ROME -- The United Nations hosts a global summit in Rome today to discuss a food-price crisis that has triggered riots in poor countries and toppled Haiti's government. But the land of saltimbocca alla romana has food troubles of its own.
And they are hitting Ernesta Santirocco in the form of soaring pasta prices, which her $678 pension can't cover, she complains. Leaving one of the German Lidl discount grocery stores packed with cheaper, processed foods, she notes -- not very proudly -- that her shopping bags contain "schifezze," Italian for disgusting things.
.They are also unhealthy. The soaring costs of pasta, bread, fruit and vegetables are making Italy's famed Mediterranean diet harder to afford in a country that prides itself on its healthy cuisine. Italians, in turn, are dining more on cheap processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt. The consumption of those foods may be accelerating a trend toward higher levels of diabetes and heart disease, while starkly clarifying the supersized cost of good health.
Some, noting that obesity rates among low-income families have soared in the U.S. and Europe, fret that fewer people can afford the fruits and vegetables that lead to better health. Such fresh foods are more susceptible to rises in commodity prices, such as energy, which make up a smaller percentage of costs in processed foods.
"The global trend is rising prices of fresh fruit and vegetable versus processed foods," says France Caillavet, nutritionist at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Paris. In France, too, she says, "many poor households now can't afford a healthy diet."
In Italy, food prices are up 5.7% in the past year, including a 7% rise in fruit prices and a 20% jump in the price of pasta -- almost as steep as the 26% rise in gasoline prices. Since 2006, six out of 10 households in Italy have adjusted what they eat in response to the rising cost of fresh produce, according to a study by the Italian agricultural confederation.
People aren't starving or rioting in Italy. But the high prices are likely to accelerate a troubling health trend, nutritionists say. Over 12% of Italian adults were obese in 2005, according to the World Health Organization's latest available figures. That's far below obesity rates of well over 30% in the U.S., but it's up from around 7% in Italy a decade earlier. The WHO's latest estimate predates the recent food-price jump.
As pasta al pomodoro loses ground to french fries, Italy's relatively low level of obesity is surging among children. Around one third of preadolescents are now overweight or obese, making them among the plumpest in Europe, according to researchers at the International Obesity Taskforce.
"Ten years ago, obesity was rare; now it's accelerating in all groups," says Pietro Antonio Migliaccio, Italy's best-known diet doctor, who frequently appears on daytime TV urging Italians to adhere to their traditional recipes. A decade ago at Prof. Migliaccio's clinic, his heaviest-duty scales for weighing his clients only went up to 220 pounds. Now, his scales go up to 550 pounds.