The Unesco world heritage list is normally associated with towering religious monuments and ancient Greek temples, crumbling castles and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It recognises the cultural value of the Hindu complex at Angkor Wat and the Acropolis in Athens, alongside the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines.
The Mediterranean diet, with its mix of fresh fruit and vegetables, grilled fish and olive oil faces a final vote in November for ranking on Unesco's list of “intangible” cultural heritage, launched in 2003 to complement the collection of monuments and natural wonders, and covers oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals.
A plate of pasta washed down with a glass of wine could join the list of 178 cultural experiences including the tango, the polyphonic singing of the Aka Pygmies of central Africa and Croatian lacemaking.
“This is a big success for our country, our dietary traditions and our culture,” said the Italian agriculture minister, Giancarlo Galan.
Rolando Manfredini of the Italian farmers' lobby group, Coldiretti, said: “It is a bit strange putting a diet on the list, and the first time they would do it, but it makes perfect sense. Not only is this culture, but it also makes you live longer and better.”
While trying not to dampen Italy's enthusiasm, a spokeswoman for Unesco warned that no decision would be made before a meeting in November. “The committee is free to make up its mind and there is no indication on what it will approve,” said Sue Williams.
Galan said the proposal was first made by Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco four years ago, and was turned down. The countries resubmitted it, stressing the cultural content of the diet, and this time he was convinced it would get the nod.
“A positive recommendation made by Unesco will now be ratified,” he said. The diet would join Sicilian puppet theatres and Sardinian pastoral songs, which already represent Italy on the list.
The diet took off in the rest of the world in the late 20th century, with postwar cookery writer Elizabeth David helping to promote it among English speakers. Today, said Williams, protecting a plate of tortellini was no different to stopping people scratching their initials in the Great Wall of China: “Being on the intangible list means the host country must promote and protect it exactly as it would a monument like Stonehenge,” she said.
Recent activities sponsored by Unesco include the revival of the intergenerational transmission of Georgian traditional polyphony and the “safeguarding” of Somali board games.
While the Mediterranean diet has found favour with chefs around the world, Coldiretti said it was in desperate need of protection in its native countries.
“In Italy today parents are still in good shape, but their children are increasingly suffering from obesity,” said Manfredini. “There has been a complete break in eating habits from one generation to another.”