Special Issue: Traditional foods: from culture, ecology and diversity, to human health and potential for exploitation

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This special issue of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture publishes a set of contributions presented at the International conference ‘Traditional Food International (TFI-2012). Traditional foods: from culture, ecology, diversity, to human health and potential for exploitation’ which was held in Cesena, Italy, on 4–5 October 2012, and at the conjoined ‘Street Food Seminar: an international forum on street food aspects and perspectives’ held on 5 October 2012.

The two events were organized to coincide with the final meeting of the BaSeFood project. BaSeFood (sustainable exploitation of bioactive compounds from the Black sea area traditional foods; http://www.basefood-fp7.eu) was a European FP7 project that focused on studying traditional foods of the Black Sea region, with a particular interest in their composition of bioactive substances from plants (phytochemicals) and their potential to provide health benefits. Already in the project's background, however, it was acknowledged that the consideration of a vast array of traditional food characteristics and consumer issues was needed, besides studying bioactive compounds by means of analytical and biological assays. The final project's dissemination event was therefore taken as an occasion to present the project's results in a wider context—that of a forum—where the state of the art of traditional food knowledge and definitions was set, and different approaches and disciplines for the study of all aspects of traditional foods were presented.

Traditional foods are increasingly attracting the interest of consumers and manufacturers. Recently, an effort has been made for an objective definition of ‘traditional foods’, aimed at setting a scientific and regulatory approach to their study and management. From a semantic point of view, however, tradition is a complex of uses, habits and ways of life that are maintained in time, often through oral transmission. Dealing with traditional foods from a scientific point of view is therefore a challenge: it is dealing with a subject related not only to nutrition and health, but also to environmental, human ecology and cultural issues.

All these aspects were covered to some degree at the Traditional Foods International conference, which was broadly organized into the following sections: traditional food systems, general aspects and definitions; analytical characterization of foods and raw materials; nutritional and health-promoting effects; processing, including effects on retention of specific components; socio-economic and consumer issues. Internationally renowned invited speakers contributed to each session with plenary lectures; other oral contributions were provided by the coordinator and work-package leaders from the BaSeFood project, and the coordinators of previous EU-funded projects dealing with different aspects of traditional foods. Eighteen invited speakers contributed to the oral sessions.

The Street Food Seminar was a specific session, aimed at highlighting the role of these types of foods and the links between traditional and street foods. In addition, it provided a connection between the TFI-2012 scientific sessions and the Cesena Street Food Fair. Different aspects of street foods were covered by very engaging presentations from six invited speakers.

Overall, over 100 posters from more than 250 contributing authors were presented. This special issue of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture contains a selection of presented papers, from both invited lectures and posters, representing the whole range of topics dealt with at the congress.

In their plenary lecture, Johns et al.[1] present a review of the general perspectives of traditional food systems in the local and global economy, considering the constraints of such stable but rather closed systems, and the nutritional drawbacks of transitional economies in developing countries. They analyse the perspectives for local smallholders, also considering opportunities connected to agrobiodiversity preservation and marketing. This general paper is followed by others focused on the examination of specific aspects of the nature of traditional foods by means of the analysis of data collected during surveys or by means of comprehensive reviews. D'Antuono[2] presents the synthesis of on-field surveys in the Black Sea area and Italy, leading to the critical description of over 800 traditional foods. Issues of food function in the local context of the selected areas, diversity, evolutionary convergence, standardization and chain perspectives are discussed. The relations between experience and credence characters of traditional food perception are also discussed, suggesting that the stabilization of traditional foods in modern systems requires a substantial recovery of self-awareness of consumers. Amilien and Hegnes[3] present a comprehensive review of the literature and surveys carried out in Norway, indicating that time and knowhow are the two main concepts underlying tradition which, therefore, is not a fixed concept but is balanced by preservation, moderation and innovation. Giraud et al.,[4] in the introduction to their paper, present a comprehensive review of the main facets of traditional food definitions and concepts, with a special focus on specific findings in the Balkan countries. Finally, Calloni[5] approaches street foods from a socio-philosophical point of view, illustrating the role and evolution of street foods from their origin as a means to feed the poor, to their present dynamic role in modern societies, not neglecting the still present spatial variation of their value and perspectives, and the relations with traditional local foods.

Dilis et al.[6] introduce the link between traditional foods and the very recent phenomenon of nutrition claims from a European perspective. After reviewing the definitions and previous work on traditional foods, they present the potential nutritional claims that can be attached to selected Black Sea area traditional foods on the basis of their nutritional analytical data. The article by Cotillon et al.[7] is concerned with crucial food industry issues such as food quality and safety, and innovation, and how these can be best addressed by the food industry in the context of traditional European food production systems. The article reviews the findings and outputs of the TRUEFOOD FP6 project (http://www.truefood.eu) and provides a snapshot of the processes used to determine best practice for food industry players. Byrne et al.[8] provide a perspective of the important role of unique foods in Europe, and the opportunities they offer in terms of the future competitiveness of the European food industry. Finally, Bessière and Tibère[9] cover the phenomenon of the tourist eater, and the different experiences that individuals are exposed to when eating food while away from home.

