The Pride of Argentina

photo of asado by Keighly Colangelo

Argentinian Cuisine, Nutrition, and Health

From the mountainous regions of Los Andes, the breathtaking Iguazu waterfalls, the ice glaciers in Patagonia, to the bustling city known as the “Paris of Latin America,” we can only be talking about one place- the beautiful Argentina!

One thing possibly more spectacular than what you can see there is what you can eat. Argentina is a vast country home to immigrants from around the world. Due to the strong European influences, Argentinian cuisine is strongly influenced by Italian, Spanish, French, and other European traditional foods. The country’s staple foods consist of meats, pastas, and breads. Vegetables and fruits are also consumed and locally grown produce is readily available. Food is the center of social gatherings and sharing hour-long meals with loved ones is extremely important to maintain the tradition of cherishing family and friends. A dinner invitation to an Argentinian home is a symbol of friendship and affection.

photo of empanada by Keighly Colangelo

The Cuisine

There are two things that bring Argentinians together: their love for beef and fútbol (soccer)… but we’ll focus on the beef because this is a nutrition blog, right? Meat is the pride of Argentina and has been for centuries. The country comes in second for beef consumption and has one of the largest cattle industries in the world.  Throughout history, meat has been the center point of almost every Argentinian meal. The famous Argentinian asado (barbeque) is not only a national dish, but also a social gathering of family and friends. Asado consists of many different cuts of meats that are prepared on a parrilla, or an open fire grill. Traditionally, chorizo (sausage) is served as an appetizer and placed inside pan (a baguette), and thus, it was given the name, choripan. A simple salad, grilled vegetables, or mashed potatoes are served with the meat, and meals are accompanied with red wine. Asados can be made for special occasions, such as holidays and religious celebrations, or simply as a Sunday family meal. Other staple Argentinian meat dishes include empanadas (turnovers filled with ground beef or other savory ingredients such as ham and cheese, corn, or chicken) and milanesas (breaded meat fillets topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese). In addition to the meat dishes, popular dishes include tartas (pie-shaped pastry filled with meat, cheese, and vegetables), guiso (lentil soup), and locro (a hearty chili with corn and beans). In the capital city, Buenos Aires, fresh hand-made pasta and pizza are widely consumed and available on every street corner due to the heavy Italian influence.

Argentinians also love their desserts. Dulce de leche (a caramel-like confection) can be found in facturas (pastries), topping flan (a creamy custard dessert), or in between two biscuit cookies and covered in chocolate or merengue to make an alfajor (¿que delicioso, no?).

photo of maté by Keighly Colangelo

Another staple in the Argentinian diet is yerba maté, a caffeinated herbal tea beverage made from an infusion of leaves of a tree native to Argentina. The drink is widely consumed in southern Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Argentina is the largest producer in the world, cultivating about 280,000 tons per year.  Yerba maté is often drunk out of a dried gourd using a bombilla, which is a metal straw. Yerba maté has become increasingly more popular in other parts of the globe due to its abundant health benefits.  Studies conducted have shown that maté contains numerous active phytochemicals, amino acids, minerals (iron, calcium, zinc), and vitamins (C, B1, B12).  The main phytochemicals are responsible for increasing energy levels, having anti-inflammatory effects, and lowering cholesterol. Studies have also shown that maté is beneficial to the cardiovascular system and liver function, and its antioxidant content may help prevent some types of cancers as well.  It has also been suggested for obesity management.  With all of these health benefits, you may be wondering how maté compares to our favorite drinks: coffee and tea. Studies have shown that maté contains similar amounts of caffeine to a cup of coffee but many consumers report less negative side effects after drinking maté when compared to coffee.  In regards to the health benefits, studies conducted have shown that maté contains numerous biological compounds that cannot be found in tea and coffee, such as the phytochemical, saponin, which is responsible for lowering cholesterol and having anti-inflammatory effects.

A Closer Look at Nutrition and Health

Now that we are all familiar with the Argentinian diet, let’s take a closer look at the nutritional aspects of the country’s eating habits. It does not take a dietitian to come to the conclusion that the Argentinian diet is high in protein and carbohydrates. It is also high in B vitamins, iron, and other minerals. The typical Argentinian consumes double the recommended amount of meat daily Fruit and vegetable consumption also fall short.  The average daily fruit and vegetable consumption per person is 271 grams, while the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Food Organization (FAO) recommend at least 400 grams per day.

Argentine food guide

In 2000, Argentina launched their first dietary guidelines and a revised version was released in 2015.  The country developed dietary guidelines and a visual aid with 6 food groups that vary slightly with the food groups included in America’s dietary guide, MyPlate. The six food groups include:

  • Vegetables and fruits
  • Legumes, cereals, potatoes, breads, and pastas
  • Milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Meats and eggs
  • Oils, dried fruit, and seeds
  • Optional group of sweets and fats

Included in the guide is water in the center, with increased physical activity and decreased salt consumption around the border of the guide. Regarding meat consumption, one of the messages in the ten main dietary guidelines is to remove the visible fat when consuming meat and to increase the consumption of fish and eggs.

At this point you may be wondering, how do Argentinians stay healthy with their high meat and carbohydrate consumption? Well, similarly to the United States, obesity rates in Argentina are rising each year among men, women, and children.  Young boys in Argentina have the highest obesity rates in Latin America, while the obesity rates for girls are the third-highest.  In the United States, the prevalence of diabetes is at 10%, while in Argentina the diabetes prevalence is 5.5% in 2017 Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the country Argentina’s rising health concerns have raised awareness for health and nutrition in recent years and things are changing for these meat-eaters.

Meatless Monday at the Casa Rosada

Moving Forward

So what is the future of Argentina’s eating habits? The Argentinian government is working to reduce meat consumption to improve the health of the country by instituting “Meatless Mondays” at the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace.  Every Monday, the cafeteria serves only plant-based, vegan meal options to over 500 staff members, including the President. A few favorite dishes include a nut-based risotto, tofu and vegetable tart, and a polenta with mushroom, lentil and hazelnut ragout.  In an Argentinian news article, Rodrigo Troncoso, Deputy Secretary of Livestock of the Nation, supported the initiative by stating, “The increase in the consumption of vegetables and fruits is good…We have very low consumption, so it is very good to balance the diet.”  The city of Buenos Aires has also seen an increase in vegetarian restaurants in recent years.  However, there is still pushback and controversy over the notion of decreasing meat consumption. So as an Argentinian-Italian future dietitian, what do I think of all of this? The current diet is low in diversity and nutrient density. I believe that a healthy diet is diverse, colorful, and most importantly, balanced. Does that mean that Argentinians can still enjoy meat? Absolutely. ¡Buen provecho! The meat must simply be consumed in moderation and accompanied with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s important for nutrition to be at the forefront of conversation in Argentina for the future health of the nation, while still preserving and valuing the country’s most-cherished foods and traditions.

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