from animal sources is more available to the body -- about 35 percent bio-available, compared to about 5 percent from vegetable sources. Rice, spinach, beans, corn, lettuce and soy have particularly low absorption. Breast feeding enhances iron absorption in the infant, whereas cow's milk limits iron absorption. Tannins -- as in tea and red wine -- inhibit iron absorption, whereas meat and ascorbic acid enhance iron absorption.
*Seafood poisoning is an increasing problem, particularly in Europe. In North America, oysters and the adductor muscles of scallops (but not the rest of the scallop) are least likely to cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, mussels and butter clams the most potentially dangerous, and late summer the most likely time for this contamination to occur, reported Ewen C.D. Todd of Canada's Health and Welfare department. In the Caribbean 4,000 types of fish are infested with ciguatera, a disease that passes up through the food chain so that large carnivorous fish such as grouper, red snapper and barracuda from these subtropical reefs are particularly likely to carry it. This disease can cause neurological problems lasting several months, and is estimated to infect more than 50,000 people a year worldwide.
*Ninety-eight percent of the world population has a tooth decay problem, though tooth decay is "almost totally preventable," said Dr. David Blende of the Council on Scientific Affairs and Research in California. Sugar consumption in the United States has increased a dozen times over what our grandparents ate, and the average American comes in contact with food 15 times a day. The most cariogenic foods: raisins, apples, milk chocolate and dates.
*Women have a keener sense of smell than men at all ages and in all societies that have been studied. Sense of smell begins to decline about age 50 to 60.
*Commonly agreed to be the most Italian of the findings: Rabbits that received food by an attractive blond who held them in her lap and stroked them had the same amount of cholesterol but less arteriosclerosis than those that lived in cages and received their food in cages. Concluded G. DeGaetano of the Institute Mario Negri, "If one spends time pleasantly at the table, one doesn't get old."
The next conference is planned for San Francisco in two years. In summarizing this conference, the link between science and gastronomy was emphasized by G. Mantovano of the International Center for Studies on Nutrition. Medicine must consider palatability and taste, he said. Food cannot be imposed on the community, but must be made appealing. The chef is the interpreter of the physician.
Here is a recipe from Le Cirque that does such interpreting, combining pork -- preferably a low-fat strain -- with olive oil and garlic, certainly to be served with bread or pasta and parmesan cheese, accompanied by an Italian wine. LE CIRQUE'S ARISTA DI MAIALE (Herbed Roast Loin of Pork) (4 to 6 servings)
1/2 cup parsley leaves
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary or 1 tablespoon dried
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 pounds boned pork loin, tied tightly
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
Grind parsley, garlic, rosemary and fennel seeds very fine in a food processor. (Or chop parsley, garlic and rosemary fine and grind together with fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle.) Mix in salt and pepper.
With a wooden chopstick, make a hole through the center of the pork loin and fill it with two-thirds of the seasoning mixture. Rub the olive oil and the rest of the seasoning mixture on the outside of the roast.
Place the pork in a roasting pan that is close to its size and shape.
Bake in a 375-degree oven for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 300 degrees and bake for another 1 3/4 to 2 hours, or until a meat thermometer reads 160 degrees.
Remove the roast to a serving platter. Discard the fat from the roasting pan and pour water into the pan. Simmer 2 or 3 minutes on top of the stove, scraping and stirring to loosen bits of meat, until juices are reduced slightly. Serve these pan juices over the sliced pork. 1985, Washington Post Writers Group