Mikel López Iturriaga: "The Mediterranean diet is disappearing"

Article published on Aug. 22, 2017
Article published on Aug. 22, 2017

He is the head of El Comidista, the food section of El País, and just made the leap from newspapers to screens with a new show on the TV channel Sexta. In his own direct and entertaining style, Mikel López Iturriaga discusses gastronomy, nutrition, healthy habits and the myths of superfoods. 

Cafébabel: You left the rather elitist world of cultural journalism and later entered the world of food journalism. Would you call this masochism?

Mikel López Iturriaga: Well (he laughs), perhaps I am a bit of a masochist, but I don't think that the way I have approached things has been particularly elitist. I have always fled from elitism, both in cultural and food journalism. The kind of musical journalism that I used to write was intended for the whole public, even if it talked about some styles of music that were not so popular. And I have taken onboard this attitude with regards to writing about gastronomy too. I never write for an elite of connoisseurs. On the contrary: I try to bring together the knowledge of either myself or other experts and present it in a way that is accessible for the whole world.

Cafébabel: El Comidista has managed to refrain from gastronomic elitism. But it also hasn't fallen to the standards of viral videos featuring excessive amounts of cheese and fat. Has this middle ground been the key to your success?

Mikel López Iturriaga: Yes, I believe so. Falling into the trap of making everything viral, easy to share and very quick to consume is fine at any given time, but if you're doing that all the time it's like eating fries and doritos all day long. In the end you become fed up. You become fed up and your followers become fed up. With El Comidista we have tried to meet somewhere in the middle. We are aware that sometimes it is necessary to create easy content, which reels people in and which is fun. We don't shy away from this content but we do try to compensate for it with other content that has more substance and appeals to the more niche sectors of the public.

Cafébabel: El Comidista has attacked vending machines, sliced bread, frozen pizzas, etc. For a while there was a growing trend for fast and easy food. Do you believe that it is becoming less popular now?

Mikel López Iturriaga: No, it is quite the opposite. Unfortunately, the diets of Spaniards are becoming increasingly poor. We live in this fantasy land where we believe that we are eating a Mediterranean diet but this is far from the truth. The Mediterranean diet is rapidly disappearing and it is being replaced by a diet of overprocessed and factory-made foods. People are eating less and less fruit and vegetables, less fresh food and more and more pre-cooked products, sweets, soft drinks and snacks. All the crap that is in supermarkets.

The difference between now and 20 or 30 years ago is that even if it was present in our diets before, the traditional values of our parents meant that food was usually cooked in the home and access to these types of foods was limited. Now this mindset is disappearing and we can see that the rate of obesity has shot up. All in all it's in shambles, and unfortunately I think that we are now faced with a generation of children and adolescents who are more and more inclined to consume these kinds of foods.

Cafébabel: El Comidista has opted to publish weekly menus to appeal to meal-prep culture. How can we eat well every day and not die trying?

Mikel López Iturriaga: One of the messages we try to reiterate is that fast food is not the same thing as junk food. You can eat things which are quick and easy to prepare, and absolutely healthy. A pre-cooked frozen pizza has to be put in the oven and takes a while to cook. I am very sceptical, in this respect, to the excuse that we do not have time to cook properly. There are salads, vegetables and you can rely on processed supermarket food that is healthy, such as canned fish or vegetables. There are many options that do not include buying the first factory-made shit that you find. It is something that you have to care enough about and that all depends on the importance you give to nutrition. It has to be a priority. If it is at the bottom of your priority list and you put everything else first, you will never find the time.

Cafébabel: So is it possible to eat healthily on a low budget?

Mikel López Iturriaga: Totally. Especially in a country like Spain, where we are lucky enough to have access to fresh fruit and vegetables that we can base our diets on. Here if you buy things whenever they are in season, you can have a sufficiently healthy diet and it will not cost you any more money than eating at McDonald's. This is yet another myth: that healthy food is more expensive. No, sorry, but no. Are vegetables expensive? No, they are some of the cheapest and healthiest foods.

Cafébabel: What is never amiss in Mikel López Iturriaga's pantry?

Mikel López Iturriaga: Well (he laughs), sometimes my pantry is a bit haphazard–especially when I have a lot of work to do like now–but I try to make sure there is plenty of fresh produce in my fridge and plenty of fruit and vegetables. In the pantry, I make sure there are legumes in case of emergency, tinned fish like tuna, anchovies or sardines which in Spain are very well produced. The premium quality ones are very expensive but there are also more affordable ones which are not bad. I try to eat dried fruit which is very healthy and adds a twist to simple dishes like salads.

I also try to make sure that my spice cupboard is full so that I can add flavour to simple dishes. For example, grilled chicken breast can seem boring, but if you leave it for half an hour marinating in spices and yogurt, when you put it in the oven it will transform completely. It is a very tasty dish that will satisfy your tastebuds. Quick, simple food without great stories or culinary montages [are great]. When you get home one day at seven or eight in the evening, you can prepare a delicious meal for yourself without hassle.

