There are many different cultures within Europe, each with its own distinct dietary habits. Traditional foods are the key elements that differentiate the dietary patterns of each country. Unfortunately, in most countries, there is little information on the nutritional composition of such foods. Therefore, there is a need to study traditional foods to preserve these elements of European culture and, if possible, enrich and improve dietary habits across the continent. The Traditional Foods work package within the European Food Information Resource (EuroFIR) project aimed to provide new nutritional data on traditional foods for use in national food composition tables.
A EuroFIR consensus-based method with standardised procedures was applied for the systematic study of traditional foods and recipes in selected European countries. Traditional foods were selected on the basis of the EuroFIR definition of the term ‘traditional food’ and prioritised according to specific criteria. From the prioritised list, the five traditional foods per country to be investigated were selected to represent a full course meal. Protocols with guidelines for the recording of traditional recipes, the collection, preparation and distribution of laboratory samples, as well as quality requirements for laboratory selection, were developed to establish a common approach for use by all countries for the acquisition of reliable data.
The traditional character of the selected foods has been documented and traditional recipes have been recorded. Chemical analyses to determine the nutritional composition of 55 traditional foods were performed and the data were evaluated and fully documented according to EuroFIR standards. Information on food description, the recipe, component identification, sampling plan, sample handling, analytical method and performance was collected for each of the 55 investigated traditional foods.
This common methodology for the systematic study of traditional foods will enable countries to further investigate their traditional foods and to continue to update their national food composition databases and EuroFIR's food databank system.
Traditional foods constitute an important part of the culture, history, identity, heritage and local economy of a region or country and are key elements for the dietary patterns of each country. These foods are commonly perceived as foods that have been consumed locally or regionally for a long time and the methods of preparation of such foods have been passed from generation to generation (Trichopoulou et al., 2007).
Specific eating habits and foods have an important role in the traditional habits of many cultures (Weichselbaum et al., 2009). Lifestyle changes are affecting eating habits across Europe and some traditional foods are at risk of disappearing. In most countries, there is currently a lack of information on the nutritional composition of traditional foods, and consequently there is a need to investigate, register and promote such foods.
Food composition databases (FCDBs) that provide detailed and reliable information on the nutritional composition of foods are essential in a range of applications, including public health nutrition, clinical practice, research, the food industry, food consumption surveys, sports nutrition, nutrition education, as well as in the development and implementation of nutritional policies at national and European levels (Harrison, 2004; Williamson, 2006; Egan et al., 2007; Church, 2009). Nutritional composition data are an essential resource for health researchers and epidemiologists who investigate the relationship between food and disease in populations and require an accurate estimation of nutrient intake, and are also the basis for the development of dietary recommendations (Ireland et al., 2002; Egan et al., 2007).
Nutritional composition data for traditional foods are also necessary to elucidate their role in the traditional dietary pattern of a population. Some traditional foods and patterns may have potential health properties that have been tested over time (Trichopoulou et al., 2006, 2007) and, in recent years, consumers have shown an increased interest and demand for traditional foods as they are often perceived as having specific sensory characteristics and being of higher quality (Cayot, 2007; Chambers et al., 2007; Guerrero et al., 2009; Pieniak et al., 2009). In 1992, the European Union (EU) created quality product designation systems, including Protected Designation of Origin, Protected Geographical Indication and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed, which protect registered traditional foods and enable producers to market distinctive high-quality regional products (European Commission, 2006, 2007). Therefore, when consumers purchase an EU quality-labelled product, its quality and also its authenticity is guaranteed. In addition to the link to a quality-labelled product, cultivation of specific local raw materials used in the production of traditional foods makes a valuable contribution to the development and economic sustainability of rural areas and the preservation of biodiversity (Avermaete et al., 2004; Trichopoulou et al., 2006; FAO, 2008; Sims, 2009).
Although the term ‘traditional foods’ is widely used, there are few definitions available (Bertozzi, 1998; Jordana, 2000). Two projects funded under the European Commission Framework Programme 6, the European Food Information Resource (EuroFIR) Network of Excellence and Traditional United Europe Food (TRUEFOOD), have been dealing with the concept of traditional foods. Within EuroFIR, a definition of ‘traditional food’ has been developed, according to which traditional food ‘is a food of a specific feature or features, which distinguish it clearly from other similar products of the same category in terms of the use of ‘traditional ingredients’ (raw materials or primary products) or ‘traditional composition’ or ‘traditional type of production and/or processing method’’. An extension to this definition also comprises a description of the terms ‘traditional ingredients’, ‘traditional composition’ and ‘traditional type of production and/or processing’ (Trichopoulou et al., 2007). From a consumer's perspective, Guerrero et al. (2009) in TRUEFOOD defined a traditional food product as ‘a product frequently consumed or associated with specific celebrations and/or seasons, normally transmitted from one generation to another, made accurately in a specific way according to the gastronomic heritage, with little or no processing/manipulation, distinguished and known because of its sensory properties and associated with a certain local area, region or country’.
