Healthy Eating in Spain – How EU Food Compares to the US
Since Amalia and I moved abroad over eight years ago, people ask me more and more about healthy eating in Spain. It’s no surprise because those who know me, know that I love food. Who doesn’t?
I love traveling to experience gastronomy and researching the latest to not just eat well but consciously and healthy. Best of all, living in Spain supports my passion for healthy eating. If it’s important to you as well, here is my insight into European food and how healthy eating in Spain compares to the US.
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Important Questions About Healthy Eating in Spain
I need to preface that this post is not meant to be a US food bashing but a comparative analysis. There are two big questions that I always ask.
Do you think that the shelf life for certain foods and “Frankenfoods” (artificially created) can increase profits for large companies?
It’s been said in the past that if you follow the dollar, you’ll find your answer.
The other question is,
Can people eat more healthily, enjoy fresh food and live longer with their family and friends?
The answer is a resounding YES to both questions.
Healthy Eating in Spain is a Social Thing
I love to eat with my family and friends. When I was growing up it was literally the only time we had together at once. Cooking and being in the kitchen was a way for us to catch up on what was happening in our lives.
The so-called Mediterranean diet is not a diet, it’s a lifestyle – a way of living that brings the best of the Mediterranean to our plates and lives. It’s all about savoring delicious food like fresh fruits, colorful veggies, clean meat and proteins, ecological grains, and the magic of olive oil.
At the base of all this is the Spanish attitude and approach that encourages us to slow down, enjoy meals with family and friends, and find that life balance. It’s a relaxed and laid-back way of nourishing ourselves and indulging in good food, being social (practicing your Spanish!) and just being happy.
In addition, the country’s strong tradition of small-scale, family-owned farms and central city markets has led to a greater emphasis on healthy, locally-grown food. Let’s not overlook that it also has social benefits. Going to our town’s weekly fresh produce market, and the central market in town, are a wonderful time. People catch up, take their time and enjoy a coffee or glass of vermouth, and it’s an enjoyable experience.
Most people also go grocery shopping more frequently for smaller amounts, yet fresher foods, rather than stocking up on more food than is needed. This was one of the big changes in our routine and diet that we noticed after moving to Spain.
Timing of Meals in Spain
It is true that the tradition of eating dinner late at night is not necessarily the healthiest. Yet the true style in Spain is that this last meal of the day is light and simple, making it easier to digest before going to sleep. In Spain, people also tend to go to bed later in the evening and wake up later in the morning.
One of the routines of healthy eating in Spain is that lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and even the beloved tradition of taking a siesta (nap) after lunch, has its benefits.
Amalia’s mother and her partner still follow that routine today. They live in a small village in Spain’s rural region of Extremadura. They have a small breakfast, then maybe a snack, followed by a substantial lunch around two o’clock with just a tiny glass of red wine. Then around nine o’clock at night, they have a light dinner, for example a fresh salad from produce they and local friends grow themselves, and perhaps an egg omelet.
Did you know that traditionally in Spain, eggs for breakfast are weird? They usually think of them as a dish for lunch or dinner.
The Farmers and Markets in Spain
In Spain and the Mediterranean, there is a strong tradition of small-scale, family-owned farms and local markets, which has led to a greater emphasis on “ecological”, pesticide free and locally-grown food.
Farmers use fewer or no chemicals and pesticides in their growing practices, and there are many small-scale family farmers and cooperatives that supply fresh produce to local markets and restaurants. These multi-generation family farms are key access to produce and fruit.
Healthy Eating in Spain and the EU Compared to the US
In contrast to the United States, where processed foods are often laden with additives and preservatives, the Mediterranean diet in Spain is known for its emphasis on clean protein, fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Moreover, there are several major ingredients that are commonly used in US processed foods that are illegal in the EU due to safety concerns. We will highlight the differences between how food is managed in Spain as compared to the US.
Cooking Oils Prohibited in the EU
Several cooking oils are not allowed in the EU due to safety or environmental concerns.
Palm oil, which is linked to deforestation, can be used in food products but must be sustainably produced. Canola oil is limited in the EU due to the presence of erucic acid, which can cause cardiovascular problems.