A significant number of the experimental reports are concerned with the characterization of putative bioactive components in traditional foods and raw materials, mainly of plant origin. Ferioli et al.[10] provide compositional data for glucosinolates, carotenoids, chlorophylls and phenolics of kale populations from Italy, Turkey and Portugal, for on-place grown materials but also for some landraces grown in a common environment. Giambanelli et al.[11] carried out a similar extensive characterization of carotenoids, tocols, sterols and phenolics of several ‘primitive’ wheat populations from Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia and Armenia, grown in an experimental trial in Italy, and compared these with modern varieties. Both papers reported interesting and potentially useful variability between the examined populations. Vasile et al.[12] characterized the main biometric traits, phenolics and anthocyanin profile of local grape cultivars used in the production of two traditional products: saba and agresto. Siracusa et al.[13] analysed biometric traits and phenolic content of some local onion and long-storage tomato cultivars in Sicily, while D'Antuono[14] carried out a sensory evaluation of the flowers of three Mediterranean wild Allium species, whose vegetative parts are traditionally used as food, indicating their potential as food garnishes. There are also three papers from the research group of Costa[15-17] which describe the composition and content of various nutrients (including macronutrients, minerals and carotenoids) in more than 30 widely consumed traditional foods typical of the Black Sea area countries. These data should be a very useful resource to support future efforts to better exploit and market these traditional foods, and perhaps in the development of new foods based on the nutritional profiles of these traditional foods.

There are seven papers describing the results of investigations of potential biological activities and health benefits of bioactives, and plants used, in traditional foods. The report of Danesi et al.[18] presents evidence to show that, in terms of inducing endogenous cellular antioxidant defences, infusions or teas made from the flowers of Sideritis scardica are as potent as those from ‘green tea’ made from Camellia sinensis. Hot-water infusions of S. scardica are widely consumed in the Black Sea area countries and are commonly known as ‘mountain tea’. The paper of Di Nunzio et al.[19] reports data showing that pomegranate juice contains high levels of phenolic bioactives and is able to prevent oxidative damage to cultured liver cells. Of interest was the observation that the degree of protection varied between the 15 cultivars studied, and this appeared to correlate with the content and composition of the phenolics. The paper of Woodcock et al.[20] provides evidence that persimmon bioactives (but not bioactives in four other plants) can potently induce the endothelial nitric oxide synthase enzyme that produces NO and relaxes arteries, and inhibits secretion of the vasoconstrictor endothelin-1, and therefore has potential to benefit human vascular health. There are two reports concerned with the potential for bioactive-rich extracts of traditional food plants to improve platelet function: one by Konić-Ristić et al.,[21] which describes the use of flow cytometric methods to investigate the effects of the bioactives on the proteins that are expressed on the surface of platelets and make them ‘sticky’; and another by Hollands et al.,[22] which reports the use of a more physiological system that is used widely in the clinical assessment of platelet function. There is also a report describing the antioxidant capacity and total phenolic content of over 30 traditional foods from the Black Sea region (Danesi et al.[23]), and another by Amoutzopoulos et al.[24] describing the results of a human intervention study in which it is shown that consumption of a traditional grape-based beverage called ‘hardaliye’, which is a rich source of bioactive polyphenols, causes significant reductions in markers of oxidative damage, including markers of lipid oxidation.

Among the numerous papers about the effects of processing on different traditional food traits, that by Zhigunov et al.[25] examined the effect of the addition of different bran fractions on the technological performance, nutritional and sensory properties of bread, indicating the optimal flour-to-bran ratio. Giambanelli et al.[26] evaluated the yield factors during the critical step of glume removal from hulled wheat kernels, in four processing plants and schemes in Italy, Turkey and Armenia; they indicate the potential high efficiency of traditional, labour-intensive processing, but the different product assortment enabled by modern flow charts. With respect to animal origin products, Verardo et al.[27] compared the fat fraction and butter obtained from industrial and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese-processing chains; they present evidence that a combination of traditional processing and the use of milk from a local Reggiana cow breed results in a higher phospholipid content in the fat fractions than the industrial process. Chabbou et al.[28] found that the preliminary step of spicing, used to improve the flavour of the Tunisian cured meat kaddid, also facilitates the drying of the product; convective drying produces a better product than traditional sun drying.

In the series of contributions addressing socio-economic issues two papers, already cited, also present some data from experimental surveys: Giraud et al.[4] present the result of a consumer survey in the West Balkan countries, using fresh cow's milk as a reference product; they attain a segmentation of consumers based on the characters they associate with this traditional product, and identify origin, safety and traditional processing as relevant traits. Bessière et al.[9] report the results from surveys aimed at studying the attitude of tourists towards local foods prior, during and after the travelling experience; they analyse the relevance that the tourist experience may have on local stakeholders.

Finally, we wish to thank the co-workers involved in the organization of TFI-2012, who enthusiastically contributed to the success of the congress: Federico Ferioli, Elisa Giambanelli, Federica Pasini and Francesca Danesi, from the Department of Agri-food Science and Technology, Cesena Campus, University of Bologna; Luigia Binetti and Fabrizio Abbondanza, from Ser.In.A.R., Cesena, Italy; and Giampiero Giordani, from Confesercenti, Cesena, co-organizer of the Street Food Seminar session, for interaction with the Cesena Street Food festival.

We also wish to thank all the invited speakers and other contributors for their excellent presentations and the very interesting discussions that arose as a result.

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