Cafébabel: This concern for healthy nutrition arguably has a negative side; an obsession with light, organic foods which are lactose- and gluten-free. Are businesses taking advantage of a lack of awareness?

Mikel López Iturriaga: Absolutely. There is so much ignorance with regards to food and much confusion amongst the public, and this ignorance is promoted by the sectors with the most to gain, i.e. the food industry. What they always sell you is an easy remedy: protect your immune system by eating or drinking one thing, boost your calcium intake with another, drink this to lose weight... The majority of these claims do not hold any ground because all of this is nutrition you can already get by eating well. You do not need to drink milk with added calcium when eating two sardines a month is already enough. If you read how much Vitamin C we take in, it will make your head explode.  There is no evidence that 'light' products will help you lose or maintain weight. They usually have more sugar in them than other products so they are not as good for you.

Cafébabel: So how should we deal with these 'miracle foods'?

Mikel López Iturriaga: I don't think we should believe any of it. We should avoid misleading products. We don't need them. They are no good and they are not helpful. All we need to do is eat well. The industry takes advantage of all this and of chemophobia (a fear of chemical substances). On labels they state that there are no added preservatives, no added this, no added that, as if preservatives are the problem. Well no, the problem with a lot of food is not the preservatives, it is the hydrogenated fats, the added sugar, unhealthy additives.... the fact that they sell you ham which is only 60% ham with added starch, soy and other things that should not be in there. Whether or not they contain preservatives is irrelevant. I recommend that you take a good look at the labels on products and that you don't believe all the things you hear. We recently experienced the palm oil controversy and everyone was hysterical about it. In order to avoid palm oil you simply have to stop buying products that contain it. That's all. Don't buy industrial oils, and get away from palm oil and all the drama.

Cafébabel: You have also gone out of your way to defend Jamie Oliver and his chorizo paella. How far does tradition extend? Who dictates what we can or cannot touch?

Mikel López Iturriaga: Tradition is what you eat at home. I understand why, in the case of the paella, for example, people would react this way. It is a natural reaction. Paella is no longer a dish. It is more like a ritual. I can understand the Valencians' disgust towards people who are completely changing their dish. Dishes were traditionally made with what was at hand. What is the recipe for gazpacho? It was made with whatever there was. There are dishes that are known to be invented by someone and that have a specific recipe, but when it comes to traditional recipes, this does not exist.

It is not as if someone in the 17th century came out and said that it should be made a certain way and everyone began to make it like that. These are things that have undergone so many changes over the course of history, to claim that there is a strict canon seems very tenuous to me. In the case of paella, what this article came to demonstrate was that the Valencian paella which we know today originated from ingredients that were very different from those found in recipe books 100 years ago. We should disparage this extreme criticism about what is right and what is wrong. Obviously, yes, a paella made with pineapple and watermelon can no longer be considered Valencian but all of this is a matter of terminology. Make rice however you want. If you want to call it Valencian paella, then adjust it slightly to the tastebuds of the place where this dish originated. I think we should try to be somewhat respectful and precise when it comes to the origins of recipes. If you make Valencia paella, make it how they would in Valencia. If not, call it rice by whichever name you choose.

Cafébabel: In a time of political unrest, which dish do you recommend to alleviate the tension?

Mikel López Iturriaga: In Spain, the only dish with which we can all perhaps find common ground is the classic potato tortilla. It has the same roots in Girona as it has in Huelva or Alicante and A Coruña. Although it is made slightly differently in the south than in the north–and in my humble opinion it is much better in the north–it is a plate which forms part of all of our traditions. Or perhaps el cocido (a traditional Spanish stew). There are different variations but it is a dish that represents all nationalities and communities of Spain. It also represents a common tradition and past. Both dishes go down very well and make you feel very happy if they are made well. So I suppose they do alleviate some of the tension.

Cafébabel: And on a European scale?

Mikel López Iturriaga: Oh gosh, much more difficult. How can a Finn and a Greek relate in terms of food? You have certainly thrown me, but I have to say, the whole world likes a tasty Italian dish. Italian cuisine is capable of uniting all Europeans, because it is the most internationally successful European food. With a good bolognese or any of the traditional Italian classics in front of us, we would be very happy.

Cafébabel: In one of the El Comidista videos, you gathered chefs and experts together so that they could decide which Spanish region has the best food. How about Europe? Where can we find the best food? You can't say Spain or Italy, since we already know your love of the pasta country.

Mikel López Iturriaga: I can't say Italy? I would have to say France. We owe a lot to France. There is no country in Europe which can say that they have not been influenced by the French. The French invented the restaurant industry. In fact, until Ferrán Adriá and El Bulli, it was French gastronomy that dictated what was good and what was bad in haute-cuisine. In France, the problem is that it is not as easy to eat tasty popular food as it is in Italy. This is the downside. I love the French cuisine. I admire them a lot. I admire the culture of the produce that they have. I think they have wonderful produce and a culture of markets and great food. In every town there are markets and there you find authentic wonders. I think that I would say France, and I think that Italy and Spain are the only countries which can compete with the French gastronomically speaking.

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