The Mediterranean diet can fix several of a consumer’s problems, but not their budget.
Incorporating dietary staples of many countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean diet places heavy emphasis on plant-based foods (fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts) and swaps in oils for butter, herbs and spices for salts, and fish and poultry for red meat.
When my wife proposed it this year — as we have a few weddings coming up and enjoyed a bountiful holiday season — my initial response was “of course, that’s what I always ate.”
Yet that isn’t at all how I ate – it’s how my grandparents ate. The Notte family traces back to what is now Albania, where we were simply Notes, but made their way to Naples after Albania’s battles with the Ottoman Empire took a turn for the worse. My maternal grandmother, a Ferraro, is descended from iron workers in Modena. When their descendants came to this country in the early 1900s, they brought simple peasant cooking with them: Every cooked recipe seemingly began with a thin coat of olive oil and garlic, every antipasto course featured a small bowl of nuts.
But U.S. culture had an influence. The Italian bakeries in Northern New Jersey still use bleached flour for their best-selling loaves and baguettes, not whole-grain. Fresh pasta gave way to dried and mass produced flour versions. Pork neckbones and stock gave way to ground-beef meatballs and mystery-meat sausage. Garnish that was more akin to salsa became heavily sugared sauce. Food snobs now sniff at the “red sauce” restaurants where Mediterranean immigrant families catered to American tastes, but there’s no defending the nutritional disparity between the Old World and New World approaches to “Mediterranean” foods.
The Mayo Clinic has found that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — “bad” cholesterol — and reduces incidence of cancer, and Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases. While culture may have played a part in the slow deviation from the true Mediterranean diet, so did price and economics.
Before my wife and I take up the diet this year, I wanted to delve into the finances of it and see just how much it costs to change these eating habits. For the sake of this article, I’m sticking to prices at Safeway/Albertsons (the stores where we regularly shop) and excluding bulk items from warehouse stores.
Butter vs. Olive Oil
- Darigold Butter: $2.99 per pound
- Signature Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil: $6.99 for 16.9 ounces
A tablespoon of butter is equivalent to 3/4 of a tablespoon of olive oil. Thus, a 32-tablespoon pound of butter is equal to 24 tablespoons of olive oil. Those 24 tablespoons add up to 12 fluid ounces. That makes butter roughly 25 cents per fluid ounce, while the corresponding entry-level olive oil is 43 cents an ounce. That’s a nearly 42% premium just for swapping out some butter. Thus far, the budgetary fears are confirmed.
Salt vs. Spices
- Plain Table Salt / Morton’s Kosher Salt: 89 cents for 26 ounces / $2.89 for 16 ounces
- Basil, Oregano, Ginger, and Paprika: $3.29 (0.69 ounces), $2.79 (0.75 ounces), $4.99 (2 ounces), $4.49 (2.12 ounces)
There is no way that anything in the spice rack is going to match the cost of salt. The latter is plentiful, sold in tremendous bulk, and weasels its way into everything. Spices are rare enough that people accidentally discover new continents just to find a way to cut down the time and money it takes to procure them. A part of me wanted to throw minced onion or garlic into this mix, but seeing them at $1.10 and $1.70 per ounce, respectively (as opposed to 3 and 18 cents an ounce for granular and kosher salt) made me realize the futility of it.
Beef vs. Fish
- Ground beef, 93% lean: 1.5 pounds for $5.99
- Atlantic salmon: 1.5 pounds for $10.49
We live in the Pacific Northwest, which has its own salmon right in its backyard, but a similar cut of Alaskan sockeye would set us back more than $13. Yes, you can swap salmon for beef burgers fairly easily in the kitchen, but it isn’t so easy on the wallet. The comparison would be a bit more favorable if we were substituting for, say, a 1.5-pound chuck steak ($11.99) or flat-iron steak ($14.99), but I’ll admit that ground beef accounts for roughly 98% of our red-meat consumption.
Beef vs. Poultry
- Ground beef, 93% lean: 1.5 pounds for $5.99
- Jennie-O ground turkey, 93% lean: 1 pound for $3.99
Now this is our more likely substitution, and it’s a wash. We’ve used ground turkey before, and while it doesn’t excel in burgers or meat loaf, it doesn’t make a half-bad meatball. It’s a fine filling for tacos or burritos, but I’m fairly certain that those get the boot during the Mediterranean diet.
Beer vs. Wine
- Guinness Draught: Six-pack of 11.2-ounce bottles, $9.99
- Underwood Pinot Noir: 750 milliliter bottle, $10.99
I’ve been covering the beer industry since 2010 or so, and my basement beer fridge is being slowly emptied for this endeavor. Since a recent trip to Ireland, Guinness Draught has been a favorite and, at 125 calories per 11.2-ounce serving, it’s one of the least heavy beers you can drink. However, small servings of red wine are typically allowed in the Mediterranean diet, and five ounces of a typical Oregon pinot noir has roughly 120 calories. While losing all of that grain and adding some antioxidants may help, we’re going to stop short of calling a wine substitution “good for you.”
Whole Grain vs. Regular Pasta
- Barilla Angel Hair Pasta: $2.49 a pound
- Barilla Whole Grain Angel Hair Pasta: $2.49 a pound
That isn’t a mistake, but it also isn’t the rule. Pasta makers have gotten wise to the drift toward whole-grain pastas and offer a bunch of them. However, if you try this same experiment with a box of Safeway’s store-brand spaghetti ($1), the price difference is more pronounced.
And if you don’t trust the big pasta makers, it gets costly. Just eight ounces of Ancient Harvest Supergrain spaghetti will cost you $4.49, or 56 cents an ounce. That’s nearly $9 a pound and a significant increase over just about any other spaghetti on the market.
Fruits vs. Berries
- Jonagold apples: $1.10 each
- Strawberries: $4.49 a pound
The Mediterranean diet likes plant-based foods, true, but it also loves antioxidants and frowns on carbohydrates. Prices will fluctuate throughout the year, but strawberries and Jonagolds are some of the best bargains you’re going to get in either category. But each Jonagold apple is 130 calories with 34 grams of carbohydrates, including 25 grams of sugar. A cup of strawberries, meanwhile, contains just 48 calories, with 7 grams of sugar, and 12 grams of total carbohydrates. With roughly four cups in a pound of whole strawberries, the difference between servings of the two is roughly two cents more for strawberries.
The verdict: While some elements of the Mediterranean diet, like olive oil and spices, will certainly add some weight to our grocery bill, most of these switches will hopefully have a bigger impact on our waistlines than our bottom line.