This paper presents the common framework developed for the systematic investigation of traditional foods across Europe and the methodology by which to achieve new reliable nutritional data on traditional foods for European FCDBs, as developed within the EuroFIR Network of Excellence.
Harmonised procedures to generate new and reliable traditional food data for FCDB
Definition of the term ‘traditional’
The first step in the EuroFIR Traditional Foods work package (WP) was the development of a definition of the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘traditional foods’ for the purposes of food composition table classification. At the beginning of the project in 2005, no specific legislation on traditional foods existed in most European countries and the only relevant legislation available was mainly restricted to the Council Regulations (EEC) No. 2081/92 and No. 2082/92 of 14 July 1992 on Protected Designation of Origin, Protected Geographical Indication and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed products (Commission of the European Communities, 1992a, 1992b). In 2006, these Council Regulations were replaced by Council Regulations (EC) No. 510/06 and No. 509/06 of 20 March 2006 (Commission of the European Communities, 2006a, 2006b), respectively. In line with the regulations from 1992, the EuroFIR working group reached a consensus on the definition of ‘traditional foods’ (Trichopoulou et al., 2007). The EuroFIR definition of traditional foods, which is presented in the introduction, was acknowledged by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations at the 26th FAO Regional conference for Europe in Innsbruck, Austria, on 26–27 June 2008 (FAO, 2008).
Selection procedure used for traditional foods
The 13 European countries participating in the EuroFIR Traditional Foods WP (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Turkey) followed a EuroFIR consensus-based method with harmonised procedures to prioritise five traditional foods per country, as previously described by Trichopoulou et al. (2007). The procedure for selecting traditional foods and recipes included three steps: documentation, prioritisation and evaluation. Traditional foods were documented and prioritised according to specific criteria: documentation of traditional character taking into account the EuroFIR definition; availability and quality of existing compositional data; frequency of consumption based on ‘guestimates’ (estimation of consumption frequency when consumption data were not available) or published data; beneficial versus detrimental health implications and marketing potential, including potential for increased consumer demand (Trichopoulou et al., 2007). From the prioritised list, traditional foods to be analysed in each country were selected so as to represent the various components of meals, consisting of at least one starter, preferably two main dishes, at least one dessert and one other special traditional food that could be a primary food. Descriptions of the selected traditional foods and the recipes used are available on the EuroFIR website (EuroFIR, 2009) and in the publication by Weichselbaum et al. (2009).
Recording and sampling of traditional foods
A set of guidelines has been developed for the recording of traditional recipes and the collection, preparation and distribution of laboratory samples, following experience from Greece at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. This procedure is essential to ensure that representative and reliable food samples are prepared for analysis and to establish a common approach that can be used by all countries. The location for collecting the traditional foods was selected to be within the geographical area(s) of origin of the specific traditional food or recipe. For preparation of the traditional food, a household was identified from within the defined geographical region where the food or recipe is traditionally consumed. The recipe was recorded and reproduced four times in order to have five individual samples. In the case of traditional semiindustrialised food products, the recording of the traditional recipe took place in the defined geographical region(s) where the product is traditionally produced, and the traditional foods were collected in five different small businesses/restaurants.
During food preparation, information was recorded on the origin of raw materials; preparation of ingredients before cooking; measurement of waste during the preparation of the ingredients; quantities of the raw ingredients for the recipe; quantities of the ingredients in the form in which they are added to the recipe; production method, placing emphasis on critical measurements such as time, temperature, type of cooking method and so on; weight of the final product (yield); preservation data (time, procedure, storage place and so on); other aspects concerning the recipe or primary foods (for example, historical and cultivation/primary production methods were also recorded, if available).
The preparation of the traditional food recipes was also recorded by (audio-)visual equipment (photographs and/or DVD production). At a later stage, recipe cards for the traditional foods selected in each country were produced and published in collaboration with the British Nutrition Foundation (EuroFIR, 2009).
After completion of food preparation, the traditional foods were placed in appropriate containers, stored in a portable refrigerator and transported to the laboratory.
Sample handling of traditional foods
The methods implemented for sample preparation must assure the reliability of the analytical results. Thus, the methods were chosen on the basis of accomplishing the maximum sample homogeneity and avoidance of deterioration of food constituents.
The choice of homogenisation technique depended on the availability of liquid nitrogen. Sample treatment with liquid nitrogen ensures minimum losses of temperature-sensitive nutrients. Samples were stored in a deep freeze (at least −20 °C) between preparation and analysis to avoid microbial and enzymatic deterioration.
In this study, a composite sample of each food was formed by pooling five individual samples from the original region of the traditional food. Equal amounts of samples using the same recipe were homogenised to obtain the composite sample. The homogenised samples were freeze-dried or frozen before being analysed. A small amount of the composite fresh sample was kept separately for water content determination by the selected laboratory (see below), following a standard methodology.
All the procedures and methods applied, from the supplying of primary foods to the sample distribution for analyses, were recorded in a protocol that accompanied each food sample.