Cottonseed oil is not allowed in the EU because of concerns about pesticide residues and contaminants. Corn oil is also restricted due to it predominantly being GMO. Hydrogenated oils are banned in the EU because of their impact on heart health.
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Cooking Oils Allowed in the EU
Of course olive oil, one of the best and most commonly used in the world, is of wonderful quality and affordability in Spain. Good quality sunflower oil and soybean oil are also used depending on the dish and cooking style.
Fortunately, some of the superb, most beneficial oils, coconut oil and avocado oil, are now more easily accessible and affordable in Spain. They are being incorporated into Spanish cooking more often, depending on the dish and cooking style.
Additives and Preservatives in the US Compared to the EU
In general, the US food industry has a greater reliance on additives and preservatives to extend the shelf life of processed foods and to enhance flavor, texture, and appearance. This is partly due to the larger scale of food production in the US, which makes it more difficult to rely on small-scale, local farmers and markets. Additionally, there is less regulation of food additives and preservatives in the US compared to the EU, and thus Spain.
Ingredients That are Illegal in the EU
There are several major ingredients that are commonly used in US processed foods that are illegal in the EU. I love the breakfast cereal Froot Loops and here in Spain the ingredient list is less than half what it is on the box than it is in the US.
Some of these ingredients that are not included in Spain are:
- Artificial colors: Many artificial colors that are commonly used in US processed foods have been linked to hyperactivity and other health issues. These colors are banned in the EU.
- Azodicarbonamide: This chemical, which is used as a dough conditioner in some US bread products, has been linked to respiratory issues and is banned in the EU.
- rBGH: Recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is used to increase milk production in dairy cows, is banned in the EU due to concerns about its safety.
- BHA and BHT: These preservatives, which are commonly used in US processed foods to extend shelf life, have been linked to cancer and other health issues and are banned in the EU.
For You Egg and Dairy Lovers
Pasteurization is widely used in the EU for many food products, including milk and dairy products, but there may be some differences in the way it is used compared to the US.
One reason for this could be that the EU has a stronger tradition of small-scale, local food production, which may allow for greater control over the production and handling of food products. In some cases, local regulations may also differ, allowing for different approaches to food safety and preservation.
But what about phthalates in Spain?
Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are commonly used to make plastic products more flexible and durable. However, some phthalates have been shown to have harmful effects on human health, particularly on the reproductive system.
In order to protect the health and safety of consumers, the European Union (EU) has imposed restrictions on the use of certain phthalates in a variety of products, including toys, childcare articles, and certain medical devices. These restrictions aim to reduce exposure to potentially harmful phthalates and ensure that products on the EU market are safe for consumers to use.
READ MORE: Living in Spain Post Series
How EU Phthalates Restrictions Compare to the US
The EU has generally been more proactive than the US in regulating phthalates. While the EU has imposed restrictions on the use of several types of phthalates in various products, the US has only banned the use of a few phthalates in toys and childcare articles.
Additionally, the EU has stricter limits on the amount of certain phthalates that are allowed in products, compared to the US. It is worth noting that some US states, such as California, have implemented their own restrictions on phthalates in certain products. While there are some differences between the EU and US regulations on phthalates, the EU’s restrictions are generally more comprehensive and pro-health.
It’s Easier to Enjoy Healthy Eating in Spain
Overall, the differences in how food is handled in Spain and the EU compared to the US, can be attributed to a variety of factors, including differences in farming practices on land and sea, food culture and demand, and regulatory environments.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to food production and regulation, the quality of life and average good health of the population in Spain is evidence that a greater emphasis on locally-grown, healthy raised food with fewer additives and preservatives can lead to healthier, more sustainable food and lifestyle.
In other words, you are what you eat. Happy healthy food equals happy healthy you. Here in the EU, we and many others have experienced healthy eating in Spain to be more affordable and enjoyable than in the US. Whether visiting or living in Spain, spend any amount of time here and you’ll likely notice and enjoy eating healthier, eating well.
Written by Eric J. Trujillo
Art Director & Film Producer
As a visual communicator and artist, I love bringing stories to life and traveling the world. Visit StudioTrujillo.com to see what else I'm up to.