Laboratory selection, prioritisation of components and analytical methods
For laboratories to provide consistently reliable and accurate results in food analysis, a program of quality assurance must be in place that includes the following elements: validation of the analytical method; the use of certified reference materials, where available; and the use of routine internal quality control (Thompson et al., 2006). According to laboratory accreditation standards ISO/IEC (International Organization for Standardisation/International Electrotechnical Commission) 17025 (1999), food analysis laboratories are required to ‘ensure the quality of their results’ by participating in interlaboratory comparison or in proficiency testing schemes, when these are available (Schmidt et al., 2006; Thompson et al., 2006).
In the EuroFIR Traditional Foods WP, selection of laboratories to conduct the food analyses in each country was based on EuroFIR recommendations for quality requirements (Castanheira et al., 2007). Laboratories were asked to demonstrate technical competence for each nutrient (Wood, 1996). The selected laboratories (Table 1) were either accredited according to ISO/IEC 17025 (1999) or had successfully participated in proficiency testing schemes.
FCDBs should contain all nutrients that are important in human nutrition (Greenfield and Southgate, 2003). However, performing an analysis for each analyte in every food item is not always possible for various reasons, such as limited financial resources (Haytowitz et al., 1996). Therefore, it is essential to prioritise nutrient analysis. The EuroFIR Traditional Foods WP partners selected the most relevant nutrients to be analysed for each primary or composite food from the following list: moisture, ash, total protein (nutrient conversion factor), total fat, saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol, total starch, total sugars, individual sugars (glucose, fructose, galactose, sucrose, maltose, lactose), oligosaccharides, total dietary fibre and minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, iron, copper, zinc and selenium). Not all of the above-mentioned nutrients were determined for each traditional food. Given that each partner was allocated an identical budget to implement their analyses, the choice of priority nutrients in each case was dependent on the national laboratory costs and the characteristics of the individual traditional food. All analyses of the primary and composite food sample were carried out in a duplicate or triplicate manner.
Data evaluation was undertaken to ensure that the results truly reflected the composition of the food. Results were checked for inconsistencies and compared with results for similar products from other data sources, such as published food composition tables, and, if there were concerns, the samples were reanalysed.
Nutritional composition of traditional foods for inclusion in FCDB
The nutritional composition of the 55 analysed traditional foods is presented in Table 2. Energy content was calculated using the energy conversion factors recommended by Greenfield and Southgate (2003), and the conversion factor for dietary fibre indicated in the Commission Directive 2008/100/EC of 28 October 2008 (Commission of the European Communities, 2008). Information on food description, the recipe, component identification, sampling plan, number of analytical samples, sample handling, analytical method and performance (Burlingame, 2004; Castanheira et al., 2009) was collected for each of the 55 investigated traditional foods, enabling provision of documentation to support the new data and for inclusion in the national FCDBs and the EuroFIR databank system.
The goal of this paper has been to present a common framework on the systematic investigation of traditional foods across Europe and a methodology through which to achieve new and reliable nutritional data on traditional foods for incorporation within European FCDBs. The enrichment of national food composition tables with reliable analytical data on primary and composite traditional foods is an important prerequisite for the acquisition of credible results in future nutritional research. Sound conclusions require the use of sound background data; otherwise there is a risk of generating misinformation.
Traditional foods are often perceived as healthy foods, although this is not the case in all European regions. Nevertheless, traditional foods that are not considered healthy still remain an integral part of a nation's culture and are worth investigating. The aim of this work was not to evaluate the nutritional value of traditional foods but to present a trustworthy approach for the acquisition of these data, which will ensure its comparability between European countries. Although it has been demonstrated that many traditional foods meet nutrient recommendations (Vasilopoulou and Trichopoulou, 2009), it is also noted that it is the combined consumption of a variety of (traditional) foods, meaning the whole dietary pattern rather than the individual foods, that is accountable for potential health effects (Trichopoulou et al., 2005). Consequently, there is a need to include as many different traditional foods as possible in European FCDBs in order to study traditional country-specific dietary patterns and their potential health effects both within and between countries and, if possible, to enrich and improve dietary habits across the whole continent.
A pilot study was conducted using five traditional foods per country to obtain experience and know-how on the systematic study of traditional foods. The common methodology developed for the systematic investigation of traditional foods may be extended in the future to other countries and will also enable partners to further study traditional foods at a national level, continuously updating their national FCDBs and EuroFIR's Food Databank System with new and reliable data. Currently, knowledge is being shared with Black Sea Area countries in the context of another European project within the 7th Framework Programme, BaSeFood, which looks at sustainable exploitation of bioactive components of traditional foods from the Black Sea Area. The systematic investigation, documentation and registration of traditional foods are essential to sustain this important part of European cultural heritage, thus enabling future generations to experience and enjoy local specialities.
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This work was supported by the EuroFIR Network of Excellence (FOOD-CT-2005-513944), funded under the EU 6th Framework Food Quality and Safety Programme and implemented by the participants of WP2.3.1 on Traditional Foods.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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Costa, H., Vasilopoulou, E., Trichopoulou, A. et al. New nutritional data on traditional foods for European food composition databases. Eur J Clin Nutr 64, S73–S81 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2010.215
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